Is It Okay to Spank?
Meaning what you say
Before you go dashing off letters to the editor, let's consider that most people don't agree on what spanking actually is. In Webster's, "spank" means "to strike on the buttocks with an open hand." A mission statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) describes it as "striking a child with an open hand on the buttocks or extremities with the intention of modifying behavior without causing physical injury." But if you ask ten moms and dads what spanking means, you may well hear ten different responses.
Researchers who gather spanking statistics often lump together parents who may smack a well-padded bottom with an open hand once a year with those who regularly reach for a brush or belt strap as discipline, and they combine those who may spank their child because it's "good for them" with those who've done it because they lost their temper. The only definition experts and parents do seem to agree on is that spanking entails hitting of some kind, and that abuse is never acceptable. (Those of you who believe spanking is abuse no matter how it's defined may now be excused to write your letters to the editor.)
There are any number of reasons that a parent might advocate or abhor spanking, but most influential is her own childhood experience. Christina Togni of Manassas Park, Virginia, can still recall her mother's threat with a wooden spoon. "When my two older brothers and I would do something wrong and hear the kitchen drawer open, we'd immediately head for the hills." Now the mom of a 6-year-old and a newborn, Togni says that she uses spanking only "when absolutely necessary." But unlike her mom, she doesn't issue empty threats. "When I say I'm going to do it, I do it." Jennifer Johnson, a mother of three in Haymarket, Virginia, also remembers fearing "the wrath of the paddle," which she believes was a good thing. She says that she now spanks her kids "when the crime meets the punishment," and feels that there would be fewer unruly children if more parents spanked. Other parents say that they learned a very different lesson from their spankings. Lisa Bacote, a mom of a 2-year-old and a 3-month-old in Atlanta, remembers the few spankings she received. "They were harsh!" she says. But the punishments didn't teach responsibility or obedience, she believes, as much as fill a reservoir of resentment that took years to drain. Her husband says that the spankings he received growing up taught him two things:
• How to lie ("I didn't do it")
• How to avoid getting caught.
Interestingly, whether an adult looks back in admiration or anger for being spanked, she rarely indicts her parent for doing it. "I understand that the spankings were fueled by my mother's frustration on those days," says Bacote. I, too, was spanked as a child, and I not only understand why I was spanked but I would probably have done the same thing. Once when I was yelling and acting like a complete jerk to my mom, she hit me, and I distinctly remember thinking, "Okay, I had that coming."
But that doesn't mean it's morally defensible to hit a child when the purpose is to "teach a lesson." "Why is it okay for an adult to hit a child when it isn't even acceptable for an adult to pick on someone his own size?" asks Murray Straus, Ph.D., professor of sociology and codirector of the Family Research Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire. "There have been plenty of times when my colleagues have disagreed with me or made me upset, but that doesn't give me the right to haul off and hit 'em."
In this case, whether or not an adult "deserves" to be smacked is a moot point. It's simply unacceptable (and will land the smacker in a lot of trouble). Why is it, then, that children might "deserve" a swat and receive one? Because we're big and they're small -- a morally and ethically indefensible reason.
Still, adults who were spanked as children often defend the practice by saying, "It didn't hurt me in the long run." But, says Straus, just because a well-adjusted adult was spanked as a child doesn't mean that spanking is a harmless act. "I could say, 'I smoked my whole life and I'm okay.' But that doesn't mean smoking isn't bad for you," he explains.
Experts cite stacks of research that link spanking to mental health problems such as depression and a range of antisocial behaviors that land kids in detention and adults in jail. Of course, not all spanked kids end up in prison. Not all smokers end their days hooked up to an oxygen tank, says Straus, but that doesn't mean that it's fine for parents to introduce their children to nicotine.
Yet for many parents, their own childhood experience is hefty enough to quash any amount of data or well-reasoned line of logic. This doesn't surprise Gary Hill, a clinical psychologist at the Family Institute at Northwestern University, in Evanston, Illinois. "There's a strong emotional connection to the childhood event," he says, "so parents who spank are often more righteous about it." He also notes that for some adults, it's impossible to blame their own parents for spanking because it would mean that they were somehow scarred by being spanked. Instead, they believe that they "deserved" what they got.