We try to learn from what we didn’t grasp, we try to teach what we didn’t know, and we give what we didn’t have. In the case of spanking, we’ve learned, without question, that there is absolutely no disciplinary benefit, yet somewhere in the realm of 80% parents continue to believe that, at least sometimes, spanking is warranted.
Research tells us, however, that not only is spanking not beneficial, it yields long term damage. With parents today, who choose organic tomatoes, cut up grapes, and spend months agonizing over preschool applications, there has to be an explanation why spanking hasn’t disappeared, the same way we phased out lead paint, or smoking in cars, as we realized just how dangerous these things were.
We’ve spent so long spanking our kids, that we don’t know what else to do. In other words, it’s easy. For example, if we woke up tomorrow to the news that, not only are refrigerators dangerous for our food, they're also the cause of all cancers, we’d have a hard time phasing them out.
There’s no doubt that discipline through intimidation and fear seems to work, at least in the short term. And the evidence shows that spanking does work, but only if that threat of violence is immediately present and, even then, only because you're threatening your children – who are dependent on you for their food, shelter and clothing – with physical violence.
Many parents, who buck against the idea of giving up spanking, give the rally-cry of, “but I was spanked as a child, and I’m fine!” Countries like Sweden, that have had a nation-wide ban on corporal punishment since 1979, put into practice the theory that parents were fine in spite of having been spanked and not because of it. Proving once and for all, that alternate discipline methods would, and could, work. There wasn’t a rash increase in juvenile delinquency, or in crime. Sweden’s rate of child abuse is half that of the United States. Half. They forced a change in the nation’s mentality, and it worked.
Spanking has become part-and-parcel of American discipline, and of parenting mentality. There are, literally, thousands of online support blogs, groups, and chat-rooms about how and when to implement spanking – when to use the belt, when to use the strop, when to use a paddle, how many licks, and if you should stop when the child cries. The question for parents who spank is, obviously, what to do, if not spanking?
The first step in making change is realizing that children are not learning what you are trying to teach them with spanking. According to Staffan Janson, a pediatrician and professor of public health in Sweden, looking back at Sweden’s first generation of un-smacked children, “Small children below the age of five or six lack the mental capacity to comprehend the reasons for spanking. Nor can they remember that reason from one time to another.” Expecting children to associate corporal punishment with larger examples for future behavior, then, is ridiculous.
Forced, by law, into other avenues of discipline, parents in countries that have *banned corporal punishment, have discovered just how impactful words can be. Kids like to hear that they're good, and some of the best experts out there have given the same sound advice, over and over again: catch them being good; use age-appropriate discipline; use calm, cool conversation.
The AAP has long-recommended time outs. According to this Time magazine article, “These quiet moments force children to calm down and think about their emotions, rather than acting out on them reflexively. After all, the goal of punishment is to get children to understand not just that they did something wrong but also what motivated them to do it.”
When you take away the crutch, you learn to walk.
(*Following Sweden, Finland and Norway banned corporal punishment in 1983 and 1987 then Australia in 1989. This chart shows how the world handles corporal punishment; it’s currently illegal in 43 countries.)
If you knew that you were doing something to your child that was damaging his brain, causing potential for future mental illness, drug abuse, and lowering his IQ, you’d stop, immediately. Yet, parents who spank, continue. These parents have a vague idea that spanking is maybe not good for their kids because they’ve heard something about it, but most of them were spanked, and they're pretty sure they're okay, so they go ahead.
This is likely because, many people see beating and spanking as two different things. Parents who spank imagine that, because they're hitting their child with an open palm (or maybe not), they're not one of those parents, doing that kind of damage. And this is where the lack of knowledge is doing harm.
A small, 2009 study published in the journal NeuroImage found that harsh spankings led to permanent brain damage (shrinkage of the gray matter), and mental health disorders such as addiction and depression. Additionally, it’s been shown that children who are spanked – at all – are more aggressive, and often have lower IQs than children who are not, factoring in all other controls.
Additionally, according to a University of California study, young children who are spanked had spikes in the stress hormone cortisol when exposed to new experiences, indicating that they're incapable of dealing with stress in general. We've also learned that, without question, spanking is linked to future aggressive behavior.
When your child’s time out doesn’t work, you make him sit a little longer. When you take away one toy and it doesn’t work, you take away another. If you spank his bottom softly and it doesn’t work, what’s next?
Elizabeth Gershoff, one of the authors of the decades-long study on spanking that has definitively proven no long-term benefits, said, “If spanking is not working, and spanking is all the parents are doing, then they’re going to escalate.”
And she’s not alone, in her worry. Staffan Janson, suggests that, without the ban on corporal punishment in Sweden, parents might be, “tempted to use harsher and harsher means, which in a stressful situation may turn into brutal child abuse.”
One of the problems with this escalation, aside from the fact that it happens, is language. Through language, Americans have attempted to de-escalate our concept of spanking by using cutesy terminology.
Thumb through advice questions on mom-blogs or a Facebook groups, where on any day of the week, a parents asks advice about how to discipline her child and see the standard responses: the child needs a good old-fashioned "pop," or a "swat." Occasionally, we’ll substitute “paddle,” but only if the kid is especially bad.
Underneath the folksy charm, these terms mean one thing: HIT. Until we can admit that what we're talking about here is hitting, we aren’t going to make much progress in changing minds about the spanking debate.
We’ve decided that even the word “spank,” seems too brutal to describe what we’re doing to our children, and so we’ve softened it. But try filling in the word “hit,” the next time you think about popping or swatting your child. Describe it to yourself, spell it out loud: I H-I-T my child. I took my baby, my helpless child that relies on me for everything, and I hit him. Don’t charm it up with colloquialism. Say the real word. Because when we charm it, when we soften it, we allow ourselves the potential to graduate into abuse, when that pop or swat doesn't work.
There's also a misconception that only "bad" parents abuse their children. This couldn’t be farther from the truth: spanking, beating, popping, or swatting our children is all the same. In a heartbreaking experiment that demonstrates just how easy it is to lose control, and just how often people hit their children without realizing it, Southern Methodist University conducted a study in which they eavesdropped on a group of 33 mothers with audio equipment for six nights.
Spankings were administered for shockingly small infractions: touching a storybook, sucking fingers. And they were given with little warning, at an average of 30 seconds after a child was told to stop a behavior. Parents who believe they are calm when they're implementing physical discipline would be shocked to know that these women all struck their children in anger, even hitting for hitting.
Interestingly, parents involved in this study believed themselves to be level-headed, and that they rarely spanked (some reporting spanking less than once per month). Yet, they obviously spank exponentially more, as much as nearly 1000 times per year.
So, while you imagine that you pop your baby for touching what he shouldn’t, or that you swat your child for sucking his thumb, imagine it differently. Imagine it as hitting. Imagine that there is no difference between the words: spank, hit, beat, swat, pop, paddle. They're all the same to the little person on the receiving end.
Imagine, next time, that you aren’t as calm as you perceive yourself to be. Imagine that someone is watching you. But instead of imagining that it’s a scientist – proving that you aren’t calm, proving that you are angry, proving that you are hitting – imagine that it’s who person matters the most: your child.
According to recent studies, anywhere from 70-90% of parents still spank their children. Worse still, that rate rises if children have mental or physical health issues. But, our attitudes toward spanking are shifting, particularly regionally, indicating that these attitudes are deeply rooted in culture. Parents in the south, and west, for example, are more likely to spank their children compared to parents in the Midwest. Additionally, parents of some religious backgrounds are more likely to spank than others, citing scripture that claims hitting is divinely sanctioned by the Bible.
But it’s time to take this part of our culture and put it to rest. We have to stop excusing spanking with a sense of indignant pride, as if it’s okay to continue because it’s a tradition, because it's always been done. Though many of today's parents grew up getting spanked, we're are a nation of evolutionary change, and it’s time to do better by our children.
Now that we know better, we must do better.