Disciplining children is the most delicate of parenting matters. Most experts say spanking is wrong. So why are so many parents still doing it?
Among Southerners, 62 percent of parents spank, compared to 41 percent in the rest of the country.
– ABC News poll, 2003
Spend an hour in any mall or grocery store in America and you’re sure to see it: the breath-holding, red-faced and quick-tempered child testing his parent’s last ounce of patience. You watch the parent’s response with curiosity. Will the child be spanked? Scolded? Given a “just wait till we get home” look fierce enough to put goose bumps on the skin of every wide-eyed child passing by? Just how are today’s parents disciplining their children?
The question is sparking a heated debate, as the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has recently released its strong and much publicized stand against spanking. According to the AAP, spanking “is harmful emotionally to both parent and child, teaches children that violence is an acceptable way to discipline or express anger, interferes with the development of trust and security and causes emotional pain and resentment.” The Academy suggests that, while stopping behavior temporarily, spanking does not teach alternative behavior.
“Parents who tell me they spank are in the minority,” says Tad Yoneyama, M.D., a pediatrician at Grassland Family Care Center in Franklin. Yoneyama discusses discipline with parents and agrees with the AAP concerning spanking. Before AAP released its current views, the belief was to never spank out of anger or to hurt a child, he says. “Spanking was just intended to send a message.”
Brian Gannon, M.D., a pediatrician at Centennial Pediatrics in Murfreesboro, says spanking is a much more common practice among his patients, and that two-thirds of parents admit to spanking. “It’s an exception rather than a rule when I have a parent who says they don’t consider it,” he says. “I look at spanking from a practical point of view. I want to know what parents are really doing. If we come out too strongly against it, parents will lie to us. I tell parents, ‘I understand that many parents spank. If you choose to, here are some guidelines.’ If we don’t, parents will just stop listening.”
A Tennessee Survey
A survey of AAP fellows found that 53 percent are generally opposed to the use of corporal punishment by parents, although they believe an occasional spanking under certain circumstances can be an effective form of discipline. Thirty-one percent are completely opposed under any circumstances, while 14 percent say they support, in principle, the limited use of corporal punishment by parents. An informal survey of Middle Tennessee parents done by this magazine revealed that the majority support some level of spanking, with religion and family values named most frequently as deciding factors in establishing their views.
“In my mind, there’s no question that spanking is the most effective deterrent,” says Shannon, (who declined to use her last name) a mother of four in Hendersonville. “Children I know who were consistently and lovingly disciplined by spanking display better behavior, have more thoughtful actions and a greater respect for others.”
Judy (who also asked that her last name not be used), a mother and grandmother in Murfreesboro, was not spanked as a child, nor did she spank her own children. “I feel strongly about teaching respect and rewarding good behavior, and along with that comes trust,” says the school teacher.
Of the parents who support spanking in principle, half spank infrequently, less than once a month. Parents admit that spankings were more common when their children were younger than 5 years old.
Seventy percent of parents who take the “spare the rod, spoil the child” approach to discipline were themselves spanked as children, and not one admitted that expert opinions affect the way they discipline their children. Only 20 percent said they found it difficult to be honest with friends or other parents about their spanking habits, and 70 percent of parents who have spanked told themselves before having children that they would not spank unless absolutely necessary.
What Consitutes a Spanking?
Confusion surrounding the practice stems partly from the difference in opinion concerning what constitutes a spanking. The AAP refers to spanking as “striking a child with an open hand on the buttocks or extremities with the intention of modifying behavior without causing physical injury.” While 70 percent of Middle Tennessee parents surveyed consider a single swat on a child’s hand or leg a spanking, others, including Yoneyama, do not. Fifty percent consider the old-fashion “whoopings” reportedly received by parents and grandparents to have been too harsh.
But a lot has changed since the harrowing days of woodshed switchings. “Today’s degree of spanking is much less severe than even 20 or 30 years ago,” says Yoneyama.
Gannon agrees. “Time-outs weren’t even considered an option 50 years ago,” he says. “Spanking was the norm.” Gannon also believes that parents who do spank are reserving it for much more serious offenses.
Yoneyama credits the change to a surge in children’s rights issues. “In the past, children weren’t given much respect,” he says. He believes that the development of government agencies such as the Department of Children’s Services (DCS) has changed the way children are viewed. “They have more autonomy now, more rights and privileges,” he says. “There is a line. If parents cross it, they know that DCS has the power to remove their child or press charges.”
The prominent and much publicized role of DCS has created a whirlwind of fear and misconception. Half of the parents who spank admit to being fearful of spanking in public. Many people talked to for this article refused to provide even a first name, for fear of being “found out” or having their children taken away. “It’s an emotional subject,” says Gannon. “Society goes too far one way or the other making it hard to get accurate information.”
“I believe it’s like so many other media-driven hot topics,” says Shannon, the mom in Hendersonville. “It’s a knee-jerk reaction to the problem of child abuse.”
DCS, whose purpose is to receive and screen reports alleging child abuse or neglect and to protect the safety of children, is responsible for establishing that line between discipline and abuse. According to DCS, physical abuse is defined as “non-accidental physical trauma or injury inflicted by a parent or caregiver, and should not be confused with developmentally appropriate, discipline-related marks and bruises on the buttocks or legs of children over 5 when there is not past history of abuse or recent screened-out reports.” Physical abuse is considered a possibility when a child is allegedly struck on parts of the body in a way that could result in internal injuries. Pediatricians have an obligation to report any unusual scarring or bruising to DCS, says Yoneyama.
Yoneyama emphasizes to parents the importance of instilling discipline in their children, and stresses that consistency is key. Make discipline issues black and white, i.e., if something is wrong today, it should be wrong tomorrow. If parents make discipline situational, children may not be able to comprehend each individual situation, he says.
Yoneyama advises parents to use redirection for behavior modification, particularly if the child is younger than 2. From ages 2 to 5, he recommends time outs, noting the appropriate time limit is one minute for each year of age. For grade-school age children, he suggests removing privileges and assigning extra chores.
While Gannon is not opposed to spanking in all circumstances, he believes it should be used for limited behavior issues. He does not recommend spanking children for violent behavior such as hitting or biting, or developmental issues like toilet training.
Gannon says that an effective spanking should consist of ample warning, be administered by a parent under control and should not leave marks or bruises. Spanking should be over the pants, and not done with an intention to hurt. “The goal of spanking is that you threaten, do it once or twice and never have to do it again,” he says. “It’s not the amount that’s important, but that you carried through.”
Easily angered or violent children best learn control through time-outs that don’t begin until the child is calm and quiet. “Sometimes you have to physically hold them in your lap, facing outward, your arms around theirs,” he says. “That lets them know they’re loved but that they can learn to control themselves. Spanking doesn’t do that.”
The AAP recommends providing positive reinforcement for good behavior. Like Yoneyama and Gannon, they stress the importance of setting firm, consistent limits, and reprimanding a child immediately for misbehaving.
Spanking is, to say the least, a heated issue.
Ask any parent in Middle Tennessee how they discipline their child, and you’ll get any of a number of passionate responses. And in a time where opinions are as numerous as cereal aisles with crying toddlers, a parent’s responsibility to discipline their child is as needful as ever.
Melanie Hill is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to this publication. She resides in Nashville.