THE QUESTION of whether to spank divides American parents as few issues do. A recent report on discipline by the American Academy of Pediatrics -- which strongly discourages spanking -- is unlikely to settle the matter, considering that most parents still spank their children. Even many who eschew the practice are reluctant to condemn those who administer a mild swat now and then.
Nonetheless, the AAP report, supported with documentation from 32 other studies, ought to make parents think twice about how spanking is used.
The AAP concludes that, if spanking is employed at all, it should be in "selective, infrequent situations" involving children between ages 2 and 6, and consist of one or two controlled, flat-handed taps on the buttocks or hand. Some parents do restrict themselves to this innocuous formula.
However, defenders of spanking often are talking about something quite different. Studies cited by the AAP show that:
Parents typically do not spank in a calm, planned manner, but when they have succumbed to anger, stress or fatigue, in short, when they have "lost it."
Spanking is not used infrequently. One sociologist found that two-thirds of mothers of children under 6 spank them at least three times a week. And a study of two-parent, middle-class families found that corporal punishment occurred weekly in a quarter of the families surveyed.
Abusive spanking is neither rare nor confined to lower socioeconomic classes. Parents who spank are likely to resort to more severe forms of corporal punishment, as well as verbal abuse. This corresponds with research that while spanking immediately discourages undesirable behavior, its effectiveness decreases with use. Parents who rely on it tend to increase the intensity rather than change tactics. The aforementioned survey of middle-class families found that parents who regularly hit their children often did so with an object, sometimes causing "considerable pain" or "lasting marks."
Spanking is not restricted to small children. More than half of 13- and 14-year-olds are still being hit an average of eight times a year, one study showed.
No reasonable opponent of corporal punishment would suggest that a parent who slaps a child on the hand when he reaches for the stove is guilty of abuse. But the evidence is fairly solid that Americans hit their children too often, too hard.
Pub Date: 5/13/98