Chicago Tribune, May 18, 1997

By Eric Zorn

Where you stand on the issue of spanking children generally depends on how you sat.

Did you sit gingerly, years ago, after you misbehaved? If so, you are likely to be "pro-spank," one who believes that the punitive infliction of pain upon children is an ideal way of keeping them in line.

Or did you sit firmly, perhaps banished to a corner or your room? Then you are probably "no-spank," one who believes there are better ways; that hitting kids is a nasty approach to discipline.

Does my choice of words give me away? I was not spanked as a child and have never spanked my own children. So I come to any discussion of corporal punishment--such as the "parents rights" debate re-ignited locally by the story of Luying Deng and Hou-Lin Li, the parents recently indicted for slapping around their 8-year-old daughter--with a seat-of-the-pants opinion, so to speak.

I turned out OK, I love and respect my parents, they didn't spank me, therefore, well, you know.

Pro-spankers use similar logic: I turned out OK, I love and respect my parents, they spanked me, therefore . . .

"Virtually everybody who's researched the issue comments about the generational aspect of spanking," said Jordan Riak, head of Parents and Teachers Against Violence in Education, a 20-year-old no-spank advocacy group based in Alamo, Calif. "Those who had it done to them tend to do it to their kids; those who didn't, tend not to do it."

This renders opinions and anecdotes about spanking not particularly useful to those searching for answers.

I went off on such a search recently by reviewing a raft of published material and research on spanking: What do those who have honestly studied this issue have to say about striking children to discipline them?

At first, it seems, they tend to agree: Spanking is hard to isolate as a variable. Is the spanking influencing the child's behavior, or is the behavior influencing the parents' spanking? Since both pro-spank and no-spank camps include loving, consistent, supportive parents, fecklessly permissive parents and cold, authoritarian parents, how do we reliably sort the outcomes? What constitutes long-term harm or measurable benefit? And how reliable is all the self-reporting necessary to conduct such studies?

After that comes disagreement, and it's clear that you can find published research to bolster a range of views. The American Academy of Pediatrics, whose members have a keen interest in the subject, held a conference in 1996 where experts attempted to resolve the various studies. It concluded that one or two flat-hand smacks--but no more--to the wrist or rear can be an effective back-up form of discipline.

"Spanking, while not necessarily harmful, is no better than other forms of punishment," said Dr. Mark L. Wolraich, chair of an AAP committee on corporal punishment that two months ago issued a recommendation that parents use alternative forms of discipline. "And, " Wolraich added, "there are some potentials for harm."

Obviously. Spanking usually involves an angry, larger, stronger person hitting a frightened, smaller, weaker person. Such an act is so generally repugnant--illegal, even, except when the one being hit is a child--that to commit it, the stronger person ought to have to meet a high moral standard. The act should not simply provide the quickest resolution, be effective in some cases and probably not harmful in the long term; it must be necessary.

It should be that which is administered when the many common, non-violent forms of discipline have failed, when applied firmly and consistently, to curb undesirable behavior in otherwise incorrigible, disobedient kids. Anyone who inflicts pain to punish a child when it's not the last resort is no better than a bully.

Between the pro-spank and the no-spank crusaders (find them on the Internet under "related links" at who tend to see each other, respectively, as sadists and anarchists, is this middle ground view that sees limited parental spanking as permissible but rarely optimal.

Such a view, if widely adopted, would reduce the incidence of spanking, which, over generations, would cause the practice to become increasingly unaccepted. Ultimately it would be consigned to history with wife whipping, servant-flogging, pillorying and other once-common forms of discipline. At least that's how it looks from how I sat.

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