A letter of criticism to Barton D. Schmitt, M.D., F.A.A.P., professor of pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, and director of both General Consultative Services and the Pediatric Call Center at the Children's Hospital of Denver
September 22, 1998

Dear Dr. Schmitt,

Your article, "Why You Should Not Spank," published in the Web site, "The ABC's of Parenting," recently came to my attention. A note at the conclusion of the article states that it has been excerpted with your permission from your 1991 book, Your Child's Health: The Parent's Guide to Symptoms, Emergencies, Common Illnesses, Behavior, and School Problems. One must assume that you still hold the views on spanking you held at the time of its original writing. Otherwise you wouldn't have permitted the article's current republication on the Web. A casual reader searching the Web for up-to-date expert advice on parenting would have no reason to doubt the currency and authority of "Why You Should Not Spank."

In the first two paragraphs you cite the trend away from the practice of hitting children, explain some of the reasons for it and some of its potential benefits, and invite the reader to ponder its implications. Then, for the balance of the article--the part that too many readers will remember, unfortunately--you give detailed instruction for, as you call it: "safe physical punishment."

I am not persuaded that there is a threshold at which the hitting of a child can be deemed safe, anymore than there is a safe threshold for wife beating. That is why I believe the title of your article is misleading, its message dangerous, and why I feel compelled to write this letter.

As a physician, author and educator at a major medical college, and, no doubt, having considerable experience with parents, you cannot be unaware that parents who are in the habit of hitting their children are far more likely to take note of expert opinion that seems to corroborate their parenting style rather than that which challenges it. In "Why You Should Not Spank," you give them precious little challenge, but a generous amount of corroboration. By reassuring spankers that their behavior is supported by expert medical opinion--that they are merely 'following doctor's orders'--your article, in effect, encourages the mistreatment of children. I am sure that was not your intention, but that is the result.

I will cite some of the more problematic portions of your advisory to parents and show how, in my opinion, they constitute a real danger to children.

You say: Parents who turn to spanking as a last resort for "breaking their child's will" may find that they have underestimated their child's determination.

Your use of quotation marks around breaking their child's will implies that it is a borrowed phrase. For good reason you seem to want to decline personal responsibility for those words, but you use them nevertheless. Your use of the cliché, "last resort" panders to the fondest self-deception of child hitters. In fact, habitual spankers strike first, not last. "Last resort" is pure fantasy. By telling parents that they may be "underestimating the child's determination," you reinforce spankers' misguided belief that child management is a battle of wills--a battle that they may be losing--and your words may encourage them to hit harder. With rare exceptions, legally-defined child abuse is a direct consequence of this perversion of the parent-child relationship.

Hit only with an open hand.

Here, you say nothing about the size of the hand that does the hitting nor the size of the child who is being hit nor the force of the blow. You seem to be unaware that children have been, and will continue to be, seriously injured, even killed, by 'the open hand.'

Hit only on the buttocks, legs, or hands.

As for hitting the buttocks, a severe blow to the buttocks could cause bleeding in the muscles that surround sciatic nerve, possibly injuring it and causing impairment to the involved leg. The coccyx is also susceptible to injury when a child is struck in that region. When children are required to bend over for beatings, their sex organs may be injured. Dislocation of the coccyx and genital bruising as a result of punishments inflicted on the buttocks are not uncommon.

Also, one should not overlook the connection between inflicting pain on a child's buttocks and the subsequent development of sexual disorders, e.g., sadomasochism, flagellantism and fetishism. That connection is well understood and has been documented in detail since the middle of the 19th century. In Slaughter of the Innocents, David Bakan writes: "We are familiar with the argument that it [the buttocks] is a safe 'locus' for spanking. However, the anal region is also the major erotic region at precisely the time the child is likely to be beaten there. Thus it is aptly chosen to achieve the result of deranged sexuality in adulthood."

As for hitting the hands, there exists a whole range of orthopedic complications which can result from striking the hand of a child. The hand is particularly sensitive to injury because of the proximity of the ligaments, tendons, nerves and blood vessels to the skin, which does not have underlying protective tissue. Younger children are even more susceptible to permanent deformity because of the possibility of injury to growth plates in the bones. Injuries can range from fractures to dislocation, particularly to the terminal phalangeal joint, which could possibly lead to premature osteoarthritic changes. There are also risks of developing severe infections in the fascial spaces of the hand, particularly if there are pre-existing undiagnosed subungual infections. Infections of the hand often require hospitalization, and create a significant risk of loss of function of the hand.

I am sure you do not need citations for the preceding, but I will supply them if you wish.

Give only one swat; that's enough to change behavior.

But if the behavior doesn't change (few spankers stop at one swat) might not the swatter conclude that the punishment wasn't forceful enough? The parent who feels constrained to strike only once might be inclined to make it a "good one."

Spanking is inappropriate before your child has learned to walk.

The implication here, which spankers will happily seize upon, is that spanking is appropriate as soon as a child learns to walk.

Don't use physical punishment more than once per day.

Here, you give child hitters a prescription for spanking with specified maximum dosage. Tragically for the children involved, some spankers may follow that advice to the letter. Do you honestly believe 365 spankings per year does no harm?

Never spank your child when you are out of control, scared or drinking.

Do you seriously believe that a person who routinely spanks, is going to refrain from doing so when he or she is intoxicated or enraged? I wouldn't count on it. To be "out of control" means to be "out of control." The message here is that the infliction of pain on a child is okay if the perpetrator is cool, calm and sober, acting with premeditation, one might say. Sadists easily meet these criteria.

Speaking both individually and on behalf of the members and supporters of this organization, I urge you either to withdraw the deceptively labeled "Why You Should Not Spank" or to write an article that truly fits that title. As it stands, your advice on how to spank is folklore-based, unsupported by research, and a violation of the principal tenet of your profession: "First do no harm."

In closing, I would like to direct your attention to "Guidance for Effective Discipline (RE9740)," AMERICAN ACADEMY OF PEDIATRICS Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health, Pediatrics, Volume 101, Number 4, April 1998. It is an important resource for anyone interested in the serious study of this issue.


Jordan Riak,
Executive Director,
Parents and Teachers Against Violence in Education (PTAVE)

To read Dr. Schmitt's article in its entirety, click on "Why You Should Not Spank".
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