AT 21/2 YEARS OLD, Mairin Dugan is starting to get the upper hand in her household-but not the kind of upper hand she had in mind.
She throws her food across the kitchen, pitches tantrums when any one else touches "her" television and recently got up and marched out the door when asked to sit still at a holiday dinner. So how's her mom responding? With a firm swat on Mairin's backside.
"I know some people think it's awful," says Mairin's mom, Carla Dugan, an East Haven, Conn., homemaker. "But how many of them have a two-year-old?"
More than five decades after Dr Spock sent corporal punishment to the woodshed, spanking is making a comeback. A growing number of parents--many of whom were never spanked themselves-are shunning the experts, defying disapproving friends and neighbors, and giving their kids a slap on the bottom, the hand or the leg. Web sites popular with parents, such as iVillage.com and Oxygen.com, are filled with chat-room buzz from pro-spankers. Just last year, both Oklahoma and Nevada passed laws explicitly giving parents the right to spank their children. Even House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt last year admitted that he has spanked his three kids, noting that his mother disciplined him with a switch--and he turned out fine.
So why the return to tough love? Other meth ods simply don't work, frustrated parents say. Sondra Thompson, a stay-at-home mother of six in Corsicana, Texas, turned to spanking after bombing with such gentler tactics as "time outs" and stern lectures. One of the last straws: the day four-year-old Allesandra poured shaving cream and shampoo all over the bathroom, then rubbed lip stick on the upstairs carpet. "I hear people who talk about how awful spanking is," says Ms. Thompson. "Their kids are usually maniacs."
In a recent Harris poll, nearly 70% of respondents said they think young adults and children don't have as much discipline as they need. Meanwhile, with communities everywhere struggling to explain school shootings and other, teen crime, many are blaming lax parental control.
"Something has to be done and it has to be done at home," says Debbie Long, a mother from Rincon, Ga. Mrs. Long and her husband, Michael, started spanking their son, Kevin, when he was four even though both weren't spanked much as children. They only spank Kevin, now seven, occasionally-when he gets "sassy," says Mrs. Long.While there are no definitive studies of how many parents spank, many pediatricians, psychologists and researchers say the numbers are on the rise. Kevin Ryan, director of the Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character Development at Boston University, says parents are starting to reject the politically correct notion that children are too fragile to spank. That notion took hold after World War' II as Benjamin Spock, the influential pediatrician, began warning that corporal punishment can traumatize children and trigger more aggressive behavior. The "spare the rod, Spoil the child" theory got further pummeled in the permissive '60s and '70s and again in recent years amid growing attention to domestic violence. Some critics have even equated spanking with out-and-out abuse.
Nonsense, says Judy Ussery of Savannah, Ga., who has tried-and failed-with everything from confiscating favorite toys to outright bribes. Although Ms. Ussery was never spanked as a child, she says her kids are a whole lot worse, than she was: "I got the child my mother wished on me."
While academic thing on the subject has long been dominated by Dr. Spock's point of view, an emerging body of research suggests that spanking might not be such a bad thing after all. In one decade-long study, Diana Baumrind of the University of California-Berkeley found that parents who combined positive encouragement and a reasonable level of discipline--including spanking--had the best outcomes, as defined by rough measures of self-worth and personal achievement.
Robert Schwebel, a psychologist who hosts a popular parenting discussion group on iVillage.com, says about one-third of the people on his site openly support spanking, up considerably since the site began four years ago. The movement even has its own Dr. Spock: conservative evangelist James Dobson. His book, "The New Dare to Discipline," has sold more than three million copies since it was published in 1992.
Many parents continue to feel guilty about spanking. "I think it hurts me more than it hurts him," says Mrs. Long. Yet, of ten, the biggest deterrent to spanking isn't guilt, but community censure. Indeed, even when spanking was at its least fashionable, researchers say most parents spanked-only they did so less frequently, less firmly and out of public view.
Such outside pressures still exist, of course. Last fall, Mrs. Dugan of East Haven was shopping in the local grocery store when young Mairin decided to pull cereal boxes off the shelf. When she smacked her daughter's hand, she says, a woman standing nearby instantly chided her--and asked how Mrs. Dugan would like it if she were hit. Mrs. Dugan fumed. "I told her it wasn't her business to tell me how to raise my child."
Tell It to the Judge
Donald Cobble, a minister in Woburn, Mass., attracted national attention last year after he was arrested for hitting his child with a belt. Mr. Cobble's son had told a teacher about the incident. "The ordeal was hell," says Mr. Cobble, but the State Supreme Court threw the case out, finding no evidence of abuse, he says.
Similarly, in 1995, Boston police arrested a department-store Santa Claus for spanking a child who kept yanking his beard. But the public ultimately wound up on his side: Not only did Santa get released in time to finish his holiday duties, supporters lined the streets to greet him.
Parents stress the need to draw a line between a light swat on the backside and physical abuse, and many say they are careful not to hit hard or often. And even spanking advocates urge parents not to spank children under 18 months, both because infants are so fragile and because they aren't old enough to appreciate why they are being punished. Similarly, many psychologists and pediatricians say spanking post-pubescent children just isn't effective.
Still, some parents and experts continue to believe that any spanking is not only humiliating but harmful for children. In 1998, the American Academy of Pediatrics came out categorically opposed to physical discipline of any kind, although the group had supported it "in moderation" as recently as 1996. "The only thing spanking teaches is that I am bigger than you and I can hurt you," says Robin Ylitalo, a stay-at-home mom in Lakewood, Calif.
Ms. Ylitalo frequently goes online to many of the parenting Web sites and says she's surprised to see all the support for spanking. "I want to teach my kids more than that."
Christen Goertel, a Stamford, Conn. mother, faced the "to spank or not to spank" dilemma at a recent community picnic. Her three youngsters wouldn't sit still, a playful game of tag got out of hand and, when a child wouldn't share her fisbingpole, the youngest girl went into a full-blown cry. For a moment, Mrs. Goertel says she was definitely tempted to spank the kids--but something stopped her.
The reason: The picnic was in honor of National Spank Out Day, an antispanking program sponsored by a non-profit group., "Oh, we spank," Mrs. Goertel confesses, taking a pause from corralling her children during the picnic. "We just came to get out of the house."
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