In the interests of full disclosure, I must preface this by saying that I failed miserably as a father. If you don’t believe me, ask my daughter. If you can find her.
Spanking is back in the news. A Tulane University study published Monday says that spanking toddlers resulted in their behaving more aggressively toward other children as they grew. The study claims that, even adjusting for other factors, such as parental neglect, depressed moms, and differences in innate aggression, children who were spanked were more likely to bully or hit their fellow kindergartners, and were destructive and disobedient.
Professional opinions about spanking have swung like a pendulum for the last 50 or 60 years. Dr. Benjamin Spock originally advised parents against spanking. He wrote that the message children get from a spanking is that their parents don’t love them. Then,in 1974 he said, "We have reared a generation of brats. Parents aren't firm enough with their children for fear of losing their love or incurring their resentment. This is a cruel deprivation that we professionals have imposed on mothers and fathers. Of course, we did it with the best of intentions. We didn't realize until it was too late how our know-it-all attitude was undermining the self assurance of parents."
But shortly before he died in 1998 he wrote: “Spanking teaches children that the larger, stronger person has the power to get his way, whether or not he is in the right. Some spanked children then feel quite justified in beating up on smaller ones.”
Other ‘experts’ have similarly waffled back and forth on the subject, but generally, the opinion of the intelligentsia, for now, is that spanking is wrong.
Let me be clear: we are not discussing here kids such as the ten-year-old who is currently in a juvenile detention center here in Arizona for having shot and killed his own father back when he was eight, or the kid whose mother was in the news last week for sending him back to the Russian adoption agency after she became fearful that he was going to burn down the house. We're talking about disciplining 'normal' kids, if there is such a thing.
I did my own, informal poll on Facebook. While nearly all the respondents believed in the effectiveness of spanking, they also qualified their statements very carefully. Here are some excerpts:
Roger: I feel a good thing to do is walk away, think about it for a minute or two. Then if it is still needed, then in moderation that's Ok. Spanking NOT beating…
Crystal: You should discipline according to age… When they are old enough to understand, then do time- outs or take things away; when that stops working spanking should be the last resort, but in moderation..
Barry: If spanking is done early, it doesn’t need to be done often… My dad’s method was usually one swat after hitting his own hand once or twice to get it just right, and then a very brief period to cry and then hugs and verbal reassurance of his love and the need to behave to keep his love… I remember twice. After that somehow a look seemed to be enough.
Jacqueline: Sometimes spanking is needed. But I feel that if you have an open dialogue with your child, and not just once, but reinforcing it often...when you sit down and when you get up, etc., spanking would seldom be needed.
Moriah: Different forms of discipline work for different kids. Some do need physical punishment if they are not able to reason, obviously within bounds and not with anger, but with the goal of directing and teaching the child that their actions were not ok.
Courtney: I think if your child is showing signs of anger or physical aggression, it would be worthwhile to look into alternative forms of discipline (denying a privilege, etc.) other than spanking.
Debbie: An interesting study would be to examine the demeanor of parents while administering discipline. Has anyone ever studied that?
Lynn: Consistency I think is the key. If you tell a child 'no' more than twice, and threaten to spank, they will never believe you. Mean what you say and follow through! Not all children need to be smacked to get the point.
Jon: From my personal experience spanking, done in anger and in excess, is not the correct form of punishment but it doesn't necessarily lead to aggression in the child. Specifically, if the child fears being beaten upon, the fear itself will typically control future bad behavior. As a child, I was spanked (that's what my dad called it) for ANY offense I committed. The spankings were done with an inch-and-a-half wide, half-inch thick oak stick, always done in anger, and there was never any reaffirmation of love afterward. My dad would always spank until his arm was tired, so it was always a good idea (in my adolescent mind) to have siblings in trouble as well, just so that the spankings per child were lessened. Trouble with this form of punishment, especially with me and my siblings, is that we never really LEARNED the lessons we were being "taught." Personally, I have never had to spank my daughter. Usually a firm tone of voice or a disapproving look are all that is needed.
I think, Jon, that most rational adults would agree with me that that was not spanking, that was child abuse.
Several respondents mentioned spanking having biblical sanction. Does it? The old saw, “Spare the rod and spoil the child,” is NOT from the Bible. The earliest record of it seems to be from a 17th century English poet, Samuel Butler. The bible does speak of disciplining children, and it does use the word “rod.” But the word is not always used literally. For example, Proverbs 14:3 says, ‘A fool’s proud talk becomes a rod that beats him.’ I’ve certainly had my words come back to haunt me on more than one occasion. But what about the scripture most often used to justify spanking, Proverbs 23:13? “Do not withhold correction from a boy, for even if you beat him with the rod, he will not die.”
We’ve already established that “rod” doesn’t always mean a literal stick. There’s another clue here that this is not to be taken literally. If Solomon had said ‘beat him with a rod,’ that could be taken to mean that he was advocating beating your kids. But he said “THE rod.”
That sounds rather specific. What was “the rod” to which he was referring?
From earliest times, family heads carried a “rod,” like a long walking stick. It was engraved with the family name, and it was a symbol of the authority of the one who carried it. If you’ve seen the old movie “The Ten Commandments,” you may recall the scene where Moses confronted Pharaoh. He had a long rod in his hand that was miraculously turned into a snake and, if you remember the scene, Pharaoh’s advisors were also holding rods. You may also know the story of how, after a rebellion against the authority of Moses and Aaron, Aaron’s rod miraculously flowered to indicate God’s approval of his appointment.
So Solomon’s use of “the rod” refers only to the authority conferred on fathers to discipline their families. But why did he say ‘even if you beat him with it, he won’t die’? Well, think about a situation in which a child could die. Suppose your youngster were heading out into a busy street. Ideally, you’d like it if he would listen to your voice when you tell him to stop. If he doesn’t, would you say, ‘Well, I hate to yell at him…’ No! You’d do anything, up to and including physically hurting him, to snatch him out of the way of a speeding car. Why? Because hurting him is better than watching him die. So Solomon was saying that, even if you feel you are beating your child over the head with your authority – which may or may not include corporal punishment – even if all you can finally resort to is, “Because I said so!” it’s better your kids should live than die.
Finally, I have to include one more comment from the Facebook poll:
Debbie: Sometimes you hear parents say "I never spank my child," and usually the response you think to that is, "Whewww, yeah, I can tell!"