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To Spank or Not To Spank

Mom & Baby

That IS the Parent's Question

I was just going to run into the store on that rain-soaked Thursday evening to get a couple of necessary things for dinner. Little did I know that a mindless, normal every-day event would lead me to feel such guilt years’ later. My son, Steve, was five at the time and continuing to test our parenting limits. I was determined to raise my child with respect, kindness, and boundaries – but not spanking. I still remember the times that I was spanked as a child, usually by Mom. She would get angry, bite her tongue and hit me.  I have no memory of what I did to cause her to act that way but still remember the sting of her hand on my body. On that cold, wet evening years’ later, I was tired after a long day teaching.  While in the grocery store, my son spied something he wanted and asked, “Mommy can I have that.” When I told him “No” as I quickly moved through the store, my goal of getting home as quickly as possible paramount in my thoughts, his voice got louder as he demanded, “P-L-E-A-S-E” over and over again, his hands reaching for the subject of his desire.  I tried ignoring him but his pleas only increased in volume. Very quickly, my intolerance for his behavior went from 0 to 100. I yelled at him to quiet down but he couldn’t hear me over his screaming.  I hit a crossroads.  Should I leave the store without the essentials ingredients for dinner, saving the other customers’ ears and my embarrassment?  Or, should I try my Mom’s methods and spank him in the store in the hope that he would stop screaming and quietly abdicate his position?  I sadly admit that I did spank him, mostly because I was so angry with him, I couldn’t think of anything else to do.  Of course, he didn’t quiet down but started screaming and crying even harder.  Rather than stand in line with an out-of-control five year old who had been hit by his mother for the first time, I left, hurrying to the car, feeling such guilt, anger and sadness over what I had done. 

I later learned that I was not alone in this action. Research consistently indicates that up to 90% of parents spank their children, at least occasionally. However, a new study from the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Michigan shares research that spanking is far worse than a smack on the butt.  Researchers used data on more than 150,000 children over a 50-year period to reach a fairly damning conclusion that spanking is linked to aggression, antisocial behavior, mental health problems, cognitive difficulties, low self-esteem and a whole host of other negative outcomes. As for the positive impact of spanking, the researchers found none.  “By the time most kids get to high school, at least 85% have been spanked”, shared the study’s lead author Elizabeth T. Gershoff.  For those of us who try to justify spanking by stating: “I turned out OK”, Gershoff shares an important rebuttal. “We turned out OK in spite of spanking, not because of it.”  Murray Straus, professor of sociology and co-director of the Family Research Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire, further states that several studies have shown that the more parents spank, the more likely kids are to hit their parent. “Kids who are spanked are also at a higher risk for committing juvenile crime, assaulting other kids, being depressed as an adult and hitting their dating or marital partner.” Scary, isn’t it!

Most people are very committed to the idea that spanking is necessary, not because they want to hit their children but because they believe that it works when other forms of behavior management don’t.  But spanking doesn’t eliminate bad behavior any more than other forms of discipline.  In one study, 73% of mothers shared that their child continued the same bad behavior despite being spanked for it.

In fairness, I did check the recent literature for research on the use of spanking as a deterrent to bad behavior. Robert Larzelere, a professor at Oklahoma State University, shared that “parents should do everything as kindly and gently as they can at first. They should try to understand the child, make sure the child understands what’s expected of them, use reasoning, and find an adequate nonphysical consequence, such as timeout.  But if the child won’t cooperate, some children need something more forceful, such as backup spanking, to reinforce what is expected.”

There can be severe consequences for spanking your child. As a former high school guidance counselor, I had a duty and obligation to report to Child Protective Services anytime a student told me that they were hit by a parent.    Choosing not to report the incident would have resulted in a loss of my certification and employment.  Unfortunately, my relationship with the parent, and even the entire family, was oftentimes irreparably damaged because of this action.  I recently read of a father in Texas who was charged with a felony for spanking his son. Parents today need to understand that hitting of any kind will not be tolerated. If a student reports an incident, it will be investigated.   I was lucky that no one in that grocery store reported me.

I feel that being a parent in 2016 is definitely the hardest job in the world. You are ‘on-call’ 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, with no sick leave or vacation breaks. So, now that you know why you shouldn’t use spanking as a deterrent to behavior, what are some strategies that you can employ with your child to extinguish their bad behavior:

Catch them being good. Giving your child your positive attention enhances the quality of your relationship and improves everyone’s self-esteem.
Actively ignore minor misbehaviors. This involves the deliberate withdrawal of your attention when your child starts to misbehave.  This strategy should not be used with aggressive or destructive behaviors. 
Post a rewards menu. Rewards are tangible ways to give your child positive feedback and are most effective when the child chooses from a variety of things. 
Time-outs. This can be one of the most effective consequences but often isn’t done correctly.  It is important to be clear, consistent, set rules and follow them. 
Listen to them. Most children just want to be heard.  Oftentimes bad behaviors will diminish if you just listen.

If you do lose your temper with your child and spank them, know that an apology will go a long way to repairing your relationship.  I recently reminded my son of the ‘grocery store incident’ as I now refer to it.  He had no memory of it and further shared, “That’s OK, Mom.  I’m sure I was a real pain.  I love you.”  Although I still feel a twinge of guilt, I forgave myself long ago, knowing that I was only following the parenting playbook that my parents had modeled for me.  Not only is parenting the hardest job in the world, there is no course or book that prepares you for it.

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