Stop Spanking

I still remember when one of my aunts, furious at her son’s defiant and impolite behavior, ran into the bathroom to grab a hairbrush so she could spank him with it.

I was downstairs playing. I cowered behind the couch in the living room, trying to make myself as small as possible, trying to disappear.

She went back upstairs with the hairbrush. I didn’t see her spank my cousin but I heard him shrieking.

I’m not sure how old I was, maybe four? My parents did not hit me when I was a child and I felt confused and frightened by my aunt’s rage.

Before I had children, hitting a child seemed like a cruel, cowardly, and pathetic thing to do. I’d been babysitting my whole life and I never even considered hitting a child as an option.

In graduate school I would listen to Dr. Laura as I drove North on Buford Highway in Atlanta to the center where I taught English to Korean immigrants. I knew she was wrong when she would say a swat on the tush or a smack on the hand to teach a child a lesson was okay.

Then I had children of my own.

No one–not even the bully who taunted you so badly in fourth grade that you shoved him down the stairs–can push your buttons like your own offspring. The worst, for me, was when my oldest was two. One afternoon I found her upstairs jumping in her crib instead of napping. She and her friend who I was watching for the afternoon had sneaked a bag of Pirate Booty (a crunchy pseudo healthy snack food) upstairs and strewn it like confetti around the room. I was caring for a fussy new baby, my husband left for work before dawn and came home when the girls were already in bed. My firstborn had turned from an easy baby into a defiant, willful, and stubborn toddler and we had many long hours in front of us before bedtime. I recognized that I was at a breaking point. I scolded them sternly but decided to clean the Pirate Booty up later and take the kids out for a walk. I put the baby on my back and put the two older kids in the red wagon.

In the middle of the street, with a car coming, my daughter jumped out of the wagon.

It wasn’t even then. It was after Jess came to pick up her son and my daughter continued to misbehave that, in a rage that had been simmering all afternoon, I smacked her on the tush. Her eyes rounded with surprise. She started to cry. I cried harder than she did. I felt terrible. I didn’t believe in hitting children and–too immature to deal with my emotions in an appropriate way and to discipline my daughter with love and firmness–I hit her.

There’s an article published in today’s about a new study by an assistant professor at Tulane University, Catherine A. Taylor, about the negative consequences of spanking.

The study collected data from 2,481 mothers at their child’s birth, and then again at age 1, age 3 and age 5.

The study concluded that three-year-olds who were spanked more than a few times a month were 50 percent more likely to be aggressive at age five.

This makes a lot of sense to me. If you spank your child, you are modeling aggressive behavior, physically hurting them, using your superior force against them, and showing them that the most aggressive person wins. But according to the study, a majority of Americans, especially in the southern United States, condone corporeal punishment for children.

Many of the comments at reflect the bias in favor of spanking. One I found particularly disturbing is by Luiz. He writes:

Every time there is abusive behavior, the children must suffer some kind of physical punishment that reinforces automatic reaction and the creation of the right brain synapses. A physical stimulus is necessary for that! This does not mean applying heavy, brutal spanking or beating that leave bruises or worse. This means that to love is to apply a smaller punishment that burns enough to be remembered but is much smaller than the one given the real world (in a kind of “vaccine”). Yelling or offending is REALLY a MUCH WORSE punishment than spanking, and many times is remembered forever, while a spanking is usually forgotten in hours!

I think Luiz is wrong. And I’m saddened that so many parents wrote in to say things like, “we were spanked as kids and we spank our kids and it’s fine.”

This new study adds to a growing body of evidence that it’s not okay to hit your children.

I honestly understand the urge to spank in a way that I never did before I had children. But I still think it’s wrong and potentially very damaging. It’s hard for me to understand how people can defend physically hurting a child or think that it does not have long lasting negative consequences on a child’s self-esteem.

It’s been over 30 years but I still remember the fear I felt watching my aunt take that hairbrush upstairs to spank my cousin.

Click here for Tulane University’s press release about the study and here for a PDF of a Power Point presentation by the study’s main author.

What do you think? Is Luiz right and you need to punish your children’s bad behavior by inflicting a small amount of physical pain? Is it ever okay to spank your kids? Are you concerned about your children growing up to be overly aggressive? What are some effective ways you use to discipline your children? Join the discussion in the comment section below.

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on Monday, April 12th, 2010 at 10:05 pm and is filed under American prejudices.
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