To spank or not to spank? Parents still wrestle with that question. Most child-behavior and parenting experts today are against spanking. The few who are not, advise that spanking is only acceptable when administered as a planned consequence by a calm parent.
But many people recall getting spanked at least occasionally for naughtiness when they were children and believe they were generally better behaved and more respectful of adults.
Enter Ron Pitzer, a University of Minnesota Extension Service sociologist, and colleagues with a six-year study indicating that when some parents stop physically punishing their children and learn to employ alternative methods of dis-cipline, their children become less aggressive and violent.
"Parental example and modeling is so powerfully important," Pitzer says. "If you hit your child, it will be very difficult to teach them not to hit others because they have experienced it from this most important person in their life."
The Goodhue County study involved 1,000 parents of children younger than 13. Participants were selected randomly by a computer from telephone listings. Researchers interviewed parents at length for initial information and conducted two subsequent interviews at 20-month intervals to compare results.
The interviews focused on an array of actions and attitudes of parents, including nurturing practices, expressions of affection and praise, attentiveness, standards of behavior and the use of consequences or punishments, including spanking, slapping and yelling.
The researchers also examined children's behaviors with questions about emotional development, academic performance, relationships with peers, temper tantrums and tendencies to cry, hit or destroy property. During the study, many parents attended "positive parenting" classes that focused on nurturing and discipline alternatives to physical punishment.
At the same time, a community project called "Kids: Handle With Care" started to change attitudes toward violence that pervade our culture, especially violence involving children. The campaign was conducted with articles in local newspapers, radio programs, cards placed on tables in fast-food restaurants, messages on grocery bags and carts, announcements in church programs, floats in local parades and an exhibit at the county fair.
At the beginning of the project, Goodhue County information showed that parents there were already less likely to use physical violence than would be expected from results of national studies. Yet, by the end of the project, parents demonstrated they were employing more nurturing and teaching discipline, according to Pitzer.
Fathers participating in the project changed their attitudes and behaviors to a greater extent than mothers did. At the start of the study, fathers were more likely to physically punish children. By the end, they matched or exceeded mothers in alternative, more positive discipline methods.
"As expected, fathers had the most room to improve," Pitzer says. "Fathers tend to be less involved in nurturing and discipline practices and are generally less informed about them. They typically don't think about this stuff."
Children who were not very aggressive at the start of the study but were spanked during the study years doubled in aggressiveness by the end of the study. Correspondingly, children who were aggressive to begin with but were not spanked during the study cut their aggressive behaviors in half, according to Pitzer.
Parents who nurture their children establish a foundation for successful disciplining, according to Pitzer.
"If a child's confidence and trust are there, he will accept disciplining by parents," Pitzer says.
Ellen Tomson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (651) 228-5455.