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Spanking: A uniquely American approach to parenting, despite the scientific evidence

The state of spanking in America brings to mind the “rule of thumb”.  The expression comes from
traditional English law that said it was acceptable for a man to beat his wife with a stick not larger
in diameter than his thumb.  Wife beating was considered necessary and appropriate to control
women’s behavior; but some men got carried away and some women died, so it was deemed necessary
to limit the possibility of excess.

Rule of Bruise?
Today in the U.S., an estimated 94%-99% of toddlers are hit by their parents, on average two or three
times a week.  An estimated 35% of infants are spanked (Straus & Stewart, 1999). Corporal punishment,
what Michael Peal advocates asphysical discipline is outlawed in 31 other countries, including most
recently the new African nation of South Sudan.  In America it is controversial even among pediatricians,
but commonly considered a customary and necessary form of child rearing, especially in the South.
Corporal punishment in schools is legal in 20 states and in domestic settings in all states.

Corporal Punishment

Research definition: The use of physical force with the intention of causing a child to experience pain,
but not injury, for the purpose of correction or control of the child’s behavior.  Donnely & Straus (2005)
Human Rights Law: any punishment in which physical force is used and intended to cause some degree
of pain or discomfort.

There is no comprehensive definition of corporal punishment under U.S. state or federal law.

The definitions of corporal punishment make clear that the causing of pain is intentional. This is notable
since it focuses attention on why the child was hit, instead of on the fact that hitting hurts. The “instruments”
Peal recommends using to inflict pain on infants still are legal in all states as long as they do not leave marks
that last more than a day. But spanking as a disciplinary strategy is losing credibility.

There is clear agreement in the scientific community that spanking very young children in order to control
their behavior is counter-productive.  In a series of meta-analyses including 88 studies (none including
physical abuse) with over 36,000 participants, Gershoff (2002) found the use of physical discipline in young
children was significantly associated with one positive short-term outcome: immediate compliance; and with
10 negative outcomes short- and long-term outcomes including decreased quality of parent/child relationship,
increased aggression in the child, increased delinquent and anti-social behavior, and less than optimal child
mental health.

Four recent studies focused specifically on infants and toddlers. Berlin (2009) found in children attending
Head Start, spanking at age 1 was associated with more aggressive behavior at age 2 and lower developmental
scores at age 3. Frequent spanking before age 2 led to more behavior problems in white children, but not
Hispanic or African American children (Slade & Wissow 2004). Three-year olds who spanked more frequently
had more behavioral problems at age 5 (Taylor et al 2010). These outcomes  are especially concerning when
considered along with the findings of several studies suggesting that while spanking does not necessarily
constitute abuse, there is a risk that spanking can escalate into abuse.  The most powerful predictor of
spanking is a parent’s aggravation with the child’s behavior.  Spanking tends to lead to more aggressive
behavior which leads to more parental aggravation and more punishment. (McKenzi et al 2011)

A child shall be brought up in the spirit of understanding, security and love. He shall not be subdued,
corporally punished or otherwise humiliated. His growth towards independence, responsibility and
adulthood shall be encouraged, supported and assisted.

Finland’s 1983 Child Custody and Rights of Access Act

Parents who report their child has a difficult temperament are more likely to spank. And spanking is likely
to make the child even more difficult. Bugental et al (2003) showed that very early use of physical discipline
fosters heightened stress response in children so that the child who is frequently spanked suffers unusual
“wear and tear” on their coping capacity. They become less able to regulate their emotional response and
adapt to unexpected, challenging or novel life events, inviting more punishment.  Infants and toddlers are
at specific risk for injury, especially from use of “little instruments” as recommended by the Peals, due to
their small bodies and relatively large heads (Crandall et al 2006). Spanking must be considered a warning
sign of potential abuse.

Who spanks?
A powerful predictor of spanking is a mother’s belief in corporal punishment. Other indicators are young
maternal age, low socio-economic status, low social support, parental stress, depression, and lack of
knowledge of child development and unreasonable expectations. 

Michael Pearl demonstrates unreasonable expectations in his example of the six-month old that “pulls a stunt”
and shows willfulness and defiance by throwing his bowl on the floor “because he does not like what’s in it”.
No six-month old has the cognitive ability to pull a stunt out of defiance.  A baby does not understand “No”.
Even if the recommended 10 “licks” stops the undesired behavior, the baby has no idea of what to do instead.
He does not learn appropriate behavior, only how to avoid pain. A child is unlikely to distinguish between
spanking and hitting a friend who takes his toy. (I don’t see much difference either)

The research suggests that home visitors can reduce the incidence and severity of intentional infliction of
pain as a means to control behavior by reflecting with parents on their child’s developmental capabilities,
effectiveness of spanking,  and alternative strategies. A key reflective question: What do you want to teach?
What do you think he learns when you swat him? See Beginnings Parent’s Guide page 186.

References and resources

Bugental, DB, Martorell, GA & Barraza, V. (2002) The hormonal costs of subtle forms of infant maltreatment.
Hormones and Behavior43; 237-244.

Combs-Orme, T. & Cain, DS. (2008) Predictors of mothers’ use of spanking with their infants. Child Abuse & Neglect 32; 649-657.

Donnelly, M.  &. Straus. MA (Eds) (2005) Corporal Punishment of Children in Theoretical Perspective Yale University Press  

Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children http://www.endcorporalpunishment.org/pages/progress/prohib_states.html

Huang, CC. & Lee, I (2008). The first three years of parenting: Evidence from the Fragile Families and Child Well-Being Study.
Children and Youth Services Review 30; 1447-1457.

MacKenzie, MJ., Nicklas, E. et al. (2011) Who spanks infants and toddlers? Evidence from the fragile families and child well-being study.
Children and Youth Services Review 33; 1364-1373. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3114638/

Straus, MA. & Stewart, JH.  (1999). Corporal Punishment by American Parents: National Data of Prevalence, Chronicity, Severity and
Duration, in Relation to Child and Family Characteristics.Clinical and Child Psychology Review 2 (2); 55-70.
Next:  If not spanking, then what? Age-appropriate discipline

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