The consequences of spanking
Study suggests that corporal punishment may have life-altering side effects
Houston Chronicle/Boston Globe, July 29, 2002

Boston Globe, in Houston Chronicle 7-29-02
Researchers have been saying for 50 years that spanking is not a good way to discipline children; it's painful and humiliating, and leads to resentment and revenge, not remorse or impulse control. Now for the first time, someone is saying it's even worse than we imagined: The more children are spanked, the more likely they will grow up to be less successful academically, have unhappier marriages, earn less money, and live unhappier lives than children who are never spanked.

Hard to believe all that can come from a swift swat on the tush now and then, isn't it?

"Suppose there are two medicines that work, but one has harmful side effects that don't show up for 10 or 20 years. Even if one dose has only a tiny chance of an adverse effect, I think parents would want to avoid that risk. That's the way they should think about spanking," says Murray Straus, founder and co-director of the Family Research Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire and the nation's pre-eminent researcher on corporal punishment. He reported these findings earlier this month at an international conference in Denver. Straus doesn't argue that spanking doesn't work, rather that other strategies work better.

"Yes, a spanking can stop a behavior," he says, but so can imposing consequences or problem-solving or negotiation, and they don't carry much baggage and actually benefit a child's development. Spanking, for instance, typically works out of fear: "I won't pull the cat's tail because I'll get spanked," not, "I won't pull the cat's tail because it's wrong to hurt animals."

"The more a child is spanked, the less well-developed the conscience, because a child is less likely to internalize why the behavior is wrong," Straus says. Not only that, but corporal punishment also gives children less opportunity and experience with nonviolent problem solving, such as negotiation.

All this has been known for years. Wanting to see how it played out as a child matures, Straus interviewed 6,000 adults, some of whom had been spanked as children. When he asked, "Can you think of a situation when it's OK for a husband to slap a wife in the face," almost half of those who had grown up being spanked regularly (three or more times a week) said yes. Adults who had not been spanked regularly were far more likely to say no. At the same time, adults who had been spanked were less likely to use problem solving to resolve conflict in their marriage.

This jibes with the work of Temple University psychologist Irwin Hyman. He interviewed 3,000 college students in 15 Western democracies to determine their attitudes toward spanking. Americans scored the highest, meaning they were the ones most likely to engage in abusive behavior and the ones who had been spanked most as children. Students who scored the lowest came from eight nations where spanking has been outlawed, including the four Scandinavian countries and Austria, Cyprus, Israel and Italy.

The problem, he says, is that there is one value, unintended though it may be, that a child takes away from being spanked: that hitting is an acceptable, even a good, way to solve problems.

Here's how a child's thinking might develop, says Hyman: "He hits his little brother. The mother yells, `Don't hit your brother!' and then she spanks him. Does he think, `I should never hit my brother because it's wrong, and I know what it's like to get hit and it hurts'? Of course not. He thinks, `It's OK for a big person to hit a small person when you're the parent.' "

Over time, this takes on a morality of its own.

"Children who are spanked come to believe that parents are doing it for their good," says Straus. As they grow up, they conclude, "When someone misbehaves and persists in it, it's morally correct to hit them."

Unfortunately, he says, toddlers are the children most likely to be spanked and the ones most at risk for damage from it. "Regular spanking produces chronic stress that has been shown to slow brain development," Straus says. That's one way he links spanking to poor academic performance. There's another way:

"Spanking chips away at the bond between parent and child, building resentment and anger," he says. "It can make a child less motivated to do things a parent is keen for him to do, like succeed at school."

That can lead to a diminished academic career, including not finishing high school or college.

While some parents set out to spank as a matter of principal because it's the way they were raised, many others arrive at it out of frustration, typically with a 2-year-old: They tell a child no, it doesn't work, they get frustrated, they spank. What they don't realize, Straus says, is that there is a high failure rate with toddlers no matter what kind of discipline you use: "Fifty percent of the time, the misbehavior will be repeated within two hours, and 80 percent of the time, within the same day." Although toddlers are the children most frequently spanked, psychologist Roni Leiderman says it's not because they misbehave more than other children, but because parents have unrealistic expectations for their behavior. "The very nature of a toddler is to assert herself, which creates more possibility for conflict. The more you embrace the growth and development instead of fight it, the happier you'll both be," she says.

The two best alternatives to spanking, Leiderman says, are keeping behavior from escalating to begin with and praising children for effort, not just accomplishment.

"Be proactive rather than reactive," she says. For instance, if you know your 3-year-old has a hard time making transitions in the mornings, allow extra time to avoid the pressure that leads her to act out. If you're going to the grocery store at a time when she's normally hungry, give her a snack at home first. Leiderman is an associate dean of early childhood studies at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Hyman says parents who spank tend to be willing to do it repeatedly until a child complies, but it's the consistency of a strategy more than the actual punishment that gets results. "If parents were willing to apply the same consistency to other strategies, they would be successful with that, too," he says. Indeed, Straus says it's a combination of alternative strategies that enable children to feel loved, supported, and encouraged rather than angry and resentful.

"If you want your child to grow up to be the kind of person who reasons instead of hits," he says, "I can't imagine why any parent would ever spank."

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