Parents Who Spank Are Likely to Do So for Minor Infractions, Study Suggests

Family Matters on 07.04.11
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George Holden, a professor of psychology at Southern Methodist University, set out to research the communications practices between parents and young children: specifically, the causes and effects of parents yelling at kids.  But as Time magazine reports, the recordings opened an unexpected and previously unseen window into the circumstances surrounding not just yelling at children, but actually spanking and slapping them.

The study subjects agreed to leave audiotape recorders running in their homes in the hours just before bedtime, when the nerves of parents and children are typically at their most frayed.  After reviewing just a small percentage of the hours of tape, Holden discovered more than just data pertaining to what leads to raised voices.  At least 40% of the parents recorded, as it turned out, also used corporal punishment on their children, and quite injudiciously, Holden says.

In one episode, a mom spanked her toddler for turning the page of a book she was reading to him before she was ready; in another, the mom spanked her 3-year-old boy 11 times for fighting with his sister, reducing the child to sobbing and coughing.

Holden is an unabashed critic of spanking, and, like most childhood development experts, feels there is always a better way to prevent negative behaviors in children.  The preliminary implications of the data that has been coded so far is in agreement with most previous research: spanking is effective in the very short term, but its effectiveness beyond those first few minutes when the child still feels the sting of the punishment is much more difficult to quantify.  What has been quantified, however, are links to heightened aggression and even depression in children who are spanked regularly.

Even experts who defend spanking as potentially effective, like psychologist Robert Lazerle of Oklahoma State University, speaking here in an ABC news story, warns that it should be used as a last ditch tactic, a “backup” to milder methods.  Lazarle says that, while “conditional spanking,” one or two quick swats on the bottom is more effective to toddlers than many other methods, but still no more effective than a time out in a confined, “boring” area.

What’s most significant about the recordings from Holden’s study is not any evidence of long-term damage to the children, but the mild infractions that merited corporal punishment in the eyes of these parents.  If a kid gets hit for messing with the book his mom is reading to him, what happens when that kid breaks a glass, or kicks the cat, or really endangers himself or others?

I was spanked maybe twice in my life, even though I was kind of a little punk.  But I don’t think more spankings would have benefited me.  That’s one of my many problems with the idea that spanking will keep your child in line, and one of the many reasons I will never spank my kids.  If threats, time-outs, revocation of privileges, or other punishments don’t work, why would a spanking do any better?  As a kid, unless I were experiencing intense and prolonged physical pain, I would have likely reacted to a spanking the same way I reacted to being sent to my room: “Eh—whatever.”  It seems to me that in order for corporal punishment to be effective long-term, it has to be unpleasant enough for a child to really dread it.  If your spankings are causing enough pain and fear to your kids that it’s always in the back of their mind and part of their decision-making process, how can it not have long-term psychological effects?  And if you are meting out this punishment casually, how can they not get the message that violence is the shortcut to solving any problem?

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