Parents debate whether to spank
Some parents wonder whether they are doing the right thing by not spanking their children.
By KATE SHATZKIN
Frank Hudson says he doesn't spank his 3-year-old son. But sometimes he wonders whether he's doing the right thing.
When he was growing up in West Baltimore, parents didn't hesitate to swat the bottoms of children who did wrong. Neither did the neighbors.
"What I'm trying to say is, we weren't as cruel and mean and talking-back as these children are today, and they don't get whipped at all," Hudson, a 40-year-old contractor, said during a "Positive Parenting" class at the nonprofit Family Tree in Baltimore.
Across the table, Family Tree staffer Krystal Nunn replies she, too, was a product of spanking. But it didn't improve her behavior.
"Spanking me didn't lead me not to run my mouth," she said. "All it taught me was to prepare for the next spanking."
Experts: Don't spank
To spank or not to spank? Child-development experts have been recommending against it for decades. But though the numbers have been going down, polls show that many parents still believe physical punishment of children is appropriate.
Fewer than half the respondents to an American Demographics survey earlier this year said spanking was acceptable punishment. In the past, various studies have found up to 90 percent of parents spanked their children at least occasionally.
But 70 percent of respondents to the American Demographics survey said that children's behavior today is worse than it was a decade ago, and that permissive parents are partly to blame.
On one side of the debate are well known child specialists such as Dr. T. Berry Brazelton who say spanking is never the right way to discipline. The American Academy of Pediatrics advises its members to reduce bad behavior by giving children timeouts or taking away privileges. "Corporal punishment is of limited effectiveness and has potentially deleterious side effects," reads its policy, set in 1998.
The latest study on the effects of spanking, released in September by the University of Michigan School of Social Work, found that even "minimal amounts" of spanking led to more antisocial behavior in children.
At the other extreme is James Dobson, a former assistant professor of pediatrics who now runs the conservative Christian organization Focus on the Family. In "The New Strong-Willed Child" (Tyndale, $24.99), a 2004 update of a parenting book first published a quarter-century ago, Dobson writes that slapping of the fingers and later spanking can be necessary, particularly to deter dangerous behavior.
"In those situations when the child fully understands what he is being asked to do or not to do but refuses to yield to adult leadership, an appropriate spanking is the shortest and most effective route to an attitude adjustment," he writes.
Dr. Larry Wissow, a child psychiatrist and professor at Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health, likens the corporal punishment debate to the political divide over "red" and "blue" states. It's further complicated, he said, by the inconsistency of data over the years.
"This is behavior that occurs in private and can't be measured with a laboratory test," Wissow said. "It's very hard to study. Your interpretation of the data is still going to be driven a lot by your moral convictions about the behavior itself."
In the middle are parents -- many in two-income families, many raising kids on their own, many trying to teach children to navigate a perilous world -- whose everyday conduct falls somewhere between the extremes.
Louise Gifford of Hanover, Md., has struggled with the issue for years. As a single parent in her 20s, she spanked her oldest daughter frequently. Timeouts didn't work -- but neither, in the end, did spanking. Now that she's 39 and remarried, Gifford says she employs different strategies with her younger children, ages 2, 5 and 6, although she occasionally spanks the older ones. "We're really still searching for better methods," she said.
Hudson says that because of his own childhood memories of spanking, he doesn't spank his son. Instead, the boy sits in a "discipline chair" after he has misbehaved.
David Hendricks, who shares custody of his 4-year-old son and attended the Family Tree class, said he had spanked the boy once, after he spat at another child.
"I put two socks on my hands and spanked him on his bottom, and I called his mother and said why I did it," he said. "That was the first and only time." If the boy appears about to seriously misbehave, Hendricks said, "I just look at him or change my voice tone. He knows the consequences."
Since going to the parenting class, Tori Leak said she had stopped spanking her son, now 13, even though he's a "handful." It's a reversal from what she used to believe, and from her upbringing in North Carolina.
Now, Leak says, she focuses on listening to her son. "I have to give him some leeway and see where he's coming from," she said. "I can't raise him the way my mother raised me 30 years ago."
As a pediatrician, Dr. Alice Tsai recommends against spanking. But she suspects that many parents who visit the St. Agnes Hospital clinic where she practices do it anyway.
As the parent of two young children, she can understand the impulse, although she does not believe in ever giving in to it. "There certainly are times when you really feel frustrated with your kids," Tsai said.
Jerry Wyckoff, a family psychologist and author of "Getting Your Child From No to Yes: Without Nagging, Bribing or Threatening" (Simon & amp; Schuster, $10), said the hectic pace of life keeps spanking alive. "We've sort of lost touch with strategies," he said. "People are frustrated, they don't have a lot of time, and they want results now."
Robert Fathman, president of the anti-spanking Center for Effective Discipline in Ohio, said despite the divisions, spanking is slowly becoming more socially unacceptable.