The Unsparing Rod

By Barbara F. Meltz, Contributing Reporter
Boston Globe
April 27, 1995

A woman I met recently was incredulous that I never spank my son. "I thought everyone spanked their kids," she said.

Unfortunately, she's pretty close to the truth.  Here are some facts about spanking, culled from several recent national surveys of parents:

- 68 percent of American parents think spanking is not only good but essential to child rearing;

- 90 percent of parents spank their toddlers at least three times a week; two-thirds spank them once a day;

- One in four parents begin to spank when their child is 6 months old, 50 percent when their child is 12 months old;

- 52 percent of 13- and 14-year-olds get spanked; 20 percent of high school seniors do.

For someone like me, who was spanked once as a child and doesn't believe in spanking as a parent, these statistics were stunning.   Healthy skeptic that I am, I decided to ask parents attending workshops at Families First, a parent education resource in Cambridge, to answer a questionnaire on spanking.  To my further surprise, their responses mirrored the national surveys.  Of 63 parents, 39, or nearly 62 percent, said they spank.

Sociologist Murray Strauss, the nation's foremost researcher on spanking, was surprised only that the numbers weren't higher.  He attributes that to geography: Studies show parents in the Northeast spank the least, parents in the South, the most.

''The national take on spanking is that people wonder about parents who don't spank.  They worry, 'How will those kids turn out?' '' says Strauss, who is co-director of the Family Research Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire.

In other words, most parents don't spank out of meanness.  "They spank because they think they are doing the right thing," says Strauss.

Lynda Robinson of Cambridge, a single mother of three children, ages 12, 10 and 7, is one of the women who answered the Globe questionnaire.  From a philosophical point of view, she believes in spanking.

"It works," she says.  "My mother spanked us all the time.  I knew when I was wrong.  I'd say to myself, 'Oh, my God, I won't do that, I'll get a spanking.'  I don't want to put fear in my kids, but I want them to know [when they've done] wrong."  She says she spanks when "you stress something over and over and they don't listen" or "for lying.  You lie to me, especially a lie that could cause harm, and I'll spank."

While parents who spank may still be in the majority, Strauss and others say it is a shrinking majority, down by nearly 30 percent since 1968, when 94 percent of American parents believed in spanking.   "Thank goodness," says Strauss.  "Nothing good comes from spanking except short-term compliance.",

In the Globe questionnaire, many of the parents who spank frequently are ambivalent about it.  Here's what some of them wrote:

- "I always reget it when I spank."

- "I can't look in my child's eyes afterwards without feeling guilty."

- "Sometimes spanking has a calming effect on a child, but it can also cause anger and resentment.  I always feel ambivalent about it."

- "I do not espouse spanking philosophically . . .but sometimes each child has become so out-of-control that a slap on the hand or leg serves as a wake- up call."

Parent-educator Linda Braun, director of Families First, wishes ambivalence would translate to abatement.  "Very large numbers of parents spank in the heat of the moment because they don't know what else to do.  They don't know the risk they put their children at," she says.

Here are the effects researchers say spanking has:

- It doesn't teach self-direction.  "All it does is teach a child, 'Do what I tell you or you'll get it,' " says Strauss.  As a result, children learn how to avoid getting spanked, including lying and cheating, but not how to regulate their behavior.  "They are less likely to internalize the difference between right and wrong or to develop a conscience," he says.  Longitudinal studies also show they are more likely to do poorly in school, and less likely to finish college.

- It begets violence.  The more children are spanked, the more likely they are to be physically aggressive with siblings, in school and, as adults, with spouses and children, according to psychologist Terry Luce, a professor at the University of Tulsa whose area of research is aggressive behavior.  He says children as young as preschool age will hit other children as a result of being spanked themselves.  In teen-age years, there is a high correlation between spanking and delinquency.

What's particularly troublesome, he adds, is that spanking is often done by otherwise loving parents.  "The message becomes, 'When you are angry with people you love, hitting is OK to do,'" says Luce.  "When you spank, you're modeling violence as an acceptable way to solve problems."

To parents who say, "I was spanked and I didn't turn out violent," Strauss responds: "Only one-third of the people who smoke die of lung cancer.  But anyone who smokes is at an increased risk.  The same is true for spanking and violence."

- It chips away at the parent-child bond.  The more you hit a child, the less likely that child is to want to please you, says Strauss.   "Who likes being hit? Who likes the person who is doing the hitting? The cumulative effect is anger and hatred, not love and compliance, not trust," he says.

- It escalates.  According to Luce, one-third of parents who spank on the rear end with an open hand move on to hit with belts and paddles; to hit on the face and head; to punch, kick and beat; to throw children down stairs, against walls.  In other words, they end up as child abusers.

"The No. 1 cause of accidental death of infants is parents who beat them under the guise of discipline," Luce says.  Unfortunately, he adds, laws in every state allow parental corporal punishment.  A 1977 Supreme Court decision says physical punishment by parents is "permissible as long as it is short of deadly force."  

For all these reasons, April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month.   All month, the GoodStart program by the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children has been giving "Operating Instructions," a package of educational information, to all parents of newborns in the hopes of heading off abuse before it starts.

"Certainly there's a difference between an occasional tap on the butt that's meant to say, 'I mean this now,' and chronic beatings administered by an out-of-control parent," says Braun, of Families First.  "But each makes a child feel terrible."   "You know a big problem with spanking?" asks MSPCC director Joyce Strom.  "That parents do it with the best of intentions."

AFTERTHOUGHT -- Lesley College is sponsoring a daylong conference for family child-care providers May 13, including workshops on multicultural education and sick child policy.  Call 349-8921 for information.

How to Avoid Spanking

One of the best ways to avoid spanking is to create an environment that minimizes the chance of your child getting into trouble in the first place:

- Create a safe environment for young children where you don't have to say "no" all the time and where your toddler isn't constantly tempted.  Babyproof the house so things aren't within reach; substitute a safe activity for a dangerous one.

- Reward good behavior with praise: "You looked before you crossed the street.  Good job!"

- Be clear about your expectations: "In 10 minutes, it will be time to turn off the TV and get ready for bed."

- Have as few rules as possible.  The ones you have should be reasonable, age appropriate and make sense to the child: "You can't hit the baby because she's very fragile.  The rule is, an adult has to be with you when you want to hold her."

- For school-age children, establish household and personal responsibilities or standards of behavior with consequences for noncompliance.  Star chart systems work well with this age.

- Find a consequence that fits the misbehavior; establish and agree to it beforehand: "If you're not home by 10 p.m., you'll be grounded for the weekend."

- Be consistent with limit-setting and consequences.

- Take a parent education course on limit-setting and discipline.

When infractions do occur, instead of spanking:

- Remove a child 2 or younger from the activity.  Say "That's no!" in a firm but calm voice.

- Put a small child in the crib or playpen while you cool down.  Count to 10; step outside; call a friend or the MSPCC hotline (800) 632-8188.

- Use time-out for children 2 to 7, putting the child in a safe but uninviting place (a chair facing a wall) for two to seven minutes (one minute for each year of life).

- With older children, take time for you each to calm down -- "You sit there, I'll sit here, let's think about this."  Brainstorm together: "You know that was wrong.  What should we do about it? How can we make sure it won't happen again?"

- Take a parent education course on limit-setting and discipline.

What Non-Spankers Say

Of the 60 parents who responded to the Globe questionnaire, 24 don't spank their children.  Here is what some of them say about why they don't:

- "It teaches kids to solve problems by force."

- "I remember as a child being in fear of being wrong or in trouble.   I learned to fib to avoid spankings.  Although I wasn't spanked often, it had a powerful and negative effect on me."

- "I respect my child too much.  We have effective communication.   Never needed to, never wanted to."

- "Spanking doesn't produce understanding or promote learning in a child.  I always felt hitting only promoted more hitting."

- "I can't tell the kids that hitting is wrong if I do it myself."

- "I don't want my children to live in fear of me."

- "It prevents one from getting to the root of why the behavior is happening."

Barbara Meltz writes about parenting and childcare for The Boston Globe. Her columns can be found "online" at:"