Los Angeles Times, May 1, 2000
Should the Hand That Rocks the Cradle Also Spank?
By Sandy Banks
They are wrapping up a week of "no violence" today, these young mothers in Ruth Beaglehole's parenting class.
No slapping a tiny hand that keeps reaching for pieces of forbidden candy. No swatting the backside of a little one who won't stop jumping on the couch or screaming or throwing the remote control.
Today is the third annual National Spank-Out Day, and these Los Angeles teenagers are celebrating their personal victories over the frustration and anger that can make a parent strike a child.
And Beaglehole is hoping that a weekend of rallies across the nation will help spread this message to generations weaned on the notion that a swat to the backside is a sign of love:"Spanking a child is domestic violence," she says. "It's not an issue of parents' rights. It's a human dignity issue, a social justice issue, a public health issue. "It is not as complicated as we want to make it. All violence against children is wrong."But things are seldom so simple, up close and personal.
On an institutional level, the battle against spanking is being won. Corporal punishment in schools has been outlawed in most states. Child abuse regulations have been tightened to criminalize spanking that leaves bruises or is done with anything other than an open hand.
But on the home front, spanking still reigns as the one method of discipline common to more parents than any other, even among parents who are deeply conflicted about its use.
Although more than 90% of parents admit to spanking their children, 85% say they would rather not, that they resort to spanking only when all else fails, according to a 1998 study in the journal Pediatrics. And more than half of all mothers surveyed said that spanking was the wrong thing to do at least half of the time they used it.
And spanking is not confined to certain cultures, ethnic groups or economic strata. In fact, in one-quarter of all middle-class, two-parent homes, children are spanked weekly, researchers report.
In most families, spanking is neither routine nor abusive. Even advocates say it should never be the only weapon in a parent's discipline arsenal, and its use should be limited to certain conditions--to punish persistent defiance or deliberate acts of willful disobedience by children old enough to know better.
Of course, there are zealots on both sides of the issue. Some consider discipline decisions the unassailable right of every parent, and claim no law or private agency ought to intrude.
Others, like retired teacher Jordan Riak--author of the 1992 booklet "Plain Talk About Spanking"--want spanking outlawed and blame it for virtually every ill of society, from wife beating to child molestation, street gangs to hate crimes, racism to sexual deviance.
Most parents land in the middle, chastened by the specter of child abuse (a spanking given in anger or carried on too long) but bolstered by memories from their childhoods. A nurturing home, they believe, can sustain a spanking or two.
Perhaps it is not spanking but reliance on spanking that we ought to fear.
The one indisputable finding of research is that the more children are spanked, the more likely it is they will grow into angry, abusive adults.
But other analyses of research on spanking, reported by the American Academy of Pediatrics, found that more studies demonstrate "beneficial child outcomes" from "non-abusive" spanking than show detrimental effects.
Still, most of the publicity has gone to studies reporting that children who are spanked grow up to be more aggressive and antisocial, with higher rates of behavior problems.
I can imagine what my mother would say: Maybe these were kids headed down the road to delinquency already. Maybe that's why, not because, they were spanked.
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When I was growing up, I didn't know anyone who didn't get spanked . . . and you were just as likely to get a "whipping" from your aunt or grandma as from your mom or dad.
Back then, Americans were unequivocally in favor of spanking. In fact, "a good spanking" was deemed a necessary part of child rearing by 94% of parents surveyed in 1968.
Today, we may joke about our childhood memories, but spanking our own children makes us uncomfortable. And is not something we tend to talk about in polite company.
We are way too enlightened to admit engaging in a practice deemed barbaric by the experts who expound on such things.
But in our private lives, attitude and practice are often at odds . . . I know.
Before I had kids, I vowed I'd never spank them. As a mother of three, I still do not "favor" spanking . . . but I have, indeed, spanked my children. Not often, not nearly as much as my mother spanked me. . . and not enough, she might reckon. But enough to put me in the camp of those who believe that an occasional spanking does no lasting harm . . . and can do some good.
"There are no real positive effects to spanking," insists Temple University professor Irwin Hyman, author of "The Case Against Spanking" (Jossey-Bass, 1997), "except it does temporarily stop behavior."
And sometimes, that exception may be good enough.
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Beaglehole says the notion that most parents emerged from childhood spanked but unscathed begs the question.
"People come up to me all the time and say 'Look at me. I was spanked and I'm fine,' " she says. "Well, everybody that smokes doesn't get lung cancer, but we still acknowledge that cigarettes are bad. Every child who rides without a car seat doesn't die, but we still recognize that car seats save lives.
"Spanking is abuse, even if every child who's spanked doesn't grow up to feel like an abused child."
She raised her three children without hitting them, she says. "Still, I'm not a pacifist, I'm not a fool. I don't live in La La Land. "But I do believe we can raise the consciousness in our society in general to understand that violence against children is wrong. And I think now is the time. I think people are scared of the violence in our society, and they really do believe it doesn't begin with TV or guns. It begins in the home."
That is why she helped create the Center for Nonviolent Education and Parenting last year. And why, in the parenting classes she teaches for teen mothers, she makes "no violence" a goal, if not a policy. "I have no magic [discipline techniques] to teach. I'm not going to pull anything out of my pocket that's going to be an easy solution. "We have to teach parents how to have an intimate parenting
relationship with their children, how to be able to tolerate anger, to maintain communication, to problem-solve. That's complicated. But it's the only way we're going to protect our children."
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Sandy Banks' column is published on Sundays and Tuesdays. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.