Spanking--Modern Parents' Dirty Little Secret
Jeannine Ouellette Howitz
October 2000

From "Dare I Say It?" at

Here in our hilly, elm-lined, Minneapolis neighborhood, spring has sprung early, and along with lilac buds and crocus blooms, tiny bikes and doll buggies are emerging from winter hibernation as Moms and young children take to the sunny outdoors.

Just last week my four-year-old, Lillie, discovered another four-year-old girl, Caitlin, who lives three houses down. As I began to chat with Caitlin's Mom, we both revealed a lot of details to help one another get a sense of our respective families. I told her I'm a writer who works at home. She told me she's a dancer who teaches two days a week at a local college. I mentioned breastfeeding. She mentioned gardening. I crouched down to converse with Caitlin. She leaned over to interact with Lillie. When Caitlin whined, she reacted calmly. When Lillie got impatient, I responded sensitively. Clearly, neither of us are the sort of parent who would hit our children under any circumstances.

Or at least that's what I'm sure we both assumed, based on the array of verbal and nonverbal cues we shared regarding our backgrounds, family lives, parenting philosophies, and relationships with our children. And anyway, spanking is out of vogue these days, having been condemned by almost every credible child development expert, and unabashedly disavowed in April 1998 by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Not many parents actually resort to hitting their kids anymore, right?

Wrong. Fully 90 percent of American parents do hit their children, according the 1998 AAP report. Recent online polling at supports the AAP statistics. Eighty-six percent of respondents stated that they had been spanked as children, and a staggering 69 percent of these parents of infants are already committed to spanking as a form of parental guidance. Among respondents who weren't spanked as children, an appalling 47 percent intend to turn the tide and inflict physical punishment on their own offspring.

It appears that spanking, a euphemism for hitting, slapping -- even beating kids -- is hardly out of vogue. It's epidemic. It only seems to have subsided, because people don't discuss it as readily with friends and neighbors as they once did, back when experts by and large condoned spanking as an effective means of disciplining children.

I find the fact that so many of us continue to hit our children deeply offensive in a culture that is by far and away the most violent of all of the industrialized nations of the world, a country that at this moment mourns the death of a first-grader by the bullet of a six-year-old gunman while simultaneously striking its young children in the name of sound guidance. Perhaps parents should ponder, as they spank their children, the fact that all this spanking hasn't done much to keep America's youth on the right track (and ample research suggests it does exactly the opposite). Over the past decade, while parents have been spanking away in the name of teaching justice and responsibility, arrest rates for homicides committed by fourteen-to seventeen-year-olds have more than tripled at the national level.

According to the American Medical Association's Annual Report Card on Violence, the total number of teens is projected to increase by twenty percent over the next decade, and many criminologists expect a continuing surge in crime. Where does violence as a means of child guidance fit into the overall scheme to address this crisis?

I say it doesn't -- that spanking has no place in the plan, and that violence is at least as abhorrent and out of place in our homes as on our streets. Too often, I'm lulled into believing that most of my contemporaries share my views, simply because they don't disagree with me in face-to-face encounters. But inevitably I am jolted back to reality by the bald statistics and by the way they are repeatedly screamed to life as soon as an anonymous forum such as a radio call-in show or Internet message board broaches the spanking topic. Suddenly all those spankers -- 90 percent of American parents! -- come out of the shadows to pat each other on the back and marvel in the coincidence that all of them were spanked, and "they turned out all right," so therefore any criticism of spanking is simply absurd.

Jesse Ventura, governor of my home state of Minnesota, took the "look at me, I turned out fine" tack last spring when he defended corporal punishment at home and in schools, first at a town-hall style meeting, and later in a follow-up radio interview. In both venues, he drew cheers and kudos for speaking out in favor of spanking. Yet, in my daily life here in this supposedly progressive and "nice" state, I rarely meet a parent who'll openly condone spanking, let alone admit to doing it themselves.

If spanking is such a great idea, why are parents too ashamed to embrace it except anonymously? Maybe they have more doubts than they care to acknowledge, even to themselves. Perhaps there are certain terrible elements associated with spanking -- elements with which they'd rather not be identified. For instance, the slippery slope of unequivocal physical abuse, true beating. If you never spank, you eliminate that risk. If you do spank, you enter into that risk with every single strike. Most of the loving, conscientious parents I know have had the occasional tough time controlling their tempers, have at one time or another handled their child too roughly in the heat of the moment. But by rejecting spanking as an alternative, by refusing violence as an option, they stay behind the guard rail and off the slope.

Spanking also cozies up with some almost universally repugnant societal deviations. When researching this topic, keyword searches on the Internet turned up a variety of unsavory material, even on legitimate commercial parenting sites. On one message board at, a question posted about how to avoid spanking a three-year-old elicited a torrent of long, disturbing, and overtly sexual responses about public spankings of teenage girls.

In this light, it's easy to see why parents would actively avoid identifying themselves as spankers. Who would want to continually justify and explain and clarify their exact spanking practices -- how hard, how often, under what circumstances, up to what age, with or without an "implement" -- in order to distance themselves from their individual definition of what crosses the line into abuse? But to those parents, I suggest an easier route: stop hitting your children. This method completely eliminates the need to justify your physical punishment or to cover it up.

That's the thing about being fully committed to not hitting your children (or any other family member, for that matter) -- it completely clarifies your position and your priorities. Despite all your other failings and fits of temper, whatever they may be, you will not deliberately cause your children physical discomfort or pain, and you will not perpetuate violence as a solution. As much as it challenges you to find other, more effective approaches to guiding your children, it frees you from the tyranny of decisions about when violence is justified, and how much violence is appropriate.

When I look at my daughter playing in the room beside me, I know that hitting her purposefully as a response to unacceptable behavior is a ludicrous concept, and one that she herself, having never been stricken in the name of justice, and having heard her entire life that hitting is wrong, would recognize as inherently unjust. I wish every child could grow up with an intact sense of physical integrity and dignity. It seems to me that Lillie's newest friend, Caitlin, has that. I'm pretty sure my initial assumption that her mother would never spank her was actually on target, despite the statistical unlikelihood.

But if I'm wrong, I imagine that fact will surface eventually, from Caitlin herself. Several times this has happened with other playmates of my children. Sometimes it's direct ("My mother spanks me when I do that"), and sometimes convoluted ("My little brother has a truck like that and he broke it 'cause he's naughty and plays in the toilet and gets lots of spankings and throws his food and I'm hungry, do you have a snack?") Children, I've learned, do not censor the details of their home lives as vigilantly as do their parents. Then again, the children haven't done the spanking. They have nothing to be ashamed about.

Jeannine Ouellette Howitz has been published in Parents and Ladies' Home Journal. She is the author of the children's book, Mama Moon (Orchard Press/ 1995). Her new book about parenting three or more children will be published by Pocket Books in 2001. She is a regular contributor to "Dare I Say It?".

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