American Psychological Association--APA Monitor, November 1996

Psychologists point out the futility and damage of corporal punishment.
By Bridget Murray, Monitor staff

Not long ago, when a child misbehaved, adults would cluck, shake their heads and declare, 'What that child needs is a good spanking!'

A sound whack on the bottom with a switch or a sharp rap across the knuckles with a ruler were common disciplinary tools for rudeness, talking back to adults and aggressive, destructive behavior.

Even some experts on children recommended spankings, though with a clear explanation and affirmation of parental love afterwards.

But as mounting publicity about brutality against children blurs the line between a 'good spanking' and outright child abuse, people today increasingly protest against the need for physical punishment. In a recent controversial case, a school superintendent in Jeffersonville, N.Y., beat his 8-year-old son at home with a three-foot rubber snake and was charged with child abuse.

Hotly debated
While some call spanking inhumane and denounce it for hurting defenseless children, others say it remains the best way to reprimand insolent children and show them who's boss. Rooted in the punitive religious ethic of America's Puritan founders, spanking still thrives and parental belief in its effectiveness holds fast.

Informing the debate are psychologists, whose research points to problems with spanking. APA's Council of Representatives in 1985 passed a resolution opposing 'the use of corporal punishment in schools, juvenile facilities, child-care nurseries, and all other institutions, public or private, where children are cared for or educated.'

In fact, APA's Div. 37 (Child, Youth and Family Services) formally opposes school-based corporal punishment and 28 states now oxutlaw the practice in schools.

However, much to the chagrin of the American branch of End Physical Punishment of Children and other U.S. children's rights groups, the controversial practice of spanking in the home is still legal under American law, unless it is deemed 'cruel or unusual.' .

The law's flexibility effectively allows cruel punishment to continue, despite evidence of the damage it does, argues psychologist Irwin Hyman, PhD, who runs the National Center for the Study of Corporal Punishment and Alternatives at Temple University. 'We have tons of research linking corporal punishment with child abuse and showing that families raise kids great without it,' said Hyman.

Research shows a variety of reasons why spanking is a couinterproductive form of discipline:

It inflicts psychological damage on children. Memories of childhood spankings contribute to low self-esteem, found Hyman and his student Barbara Barrish, PhD, in a survey of 205 college freshmen published this year. Severe beatings were most predictive of unhappiness, while infrequent, mild spankings were not as destructive.

Corroborating these results is research by childhood experts Murray Strauss, PhD, and Glenda Kaufman Kantor, PhD, both sociologists at the University of New Hampshire. Their 1994 analyses of 6,002 families suggest that parents' corporal punishment of adolescents is a risk factor for alcohol abuse, depression, suicide, physical abuse of children and physical assault on wives.

And in a study of 225 11- to 19-year-old African-American youngsters living in Augusta, Ga., medical sociologist Robert Durant, PhD, found that beatings and other forms of family violence led to depression and hopelessness among children. Research unequivocally proves that violence scars children who grow up with it, says Durant, a professor at the Harvard Medical School.

It models violence. Parental use of corporal punishment sends children a message that violence is acceptable, thus perpetuating the cycle of violence in families, said Irwin. Adults who were spanked are most likely to spank their own children. And the more parents hit their children, the more their offspring hit their siblings and other children, his research finds.

'It is simply a contradiction to tell children not to hit other children and then to turn around and hit them yourselves,' said psychologist Jane Knitzer, PhD, president of Div. 37 and a psychologist at the National Center for Children in Poverty in New York City.

It is less effective. Most parents hit their children when they're angry, says psychologist Patricia Chamberlain, PhD, of the Oregon Social Learning Center in Eugene, Ore. In this irrational state, they often hit children harder than necessary and fail to adequately explain why the child is being punished.

People tend to remember the whippings they received as children, but they don't usually remember why they received them, she notes. 'What stays with you is the pain and the fear,' she said.

She believes beatings often backfire as a behavior modifier, actually causing children to grow increasingly hostile and rebellious toward their parents instead of better behaved.

'Parental limit-setting should be conducted not out of parent anger, but out of firmness about what children should and shouldn't do,' said Chamberlain. The most effective means of improving children's behavior is positive reinforcement--setting rules and praising children when they follow them, she says.

Other methods work. Positive reinforcement may be the best way to keep most children from behaving badly, but unfortunately, not all youngsters respond to it, note psychologists Mark Roberts, PhD, of Idaho State University and Robert Larzelere, PhD, who runs a program for troubled youth in Boys Town, Neb. They believe punishment is often the only way to discipline children who refuse to follow rules and consistently defy authority.

While Larzelere supports moderate smacking, his study in the July issue of Child and Family Behavior Therapy reported that noncorporal punishment, such as revoked privileges and time-outs, works just as well as long as parents clearly explain to children why they are being punished.

In the study, Larzelere examined how mothers disciplined 40 toddlers, age 2 and 3, for snatching toys from friends, hitting siblings or other naughtiness. Mothers found that denying their children television time and cookies or making them sit in a chair against the wall for several minutes--a practice Larzalere calls 'chair time-out'-- was equally as effective as mild spankings.

In separate studies gauging the effectiveness of spanking versus the 'time-out chair,' Mark Roberts noticed that problem children tend to run away from the chair instead of sitting there for the required two or three minutes.

This tempted parents to hit them. So, in a study published in 1990, he added a component to the procedure used by mothers with 36 2- to 6-year-olds.

When children refused to sit in the chair, mothers escorted them to a bedroom, where children sat for one minute. Youngsters were taken back to the bedroom until they stayed in the chair for two to three minutes.

Roberts recommends that parents use chair time-outs instead of spanking to avoid hurting their children.

Rallying against spanking
Although the research stacks against spanking, the practice remains a widely accepted form of discipline. On average, 80 percent of American parents spank their children, surveys suggest. Even many psychologists still spank their own children despite objecting to it in theory, said Hyman.

In 1995, Hyman's student Jeff Kaplan, PhD, found that 60 percent of 349 psychologists he surveyed had struck their children while only 15 percent of them supported using corporal punishment.

The biblical maxim, 'spare the rod and spoil the child' prevails in American society, as most religions condone or support parental use. At least half of America's religious leaders support corporal punishment, Hyman's students have found.

To help stop the practice and change attitudes, Hyman testifies against spanking before Congress and advocates for an end to its use at home.

His center at Temple University offers a help line--at (215) 204-6091--that advises parents how to avoid hitting their children.

'Essentially, we should be asking, whether there is evidence that we have to [spank our children],' said Hyman.

'The answer is, 'there isn't any.''

Return to Newsroom Index or to Table of Contents