By Aisha Sultan, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Should parents ever hit their children?
Research suggests many of us are likely to respond “no,” and public support for spanking has measurably declined over the years. But surveys also show that 75 percent to nearly 90 percent of parents admit to spanking their child at least once.
I was raised in a zero-tolerance home for disrespect, and my parents did not shy away from occasionally resorting to physical punishment. And, no, I don’t feel particularly traumatized by it. I seem to have escaped the rather long list of possible bad consequences for children whose parents used corporal punishment.
My upbringing, however, has left me with my own low-threshold for ill-mannered behavior from children. Nothing is more annoying than watching a grown adult plead, beg or cajole a child of any age. It is infuriating to watch a child disrespect his parents, while the parent tries to figure out how to respond.
With spanking a less desirable option, a significant number of parents seem to find it harder to set and enforce limits with their children.
But there is data to suggest that a return to old-school spanking isn’t the answer.
Murray Straus, professor of sociology and co-director of the Family Research Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire, has studied the topic of children and spanking for decades. Two years ago, Newsweek reported that he found data suggesting that teens or young adults whose parents used corporal punishment were more likely to coerce dating partners into having sex or engage in risky or masochistic sex.
These children were more likely to become aggressive, delinquent and engage in at-risk behaviors, perhaps because they associate fear and pain with loving relationships, researcher Elizabeth Gershoff suggested in that same article.
Straus presented data last year that children who were physically punished have lower IQs than their counterparts. It may be that children with lower IQs were more likely to get spanked, but the punishment may have been counterproductive to their cognitive development, as well.
When talking about spanking, the frequency and severity matters. There’s a big difference between an occasional swat on the rear of a toddler who runs into a busy parking lot and a serious beating.
Some researchers make the argument that the occasional open-handed smacks on the bottom are not only harmless but they can have some benefit.
A Newsweek blog generated an outcry last year when it posted the findings of Dr. Marjorie Gunnoe, a developmental psychologist at Calvin College, affiliated with the Christian Reformed Church, who studied teens who have never been spanked. There are a greater number of children growing up without ever having been spanked, and Gunnoe’s research suggests they don’t turn out any better than those who were occasionally spanked.
In fact, her survey of teens found that those who had been spanked just when they were young — ages 2 to 6 — had slightly better outcomes as teenagers than those who had never been spanked. Author Po Bronson suggested that Gunnoe’s study may have simply found that consistent discipline is better than no discipline.
Most “studies” on spanking will have inherent weaknesses due to the lack of ability to control outside factors, which can influence outcomes. Although nothing has been “proved” causally with spanking, parents still struggle to figure out the most effective ways to discipline their children.
Some form of spanking will probably always be with us. There are those who find religious justification (sparing the rod, spoiling the child) for corporal punishment. There is also the “I turned out fine” rationalization.
And, there are some parents who simply cannot control their tempers.
But I still believe that the best parents are the ones who are able to offer consistent, fair and firm discipline without ever resorting to physical punishment. Yes, these parents are a rare breed.
But the issue of spanking raises the question of what type of respect do we want from our children? Fear-based? Because that’s what the threat of violence gets you. Or do we want to be respected because we have the wisdom to set the boundaries children so desperately need and the self-control to enforce them fairly, calmly and justly?
We don’t need a jumble of statistics to answer that question.
Aisha Sultan is a columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.