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Supporting responsible spanking


IN AN unprovoked outburst of common sense, officials in Oakland, Calif., recently rejected a proposal to make their city the first "No Spanking Zone" in the United States.

The proposal, which was promoted by a 65-year-old Oakland resident named Jordan Riak, would have made it a nonpunishable offense (naturally) for parents to spank their children anywhere in the city. And the proposal would have called for anti-spanking messages directed at parents to be posted in public places like the children's section of city libraries.

But Oakland officials, still reeling from the embarrassment of a short-lived 1996 experiment in teaching black English (Ebonics), decided to send the anti-spanking proposal to the corner for some "time out."

In so doing, they resisted an emotional Bible-waving appeal by city councilman Nate Miley, who argued that spanking frequently leads to violence.

Mr. Miley's position is also at odds with a growing body of academic research that challenges the idea that disciplinary spanking is harmful to a child's health.

For example, a 1994 study at Iowa State University found no association between disciplinary spanking and later aggression or juvenile delinquency. A 1997 study by Marjorie Linder Gunnoe of Calvin College and Carrie Mariner of Child Trends found that "for most children, claims that spanking teaches aggression seem unfounded." And a 1996 research review by Drs. Stanford Friedman and Kenneth Schonberg of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine concluded, "Given a relatively 'healthy' family life in a supportive environment, spanking in and of itself is not detrimental to a child or predictive of later problems."

Beneficial effects

In fact, when researchers successfully distinguish between responsible forms of physical discipline (spanking) and egregious forms of corporal punishment (abuse), John Lyons of the Northwestern University Medical School says that the best studies actually demonstrate beneficial, not detrimental, effects of spanking.

For example, in a decade-long study of families with young children published in 1996, Diana Baumrind of the University of California-Berkeley found that parents employing a balanced disciplinary style of positive reinforcement and firm control (including spanking) experienced better results than those employing highly authoritarian or highly permissive disciplinary approaches.

New research

And in a fascinating new study just published in the academic journal, American Sociological Review, Brad Wilcox of Princeton University found that parents with orthodox religious beliefs are "characterized both by strict discipline and an unusually warm and expressive style of parent-child interaction." According to Mr. Wilcox, these parents employ a "neotraditional parenting style that spares neither the rod nor the hug."

Now, it is important to point out that no one is suggesting that parents should be quick to employ spanking. Or that corporal punishment is warranted in every situation requiring discipline.

"Spanking should be used mainly as a backup to correct deliberate and persistent problem behavior that is not remedied with milder measures," advises Den Trumbull, a pediatrician who served on a special task force of the American Association of Pediatrics, which reviewed spanking research.

"It is most effective with toddlers and preschoolers [when reasoning is less effective] and should not be administered impulsively or when a parent is out of control."

Ironically, one of the groups least apt to question the benefits of spanking are children whose parents have employed spanking responsibly. According to a 1996 survey of 1,000 Americans conducted by the Voter/Consumer Research firm, more than four out of five people who were spanked as children report that it was an "effective" form of discipline.

This is not to say that parents who "dare to discipline" responsibly should expect to receive effusive expressions of thanks someday (like those that were eventually heaped on "Sam I Am" in the Dr. Suess classic, "Green Eggs and Ham"). But it is to say that there is such a thing as responsible spanking. And proposals to outlaw this form of discipline, however well intentioned, are apt to be as counter-productive as teaching Ebonics.

William R. Mattox Jr. writes frequently on new research findings. His e-mail address: bmattox@earthlink.net. He wrote this essay for Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

Pub Date: 2/08/99

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