Is there such a thing as “smart” spanking?

The latest research into using corporal punishment on kids

John Hoffman 0

I’ve covered all aspects of the spanking debate — legal, ethical and practical. But one idea I’ve never bought for a minute is that spanking is a discipline “tool,” a reasoned, measured way of teaching children a lesson when nothing else will do. Now a study proves I’m right.

Researchers at Southern Methodist University, in Dallas, recorded mother-preschooler interactions (only one dad in this study) in their homes. The purpose was to study parental yelling, but the researchers became more interested in the slaps and whacks they heard on the recordings. About one-third of the parents analyzed so far (data crunching is still in progress) hit, slapped or spanked their children over the course of the six evenings. In most cases, it was just once, although one family rang up 11 different incidents.

That parents were caught hitting kids is not surprising. We already know that many adults believe the occasional spank, slap or swat has its place in child discipline. There are even some parents who don’t believe in it, yet still hit their kids the odd time. What’s compelling about this study is that it shed light on the messy truth of why and how parents swat their kids.

For one thing, the misbehaviours were almost all petty: kids fighting, disruptive play and minor disobedience. One child turned the page in a picture book before the parent had finished reading it; another did not clean up his room. Not even prominent spanking apologists such as James Dobson, founder of the Christian non-profit organization Focus on the Family, or Robert Larzelere of Oklahoma State University would condone premature page-turning as an appropriate use of disciplinary spanking. And most of the hitting was impulsive — a frustrated parent’s angry, unmeditated response to the child’s offending action, as opposed to anything that could possibly be construed as an attempt to teach the child something.

So much for the notion that spanking is a method of parental guidance. Oh, I don’t doubt we could find cases of calm this hurts me more than it hurts you spankings if we searched hard enough. But, essentially, people hit kids for the same reasons they yell at them — they are upset and they can’t come up with anything else to do in the immediate aftermath of the child’s action or words.

This study will not end all debate about spanking. There is still the question about whether or not dropping Section 43 of Canada’s Criminal Code, which allows “reasonable” hitting of children (aged two to 12) for corrective purposes, will criminalize hundreds of good parents who lose their tempers sometimes, as some have suggested. (It won’t.) And I suppose some people will keep debating whether or not corporal punishment causes long-term harm. But even if someone could prove that the odd swat is harmless, why would anyone want to hit children if they didn’t have to? The thousands of morally sound, capable and impressive unspanked young people around these days are all the proof I need that you don’t have to spank kids to raise ’em right.

But the myth that spanking is a discipline method has been busted. So spare me any more talk of “smart” spanking. It smarts all right. But most of the time when parents do it, they’re not being particularly smart. We know because researchers caught it on tape.

John Hoffman, a father of three in Peterborough, Ont., once travelled to Sweden to learn about that nation’s ban on corporal punishment.

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