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Spanking doesn’t work -- so why do so many parents continue to use it?

Most American parents — at least 80 percent, by some estimates — believe in using corporal punishment, whether it be spanking or “whipping” with a belt or other object, to discipline their children.

A 2010 study found that 5 percent of mothers acknowledged using spanking to discipline infants less than three months old.
CC/Flickr/HA! Designs
A 2010 study found that 5 percent of mothers acknowledged using spanking to discipline infants less than three months old.

And they do so despite the overwhelming evidence that has shown such forms of punishment to be harmful, not helpful, to a child’s development. Studies have found that children who are spanked are more likely to grow up to be physically violent teens and adults, for example, and to have mental health problems.

I thought of that research when the disturbing video of a Texas family law judge repeatedly beating his teenage daughter with a belt began to circulate on the Internet earlier this month. And I thought of it again when the New York Times ran an article about three children who died recently at the hands of parents who followed disciplining techniques advocated in a best-selling book by a fundamentalist Christian preacher. Those techniques include the use of switches, belts, wooden spoons and plastic plumbing pipes on children as young as six months.

If striking six-month-old babies to “teach them to behave” sounds absurd, consider this: a 2010 study found that 5 percent of mothers acknowledged using spanking to discipline infants less than three months old.

Many parents claim they use spanking only for serious matters and when all other efforts to change their child's behavior fail. But research, including a recent fascinating study that captured "real-time" parental disciplining on audio tape, has shown that parents resort to spanking for very trivial incidents.

To get some insight into why today’s parents continue to defend spanking and other forms of corporal punishment, I spoke with Dr. Rich Kaplan, a pediatrician and medical director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Safe and Healthy Children. We also talked about the recent Penn State child sexual abuse scandal. This is an edited version of that interview.

MinnPost: What is the current trend regarding corporal punishment in the home? Are we leaning away from its use?

Rich Kaplan: It’s very difficult to know, especially in hyper-religious families. The American Academy of Pediatrics says that if you leave marks or bruising, then it’s a problem. And a lot of these parents are leaving bruises.

MP:  What are the long-term effects of this form of disciplining?

RK: I think that we’re realizing now that violence begets violence. If you live in a home where’s there’s violence, then you’re more likely to be a perpetrator of violence yourself. And there’s good data to support that.

MP: But parents often say, “I was spanked, and I turned out OK, so it’s OK to spank my children.”

RK: I think some parents feel that way. I have never been able to do that, but that’s because I’ve been working with child-abuse victims since 1970. So I have a long-term feeling that hitting kids is not OK.

I grew up in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and many of my classmates and friends were hit often. I hope that we’re overcoming that. I think spanking on the hand if [the child] is reaching for something hot, or a quick slap on the butt — a slap that’s not hard — to say, “Don’t do that anymore,” well, that might not be in the realm of very serious violence. But we’ve seen churches hand out rods that say, “Spare the rod. Spoil the child,” and we’ve had kids come in with big-pattern injuries, which is totally inappropriate.

MP: What disciplining techniques can parents adopt instead of spanking?

RK: I believe having a dialogue with a child about why a behavior is unacceptable is a much better way to go. In the long term that’s going to make the child reasonable, thoughtful and compassionate versus responding to everything with violence. We see generation after generation in which people continue to be violent. In the island of Kauai in Hawaii, for example, 76 percent of the homicides are now from domestic violence, which is terrifying.

MP: How are we doing here in Minnesota?

RK: I don’t have any new research, but I think that we have been up until two years ago a fairly progressive state. We have had a lot of people who reason with children. I live in Northfield where everybody reasons with everybody. But we also have people — especially people who believe that if you spare the rod you’re going to spoil the child — who hit children. And it does not produce the desired result. It produces a very negative result. In the long run, it’s just not going to help.

MP: What should an individual do if they personally know somebody who uses spanking or other forms of corporal punishment to discipline a child?

RK: It’s difficult. But you can suggest — especially if the person is leaving marks, for it’s considered abuse in most counties in Minnesota if the person is leaving marks — you can say, “This is bordering on abuse” or “You’re abusing your child.” Talk about it with them. Tell them the child is old enough to be reasoned with. You may be flipped off for saying it, but it’s worth doing.

Many families can heal with support and services and care. The trouble is we’ve seen a tremendous cutback in resources for families. We had so many more services for families [in the past]. I think people can heal with the right love and the right support. Most people, that is. Some people can’t. They’ve just been beaten so much, they can’t do anything.

MP: What do we need to do as a state about this issue?

RK: We cut back on so many resources, like Child Protection [Services]. I’ve actually sent a couple of e-mails to Gov. [Mark] Dayton. I’d love to visit with him about the fact that we desperately need to provide more support to families or we’re going to have more child deaths. I have so many baby homicides that I’m called about, it’s just scary. And I don’t want to do baby homicides. I want to take care of living babies.

MP: How much worse has the situation become as a result of the cutbacks?

RK: I can’t tell you data, but I can tell you that without having services for families, we’re going to have problems in the long run. Some families can’t heal without love and support and care. We no longer have the resources to provide much of that care, especially in some of our poorer counties.

MP: How is the medical community doing at recognizing abuse?

KP: I teach medical students and residents about recognizing abusive signs. I think we can save many lives this way. The truth is, we are probably the weakest link in many of these cases. Also, there’s a built-in racism. [There’s the perception that] a white upper-class family doesn’t hurt their kids — baloney — and a family of color is often over-investigated. I think the Child Protection people are working on that, but the medical community often makes those assumptions.

MP: Another big abuse issue in the news lately is, of course, the Penn State scandal. Did that story surprise you?

RK: I happened to be in Pennsylvania when that story broke. I was giving talks in Philadelphia. It was shocking, but then prominent people tend to get away with these things sometimes. When we admire people, we don’t think they’re capable [of such things]. I tell people, I’ve done this for so long that I can’t look at anybody and say they’re not capable of anything.

This incident became ethically totally out of hand. It is something that could have been stopped years ago with appropriate intervention. Joe Paterno has been a wonderful coach, but he had an ethical responsibility — as did everybody else who knew about this — to the children who were being abused.

MP: Is there a message in this story for the rest of us?

RK: The message is, if you see something like this, don’t go to your supervisor. Go to law enforcement or Child Protection [Services]. They’re the ones who can do something about this. The other thing you can do is call someone like me. I’m one of two board-certified child-abuse pediatricians in Minnesota. If someone calls my office and leaves a message, I’ll be glad to visit with them.

And, of course, if you see somebody [in the act of ] abusing or beating a child — even if it’s a judge — you have an ethical and moral responsibility to stop it. If you don’t feel comfortable intervening personally, then call 9-1-1.

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Comments (14)

In your opinion!!!!

Fact is that it DOES work and well.... If applied correctly. You liberals who think you know everything, really don't have a clue. You assume so much; based on your own kind... Fellow liberals who were raised to blame everyone else for things you do... etc.

I got spankings growing up as did my brothers and sisters. And you know what??? Why am I so normal, and liberals not??? Interesting perspective... but then again. Liberals will just blame me as being the problem.

Jump back! Knock yerself out. :)

Jeff, its very odd that you start you comment with "in your opinion." The findings in the article are based on actual evidence. Your assertion is based on nothing more than you saying "fact is." I think any neutral observer would say its actually your assertion that is based solely on opinion.

And what is with all the question marks and exclamation marks? Do you think that excessive punctuation makes your arguments better?

Raised in a middle-class home by a single mom, my sisters and I were whacked by our mother regularly, and with whatever was handy. Sometimes it was her hand, sometimes it was a hairbrush – over the years, I personally broke three of her favorite hairbrushes when she hit me with them, which made her even more angry – and her favorite punishment tool was a pancake turner, a heavy metal spatula with a long handle that gave her better leverage. We were not bad kids, particularly, but energetic, and there were four of us, which made for plenty of frustration for a single mom. As a result, that calm, reassuring discussion of why ‘x’ was the wrong thing to do never took place. In its stead was the hand or the pancake turner and a lot of yelling while we ran around the room trying to escape her.

Yes, there were sometimes bruises afterward, and I was so angered by this continued abuse that I finally did what many an older, but not yet teenaged, child has done. I ran away from home. Fortunately, this was suburban St. Louis in the 1950s and not Charles Dickens’ London. Of course I was unprepared for anything approaching the real world, including inclement weather, and yes, the police finally tracked me down after about 12 hours, but I made it plain to my mother that she had hit me for the last time.

When I became a parent, I actually made a vow to myself that I would never, ever hit my son as he grew up. To understate the matter, it was not an easy vow to carry out, but I managed it. I didn’t hit him even one time. I also raised my voice so rarely that, on one of those few occasions, when he was about 10 and my volume went up several notches, he burst into tears because, he said, I’d never yelled at him before.

He’s turned out to be one of the best people I know as an adult. Disciplined, hard-working, gentle with his own children, smart, talented, and a grown man of whom I am genuinely proud. My hope is that he will view his upbringing without violence positively enough to manage – it does take effort and self-restraint – to continue it with his own kids as they get older.

Frankly, Mr. Kline strikes me as … worrisome. “…Why am I so normal, and liberals not???” he says. Um … could it be that maybe the suggestion that *all* liberals are somehow out of the mainstream is just a little over the top? “You assume so much; based on your own kind… Fellow liberals who were raised to blame everyone else for things you do… etc.” “Your own kind?” What kind is that? What is it that we have assumed? “Raised to blame everyone else for things you do?” Where did that come from? Who are these people who “blame everyone else” for the things, unnamed, but apparently horrific, that they do?

Likewise, the heavy use of punctuation. I have to echo Dan Hintz’ comment – using three question marks instead of one doesn’t really make the comment or argument any stronger. In fact, as Dan pointed out, all the punctuation does is highlight the difference between an emotional, some might say hysterical, defense of what was inflicted upon him, rather than paying attention to what the research says.

For the greatest insight into this issue try reading The Politics of Denial, and The Authoritarians by Bob Altemeyer. The two books describe in scientific detail how the abuse of children by the "poisonous pedagogy" of breaking children's wills through violence produces right wing authoritarian adults and right wing politics.

The best example of that teaching are books by James Dobson, of Focus on the family, who recommends beating children as young as three years old. If the child doesn't stop crying, advises Dobson, they are to be dealt more of the same.

The crucial aspect of this teaching, writes Dobson, is that the beater (the parent) must express love and affection to the beaten child after the abuse - in effect, the child must learn to love his/her abuser.

In The Politics of Denial the authors explain how this plays out later in life: Children abused in this way come to play out their feelings on "out" groups defined by their usual religious right Social Dominator leaders - gays, liberals, etc. It is a chain of abuse that has caused great harm on not only our citizens, but our polity.

The Politics of Denial also talks about how this poisonous pedagogy of breaking children's wills through violence reached somewhat of a peak in turn of the 20th century Germany. In effect, the people who perpetrated the holocaust and World War II were some of the most beaten children in history.

Alright, I was spanked (broken spoons and all), but my anecdotal evidence doesn't overturn the research, because my brain is terrible at compiling and synthesizing statistics.

What disappoints me is the missed oportunity for providing alternatives beyond dialogue, especially when the article mentions parents who discipline kids who are way too young to speak, much less discuss.

I think it's important to note part of the article cited as " overwhelming evidence" as well:

---In a reply to Gershoff, researchers Diana Baumrind, PhD (Univ. of CA at Berkeley), Robert E. Larzelere, PhD (Nebraska Medical Center), and Philip Cowan, PhD (Univ.of CA at Berkeley), write that because the original studies in Gershoff's meta-analysis included episodes of extreme and excessive physical punishment, her finding is not an evaluation of normative corporal punishment.
"The evidence presented in the meta-analysis does not justify a blanket injunction against mild to moderate disciplinary spanking," conclude Baumrind and her team. Baumrind et al. also conclude that "a high association between corporal punishment and physical abuse is not evidence that mild or moderate corporal punishment increases the risk of abuse."

The author mentions a judge in connection with abusing a child. A clear reference to a judge "disciplining" his daughter as caught on a video that has gone viral.

A truly horrifying example of corporal punishment gone bad. Those who advocate corporal punishment should be forced to watch this disgusting exhibition, especially commenter #1.


The reasons and responses given by advocates of child/adolescent/teenage-only corporal punishment are nearly always the same:

1) "The Bible says...."

2) Research/statements from the religious fundamentalist sector (as opposed to those who believe Jesus would never condone hitting a child).

3) They're not doing it "right". I still haven't found any general consensus on a "right" method for "spanking" kids. In light of the Judge Adams video, such proponents should consider making their own video-recording of the "right" way to do it.

4) "I was 'spanked' (or bullied in school, or raised by the state, drank the green water,etc) and I turned out OK."

5) If you don't "spank" children, they'll end up in prison/hell/with terrible manners (hitting being confused with discipline).

In light of Judge Adams video,

We often hear from those who fight to uphold this practice for those under the age of 18 (even to the blaming of the social maladies of the day on a supposed "lack" of it), but we rarely, if ever, find advocates for the return of corporal punishment to the general adult community, college campuses, inmate population, or military. Why is that?

Ask ten unyielding proponents of child/adolescent/teenage-only "spanking" about the "right" way to do it, and what would be abusive, indecent, or obscene, and you will get ten different answers.

These proponents should consider making their own video-recording of the "right way" to do it.

Visit Unlimited Justice or Parents and Teachers Against Violence in Education to learn more and add your voice.

Research/recommended reading:

Spanking Can Make Children More Aggressive Later

Spanking Kids Increases Risk of Sexual Problems

Use of Spanking for 3-Year-Old Children and Associated Intimate Partner Aggression or Violence

Spanking Children Can Lower IQ

Plain Talk About Spanking
by Jordan Riak

The Sexual Dangers of Spanking Children
by Tom Johnson

Just a handful of those helping to raise awareness of why child/adolescent/teenage-only "spanking" isn't a good idea:

American Academy of Pediatrics,
American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry,
American Psychological Association,
Center For Effective Discipline,
Churches' Network For Non-Violence,
United Methodist Church
Nobel Peace Prize recipient Archbishop Desmond Tutu,
Parenting In Jesus' Footsteps,
Global Initiative To End All Corporal Punishment of Children,
United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child.

In 31 nations, child corporal punishment is prohibited by law (with more in process). In fact, the US was the only UN member that did not ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The US also has the highest incarceration rate in the world.

The US states with the highest crime rates, poorest academic performance, highest obesity rates and health problems, and largest public welfare burdens are also the ones with the highest rates of child corporal punishment.

Of all the things prison inmates lacked in their upbringing, "spanking" certainly wasn't one of them.

There is simply no evidence to suggest that child/adolescent/teenage-only "spanking" instills virtue.

On my first day of seventh grade, a friend and I were horsing around at the start of our first gym class. The gym teacher, a recent grad of Hamline where he had starred as a bruising fullback, yelled at us to stop. We did.

Nevertheless, to make an example of us to this new class of 7th graders, he bent us over and gave us each a swat with a cut-off goalie stick.

I never misbehaved again. In my life.

Even if you read what the proponents of corporal punishment advise, their advice is almost never taken. For example, Dobson says that parents should not spank children out of anger. In reality, that is exactly when they do it.

It has been my experience, that people who experienced physical abuse as children are generally unable to tell when spanking is appropriate. With the answer being almost never. However, I doubt very much if a single smack on the bottom with an open hand that wasn't accompanied by screaming or anger does any damage.

The problem is that the anti-spanking advocates don't differentiate between that kind of spanking and the kind that leaves bruises and marks. They focus on the physically abusive kind and of course they are going to find all kinds of issues in children who suffered from that kind of corporal punishment.

I was smacked on the rear end for running out into traffic. It stopped me where all of the talking, reasoning and time-outs never did.

My parents did not believe in corporal punishment and saw it as being reserved for life-threatening issues like the above. That and my attempting to open up the car door when it was moving (years prior to child safety locks) were the only times I was spanked. Because it was so rare (a single smack with an open hand), I remember it to this day and it worked quite effectively

My kids were each spanked twice. Once each for running out in traffic and one time for the youngest for unhooking her car seat and standing up in the moving car and once for the oldest climbing out onto the second story porch roof.

They both remember these spankings because these were the only times they were spanked. And they were spanked because nothing else (multiple time outs, withdrawing privileges, reasoning with them)worked.

So, in this case, the situations were serious enough to warrant using a method that is effective if applied with extreme restraint and only in life threatening circumstances.

My guess is that if the studies focused on that type of corporal punishment, they would find no damage occurs at all to the children.