Texas State Assemblyman Harold Dutton is presenting a bill to create a statutory basis for parents to use "corporal punishment" to discipline their children, despite the fact that Texas law already gives parents a privilege to use "reasonable force" to discipline children. See "Paddling Debate Shifts to the Home," Houston Chronicle, Jan 17, 2005 (House Bill 383). While the rest of the industrialized world, and parts of the United States, are taking measures to limit parents' right to corporally punish their children, Texas stands alone in going the opposite direction, and it is a mistake.
I am aware that most Texans support spanking, so my goal is to convince readers to think twice about this long-standing child rearing practice in light of the compelling scientific research findings that spanking is an ineffective and very risky practice.
First, spanking does not work. Most people who support spanking point out that it appears to work, as the child usually stops in his or her tracks upon being spanked. But the vast majority of scientific studies have found just the opposite. Although spanked children may stop bad behavior immediately, they fail to internalize the moral lessons the parents are attempting to teach. Children whose parents use other disciplinary methods, such as scolding, taking away toys, or putting the children in "time out" so that they can consider the wrongfulness of their conduct, show a greater understanding of the wrongfulness of their misconduct. Indeed, spanking is counter-productive: the long term research on spanking has demonstrated quite clearly that, no matter how aggressive a child is at the outset of the two year study, the spanked children were considerably more aggressive after two years, while the children who were disciplined in other ways were less aggressive two years later. No study has ever found spanking to be more effective than other forms of discipline. Even the researchers who support spanking have found that spanking is less effective than other forms of punishment, and should be used as a last resort.
Second, and more important, spanking is a dangerous practice that is associated with numerous serious problems for spanked children, some of which last their entire lives. While supporters of spanking claim that a good spanking now and again will not really hurt the child, this is simply untrue for many spanked children. Over the past 40 years, scientific research has proven that hitting children causes them to become more violent themselves, and much more likely to aggress against their peers, their spouses, and their own children later in life. We know that spanked children have far more self-esteem problems, depression, psychological and psychiatric disorders, and are much more prone to abuse drugs and to commit suicide; these problems continue into adulthood. Several studies have shown that toddlers who are spanked do not learn as fast as other toddlers, probably because fear and anxiety result from spanking, which interfere with a toddler's need to explore his environment to learn. Little girls have shown greater cognitive problems resulting from spanking than little boys, but both have demonstrated substantially lower IQ test scores relative to non-spanked toddlers. This compelling research has led almost every national organization who has addressed the issue to take a formal position against all forms of child spanking, including the American Medical Association and the American Psychological Association. It has also led to provisions in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child prohibiting all forms of violence perpetrated against children, which was adopted by all of the nearly 200 United Nations member nations, except for two: the United States and Somalia.
In addition, most people do not spank "correctly," meaning in the absence of anger, but quite to the contrary, almost always spank when they are angry. This puts the child at risk for injuries not intended by the upset parent. Two thousand children are killed every year at the hands of their parents, another 18,000 permanently disfigured, and over 150,000 seriously injured. These results were almost never intended, but uniformly resulted from a "normal" spanking going too far when the parent was angry.
Children's misbehavior is normal and needs correction. Failing to discipline a child altogether is worse than spanking. But there are more effective ways to train a child that do not carry the serious risks. Americans need to consider the costs and benefits of spanking with an open mind, because logically, it simply is not worth it.
Dutton and supporters of his new bill need to wake up to the reality that spanking children is as barbaric and outdated as a husband hitting a wayward wife. In fact, it is worse, because a child cannot divorce his parents.
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