Bum rap: Antispanking activists need to take a time-out and let parents use their instincts

Okey Chigbo
The Next City
June 21, 1998


WHENEVER I READ SOMETHING ON THE SPANKING CONTROVERSY, I remember an incident a few years ago in a downtown day care. It happened at about 6:05 p.m., five minutes past the deadline for parents to depart with their offspring. The staff was itching to leave, and an occasional dirty look aimed at a tardy parent darted through the mask of cordiality stretched across their faces. I was hurriedly helping my son put on his socks, shoes, and coat, when I heard a commotion behind me. I turned; it was another late parent walking toward us carrying a boy of about four, her arms locked firmly around his middle. He was kicking and yelling at the top of his lungs, “No! No! Put me down!” She was talking to him in the very best contemporary parenting book manner: very calmly, very firmly, not raising her voice. “It’s time to go now,” she said. “I’ve given you 20 minutes to play with the day-care toys. That’s enough. Daddy’s got dinner ready, and he’s waiting for us at home.”

She put him down by the kiddie coat rack, and knelt beside him. He seized this brief moment of freedom to unleash a barrage of blows to her head and chest. “Let me go!” he yelled as he connected with her chin. She looked around in embarrassment. I averted my eyes. “That hurt,” she said evenly, taking down his coat, “That really hurt. I don’t like that.” She grappled with him in a fruitless effort to force him into his coat; he wriggled out easily, shoving her face as far away from him as possible. The struggle continued for minutes, then reached a stalemate. The day-care staff, looking on with increasing disgust and fatigue, offered such helpful comments as, “Come on Tyler. It’s time to go home now.”

As I left with my son, I reflected upon the spirit of the age that has blessed us with such incidents. Perhaps some non-aversive method of discipline would have made that terrible child comply with his mother’s request quickly, but I cannot think of it. I am convinced that the most effective solution in that particular instance would have been a sharp, compliance-inducing swat on the bottom.

But what parent does that today when people are watching? The antispanking movement of the last 15 years has done a brilliant job propagating the view that spanking is just another form of child abuse. Today, normal parents are not just frightened of appearing abusive; they also fear that an occasional swat to the behind can turn their little darling into a dangerously aggressive adolescent and an incorrigibly criminal adult, as the “scientific evidence” says. In fact, the antispanking movement, and its agents in the mainstream media, has used this weak, and in some cases simply non-existent, evidence to beat parents into submission. Antispanking advocates have given us nothing more than a smattering of half-truths along with heavy smacks of propaganda.

Before I continue, let me state categorically that I reject spanking as a primary method of discipline. Let no one see this article as encouragement to parents to spank their children for every little thing. It goes without saying that I support all efforts to end the physical abuse of children, but I do not think that spanking, used rarely and judiciously, is abuse. Rather, it can be useful in some situations, with many kids.

But what is spanking? Antispankers define it as broadly as possible, not just to show that spanking causes harm, but to more easily place it on a continuum with child abuse. One antispanking article, for example, defined spanking as “any disciplinary hitting of kids that’s not injurious or currently considered abusive.” Note the emotive and misleading word hitting which can include punching, cuffing, boxing the ears, and slapping the face. But the meaning of the word spanking, which has remained relatively stable over the centuries, is quite different from these abusive behaviors. The English language’s most authoritative source, the Oxford English Dictionary, defines the verb to spank as “To slap or smack (a person, esp. a child) with the open hand.” Its earliest etymological entry, dated 1727, reads, “To spank, to slap with the open Hand.” Another citation from 1889 shows how it was done then (and continues to be done now): “My mother . . . lifted me cleverly [and] planted two spanks behind.” In 1996, the Canadian Paediatric Society (CPS) gave a similar definition of “disciplinary spanking”: “[It] is physically non-injurious, administered with an opened hand to the buttocks, and intended to modify behavior.” This is the definition agreed upon by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the one I use. I reject any broader definition as an insidious effort to demonize this age-old and harmless practice.

IN CANADA, THE ANTISPANKING MOVEMENT HAS EMBARKED ON what it hopes is a final offensive against spanking. Last year, an advocacy group called the Canadian Foundation for Children, Youth and the Law received $45,000 from the Federal Court Challenges Program to help it mount a Charter of Rights and Freedoms challenge to Section 43 of the Criminal Code, which allows parents to use “reasonable force” in correcting their children. The foundation spearheads the Canadian branch of a North America-wide movement of liberal child-care professionals, assorted experts, and sundry kind-hearted folk that seeks to abolish every form of physical punishment aimed at children. These people are not just concerned with clear child abuse; Canadian law, they say, should not permit parents even the open-handed, non-injurious smack to a defiant child’s bottom. They therefore want to repeal Section 43, not amend it. If the foundation wins, police could lay assault charges against parents who swat their four-year-old. Because the legal challenge is underway in the lower courts, the foundation’s lawyers are not talking to journalists. No one knows when the process will be completed.

Many people fear that a repeal of Section 43 could criminalize a vast number of otherwise law-abiding citizens. In a 1995 letter to the Canadian Medical Association Journal, Dr. Bruce Williams highlights the irony: “Those who oppose the use of punishment in raising children favor the use of punishment, in the form of criminal sanctions, to deal with those who use corporal punishment on their children.”

Of course, propagandists for the cause deny that parents who only spank will face any criminal charges after the repeal. “Minor breaches of the law are not prosecuted,” stated antispanking lawyer Corinne Robertshaw in 1997. Toronto Star columnist Michele Landsberg assumes, “No cop or children’s aid worker is ever going to report the parent who merely spanks a toddler’s bottom for darting into the road.” Really? Perhaps Robertshaw and Landsberg can explain why U.S. tourist David Peterson was charged with assault in 1994 and locked up in a London, Ontario, jail when some local do-gooder saw him spank his five-year-old daughter and reported him to the cops. Peterson was no abusive, ignorant, and drunken bully, viciously whacking his daughter indiscriminately: Described as “mild mannered” in newspaper and magazine accounts, Peterson has an MBA and is a specialist in production management. His wife, Paula, has an MA in early childhood education and was working on her doctorate at the time. Peterson had followed an established family procedure, spanking his child only after she had been given sufficient warning and had persisted in her behavior. The judge threw out the case, but if someone can be prosecuted while spanking is still legal, what will happen when it is actually illegal?

Writing in the Canadian Paediatric Society News Bulletin, Dr. Mervyn Fox, former chair of the CPS’s Psychosocial Paediatrics Committee, gives another reason to question Robertshaw and Landsberg’s assumptions: “I consult on behavioral paediatrics at a children’s mental health centre in a county whose Children’s Aid Society has a strong bias against any physical punishment. The society is widely regarded as punitive rather than rehabilitative, absolutist rather than allowing for individual variations. In consequence, parents are afraid to use any discipline for fear of prosecution.”

ANTISPANKERS ATTRIBUTE MUCH OF THE VIOLENCE IN NORTH AMERICAN SOCIETY — the urban violence among youth, the vandalism, the brutal rapes — directly to the physical punishment of children. According to the doyen of antispanking advocates, University of New Hampshire sociologist Professor Murray Straus, “Although physical punishment may produce conformity in the immediate situation, in the longer run, it tends to increase the probability of deviance, including delinquency in adolescence and violent crime inside and outside the family as an adult [sic].”

The North American media seems to agree with Straus’s conclusions and uncritically publishes every questionable claim. In August 1997, the journal Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine published yet another study led by Straus; the study “showed” that spanking children is “a significant predictor of ASB [antisocial behavior] two years later.” Every major newspaper reported it, with some running opinion pieces by self-appointed experts that said, basically, “children whose parents still swat them on the bottom will grow up to be violent monsters.”

Even without a PhD in sociology, the average person, using his common sense, should be suspicious of studies that claim spanking increases societal violence. The first question the skeptic asks: Was there more violence and crime in the ’50s and ’60s than there is now? The answer, of course, is no. “To be sure, there is at least three times as much violent crime today as there was 30 years ago,” writes Harvard’s James Q. Wilson, author of Crime and Human Nature and The Moral Sense. But if the theory that more spanking equals more societal violence is correct, the ’50s and ’60s should have been a hellish period of violent crime. Parents spanked more then. According to Straus himself, 99 per cent of American parents spanked or used some form of corporal punishment in 1950; today, everyone, including Straus, agrees that the use of corporal punishment and spanking has declined. Survey figures say that 70 to 90 per cent of parents now spank.

A careful look at U.S. crime statistics also refutes the idea that spanking equals more societal violence. Between 1985 and 1993, violent crime actually decreased by 20 per cent among males 25 or older, while it increased 65 per cent for males 18 to 24 and by 165 per cent for 14- to 17-year-old males. So those who grew up in a period of more spanking were, and are, less violent than younger people who have grown up in a period of declining approval and practice of spanking. This does not prove that a decrease in spanking makes societies more violent, but these statistics throw cold water on any notion that blames spanking for societal violence.

Some may say, “Well, that’s the U.S., they’re crazier down there; there may be other reasons — availability of guns for instance — that have skewed the statistics.” These doubters should consider Sweden, a historically nonviolent country and a favorite of antispanking advocates. The Swedish government outlawed spanking in 1979 and operated an extensive education program to wean parents away from corporal punishment. Since the ban, police reports of teen violence have soared sixfold, according to Statistics Sweden. “What is happening in Sweden is gang violence, mobbing as they call it over there,” says non-abusive spanking researcher Dr. Robert Larzelere, a director of research at the Youth Care Building in Boys Town, Nebraska, and a vocal critic of the blanket antispanking position. “Violence has dramatically increased over the last decade or more.”

Despite this evidence, antispanking advocates continue to link spanking and violence. At a 1996 corporal punishment conference, Straus cited anthropologist Ashley Montague who argued that “spanking the baby may be the psychological seed of war.” In 1978, Montague gathered eight anthropologists who had studied nonviolent primitive societies such as the Fore of New Guinea and the Aborigines of Australia. These anthropologists published their accounts of primitive child-rearing practices in the book Learning Non-Aggression, which showed that none of these nonviolent societies spanked their children.

But Laurie J. Bauman of the department of pediatrics, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, criticized Straus’s logic by pointing out that these “societal level studies cannot be used to show causality.” Other factors (rather than spanking) could have made these societies nonviolent, factors like overall social attitudes and values.

But let us ignore this academic position for a moment and see things again as a layperson. Modern Singapore provides an extreme example of a spanking society. In the home, Singaporean parents cane their children and strongly approve of physical discipline; in school, headmasters physically discipline unruly delinquents; and, of course, Singapore still whips adults in its criminal justice system. According to the logic of antispankers, Singapore should be the most violent society on earth, a Hobbesian world where life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Yet Singapore is one of the most nonviolent of industrialized societies and, in fact, surpasses Sweden in many measures of nonviolence. In Singapore, women walk the streets freely without fear of violent sexual assault. Children are well behaved and respectful; vandalism and juvenile delinquency are rare; and Singaporean schoolchildren perform remarkably well on international measures of academic achievement.

I am not saying Singapore’s authoritarian culture is good for Canada; we couldn’t adopt it anyway, given our different social structure, governance, attitudes, and history. But Singapore shows that the spanking-equals-societal-violence thesis does not even stand up to casual scrutiny. The issue is far more complex than the antispankers purport.

UP UNTIL 1980, MANY IF NOT MOST PEDIATRICIANS AND CHILD-CARE PROFESSIONALS endorsed spanking — including “progressive” child-rearing gurus like Dr. Benjamin Spock. But so tremendous an ideological change occurred in the intervening years that few Canadian child-care professionals today will publicly endorse moderate spanking. Part of this ideological change grew out of an increased public awareness of child abuse. But part of the change follows baby boomers’ rise to power. In The Lyric Generation, a masterful dissection of the boomer era, Quebec writer François Ricard writes that the boomer generation views the world as an immense open field to take apart and remake as they please “in their own image and for their own fulfilment, without hinderance and without compromise.” The boomers’ wish to create a perfect world, writes Ricard, is an “innocent desire, and therefore terrible. Before it, all the world can do is brace itself.”

In the pre-boomer era, the world had a different notion of childhood, continues Ricard. “Even though they were lovingly adored, children were still treated as imperfect beings, precious certainly, but incomplete, and by virtue of that fact, obliged to bend to the authority and strictures of adults. Thus it was that only 50 years ago, the strap and spanking were considered perfectly normal disciplinary measures both at home and at school.” But in the postwar years, society came to see childhood as more complete and perfect, a territory ruled by its own laws; adults now had to conform to the rules of childhood rather than the other way around.

Many child-care professionals from the baby boomer generation assumed they knew best how to raise other people’s children; their pronouncements on the very latest, enlightened child-rearing methods served only to undermine the confidence of parents, who then doubted that they knew how to raise decent, well-adjusted children. Instead of relying on intuition, tradition, and the accumulated wisdom of community and relatives, parents began flocking to parenting clinics and bookstores to buy mostly inane, idiotic, and impractical child-rearing books. (I know. I have read an unnecessarily large number of them.) These enlightened professionals brought us permissive parenting and its numerous blessings; the antispanking movement is their latest effort to make childhood yet more perfect, while removing the last vestiges of parental authority.

Within the child-development professions and among the researchers, however, a battle still rages over the meaning of corporal punishment and spanking research. On the one side are those who want all forms of corporal punishment, including spanking, banned because it is harmful and doesn’t work. Anthony M. Graziano, Jessica L. Hamblen, and Wendy A. Plante write in Pediatrics: “It is . . . reasonable to assume the position that corporal punishment in child rearing should be discouraged because it is morally objectionable and, in any event, is not even needed.” On the other side are those who do not necessarily support spanking, but they think that there is not enough evidence to demand a blanket ban, or to lecture parents on how to discipline their children. People like Boys Town’s Larzelere, or the venerable Diana Baumrind of Berkeley, who has researched child development for almost 50 years, argue that spanking is effective and not harmful to children between two and six if used sparingly to back up other non-aversive disciplinary measures.

THOSE ACADEMIC AND PROFESSIONAL EXPERTS WHO HAVE ACCEPTED THE antispanking paradigm (a significant number) write as if it is the only rational decision based on the scientific evidence. Their writings, however, reveal little evidence, much opinion, and a good deal of exaggeration and moralizing. But who says the acceptance of a new ideological view has to be a rational decision? “Individual scientists embrace a new paradigm for all sorts of reasons,” wrote the late philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. “Some of these reasons . . . lie outside the apparent sphere of science entirely. Others must depend upon idiosyncrasies of autobiography and personality.”

Personal idiosyncracies may explain the strange comments and claims in antispanking literature, scientific and otherwise. For instance, in a 1992 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, David Orentlicher pronounces, “Children are the only citizens who can be beaten with impunity, and this probably arises from the belief that children are the property of others rather than human beings who have rights.” I must have missed something; Orentlicher has to be writing about some Third World country instead of the United States. As far as I know, any teacher or parent who beats a child with impunity in any part of North America will face criminal charges if caught.

An electronic search of the medical and psychological literature for spanking or corporal punishment turns up several studies written or co-authored by Straus. When some antispanking advocates claim that the evidence against spanking is “overwhelming,” in many cases, they are referring to studies led by this tireless social researcher. Straus finds that (1) all the really violent societies in the world allow corporal punishment of children, (2) the greater the degree of approval of corporal punishment in a state, the higher the murder rate, (3) the more corporal punishment in schools, the higher the rate of violence among students, (4) the more corporal punishment in middle childhood or early adolescence, the greater the probability of crime and delinquent behavior, (5) corporal punishment is associated with poor interpersonal and managerial skills, depression, suicide, and alcohol abuse, (6) more corporal punishment means a lower likelihood of graduating from college, (7) corporal punishment increases the risk of becoming a generally angry person, and (8) the more corporal punishment a man experienced the more likely he is to beat his wife.

All this stuff must seem pretty compelling to true believers. But more thoughtful academics and laypeople will shake their heads and wonder. Straus’s studies, it seems, always confirm his hypotheses. However, it’s not the indefatigable researcher’s batting average of 1.000 that the skeptic finds amazing; it’s his ability to show connections between corporal punishment and virtually anything bad. At this rate, he may soon show that corporal punishment is associated with both world wars, and the Vietnam and the Persian Gulf wars.

Straus’s critics not only question his conclusions, they question his methodology. Donileen R. Loseke of Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York, writes in the journal Social Problems: “Straus’s text represents one type of sociology, an ‘academic’ sociology that mimics the methods of the natural sciences, a sociology where the scientist claims expert status and tells others how they should think about their lives.” Demie Kurz of the University of Pennsylvania writes in the same journal: “Efforts by social scientists to predict adult functioning based on childhood experiences have been disappointing. Some children in adverse circumstances appear to be relatively invulnerable and thrive, while other children in privileged circumstances falter. . . . Straus does not adequately explain how physical punishment received in childhood becomes translated across the life cycle into adult acts of violence.”

In the August 1994 issue of the Journal of Marriage and the Family, Ronald L. Simons, Christine Johnson, and Rand D. Conger of Iowa State University present evidence that challenges some of Straus’s and other antispanking researchers’ findings. Before relating their findings — based on a sample of 332 families to find out how harsh corporal punishment and parental involvement affected adolescents — Simons and his colleagues summarized the criticisms of the antispanking studies done by Straus and others: “Critics have noted that most of these studies suffer from serious methodological limitations that preclude firm conclusions. The difficulties most often cited relate to sampling, measurement, and failure to utilize control groups.” Their own study showed that the level of parental support and involvement with children, not corporal punishment, predicted negative outcomes. “Once the effect of parental involvement was removed, corporal punishment showed no detrimental impact on adolescent aggressiveness, delinquency, or psychological well-being.” Doesn’t this fit better with what we know about the real world? A world in which nearly all our parents spanked, and we didn’t all grow up to be rapists and murderers?

But what has to be considered the most powerful criticism of antispanking research — because it comes from the master himself — can be found in Straus’s latest study published in Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine. Perhaps to show what a great step forward he has taken in this new study, he writes, “Most [previous] studies have relied on correlational data, which cannot establish CP [corporal punishment] as a cause of behavioral or emotional problems for children. Even the few longitudinal studies have failed to control for a child’s aggression at the time, or have confounded spanking with other disciplinary practices. Thus controversy continues to exist, and there are strong grounds for caution about whether existing research supports the theory that CP causes ASB [antisocial behavior] by children.”

So, many of the studies antispankers cite actually show that spanking is correlated with antisocial behaviors, rather than show it to be causally related. Why is this a problem? Because correlation doesn’t tell us much about cause, as British psychologist Robin Dunbar shows in The Trouble with Science: Researchers at Israel’s Tel Aviv University once reported that people with thin moustaches are more likely to get ulcers than anyone else, yet you’d be a fool to cut off your thin moustache based on this evidence. It merely means that many people who have ulcers have thin moustaches (perhaps due to an uptight personality), and not that thin moustaches cause ulcers. “The central problem in science,” writes Dunbar, “is how to differentiate between real causal effects and the spurious ones that are due to confounding variables.”

To be fair to Straus, in many of his studies, he does warn that the data is correlational and therefore the conclusions cannot be taken as definitive. But the more evangelical of his followers haven’t heeded these words of caution; in movements that want to change the world, impatient followers often ignore the caveats of their more subtle leaders, as do reporters hungry for a sensational story.

To improve the evidence for causality, Straus embarked on the study that would later appear in Archives of Pediatrics and garner so much media attention. This longitudinal study, co-authored by David B. Sugarman, and Jean Giles-Sims, looked at a sample of 807 mothers (aged 14 to 21 when first interviewed and aged 21 to 28 when assessed for Straus’s data) of children six to nine years. Straus statistically controlled for variables — demographic characteristics, the children’s prior aggressive behavior, the children’s gender, and the level of emotional support in the family — that could muddy the results. Straus and his colleagues, of course, found that after controlling for all these effects, “CP remains a statistically significant predictor of ASB two years later.”

The criticisms have already come pouring in. “Straus’s study doesn’t demonstrate a causal relationship between spanking and aggressive behavior,” says Dr. Den Trumbull, a Montgomery, Alabama, pediatrician. “At best it demonstrates an association between abusive corporal punishment and aggression in children.” For many years Trumbull, a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics and a member of the AAP’s Section on Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, has been an incisive critic of the views of Straus and other antispankers. Trumbull criticizes Straus’s new study for excluding children aged two to six, the age at which spanking is most effective. “He had the data, but he didn’t publish the results. Instead, he chose children between six to nine years of age, a group, I believe, where spanking should be infrequently needed and used.”

Trumbull also argues that the children with whom Straus found his strongest association had been spanked three or more times in the previous week. “If you are spanking children three times a week at ages six to nine years, it is a marker for dysfunctional parenting. You are obviously having difficulty with the child, and the child may actually have other problems going on.”

Boys Town’s Larzelere also criticized Straus’s study. Although he acknowledges that it is better designed than other studies that tried to show detrimental outcomes for physical punishment, “the only thing Straus et al. . . . have proven is that spanking six- to nine-year-olds at the rate of 156 times a year has a small but detrimental effect.” Larzelere calculates this effect as a meagre 1.3 per cent increase in antisocial behavior. And furthermore, says Larzelere, because of the wording of the study’s questions, most of the children who were actually spanked from 1 to 25 times a year fell into Straus’s non-spanking and most improved group. This obviously skews the results in the direction Straus wants. “The parents were asked how many times in the past week they spanked their six- to nine-year-old child. I point out to Straus that the parents who were spanking occasionally, say once a year or even up to as many times as 25 times a year, are more likely to be in his no-spanking group since they were only asked, ‘how many times did you spank in the past week.'”

Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine published Larzelere’s critique in the March 1998 issue, which included two other critical letters; in one of them, Dr. Balamurali K. Ambati of the Beth Israel Medical Center in New York, Dr. Jayakrishna Ambati, and Dr. Ambati

M. Rao write: “This highly publicized article is riddled with methodological and statistical flaws that cast light more on the long-established biases of Dr. Straus and colleagues than on CP’s use in discipline. . . . Corporal punishment is a time-tested tool employed in the disciplinary armamentarium of many cultures. The erosion of traditional family values in the United States has paralleled efforts to impugn this practice, and [the U.S.] rises in social decay, while Eastern societies (where CP is common) continue to best the United States in both academic and social indicators of youth welfare. . . . The sweeping conclusion of Straus et al. that elimination of CP will reduce the level of violence in U.S. society is based on little more than statistical quicksand and methodological thin ice.”

The most powerful critique of Straus’s work comes from the study — by Dr. Marjorie Lindner Gunnoe of the Department of Psychology, Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Carrie Lea Mariner of Child Trends Inc., Washington — that directly follows his in the journal. Although every media outlet, with the notable exception of the New York Times, ignored it, both Trumbull and Larzelere think Gunnoe’s study is stronger and better designed, and Larzelere describes it as a top 10 “gold standard” study. Like Straus, Gunnoe sets out to test whether spanking causes aggression in children; like Straus, she controlled for confounding variables. But her sample size of 1,112 children is larger than Straus’s, the 4 to 11 age range is wider, and she examined the effects of spanking after a longer period than Straus — five years, as opposed to two.

Unlike Straus, Gunnoe does not assume the simplistic theoretical link between spanking and aggression, violence, and murder. She focuses, more realistically, on the family context. Like most child-development experts, she believes that harsh and abusive discipline can create violent and antisocial individuals, normal spanking may or may not, depending on the cultural context, child’s age, and the meaning the child ascribes to that spanking.

So if, for instance, a culture treats the strap and the cane as normal disciplinary measures that loving parents use to correct children, the child will accept them as such. If children understand and accept the authority of their parents, then spanking is unlikely to have negative outcomes. Children see spanking either as an expression of legitimate parental authority, or as a personal attack, and different outcomes result in either case. In my view, this theoretical formulation better explains the real world.

Gunnoe found that spanking deters fighting for all children aged four to seven years; she found no evidence that spanking boys younger than six or girls younger than eight fostered aggression. She also found a link between spanking outcome and race. She discovered that African-American children whose parents spank generally fight less. She theorizes that this may be because African-Americans regard spanking as necessary and good for the kind of environment they live in. African-Americans tend to regard “time-outs” — the nouveau method of discipline that puts a child in a corner or chair for a few minutes — with mild contempt as a “white thing.”

Gunnoe did find that spanking creates aggression in one subgroup — 8- to 11-year-old white boys in single mother families. Boys in such families, she argues, may tend to see themselves as more similar to adults, taking the place of the absent father. Consequently, some may see spanking as a personal attack. Furthermore, other research shows that single mothers tend to have difficulties maintaining normal parental authority over their sons, putting these boys at risk for antisocial behavior and delinquency.

Gunnoe’s finding about single mothers forms the core of her criticism of Straus’s study. She wonders why two similar studies should come up with such different results and attributes the difference to Straus’s choice of data. Straus did not account for “interactions between family structure,” she writes. “This is potentially consequential, given that the older children in [Straus’s study] are, owing to the sample design, a group of children born to young and disproportionately single mothers.”

So, the scientific evidence is weak for the claim that spanking leads to all kinds of very bad things for children and society. Anyone really interested in an overall view of what the best known U.S. experts actually say on the subject should read the August 1996 supplement to the journal Pediatrics. (Most of the primary North American research has been done in the U.S. In Canada, research tends to involve reviewing the empirical work of researchers in the U.S. and elsewhere.) It published papers presented at a conference on the consequences of corporal punishment called by the American Academy of Pediatrics and held at Elk Grove Village, Illinois, in February that year. The conference was held ostensibly to help the AAP reach a position on spanking, which it had been unable to do for six years. All the heavyweights in child-development research were there — 24 of them, including Straus himself — but they could not reach an agreement on the consequences of spanking, many of them rejecting the idea that normal disciplinary spanking is harmful. One of the 13 consensus statements they made states, “Data relative to the long-term consequences of spanking of preschool children are inconclusive.”

Dr. Larzelere’s thoroughly rigorous review of what he considers quality studies on spanking is particularly worth reading. Of the 35 studies that met his stringent inclusion standards, 9 (26 per cent) found beneficial outcomes, 14 (40 per cent) neutral outcomes, and 12 (34 per cent) found predominantly detrimental outcomes. After finding that 66 per cent of the reliable studies see no harm in spanking, Larzelere declared in his personal conference statement that “antispanking rhetoric far exceeds its empirical support.”

Yet antispanking advocates continue to sign up supporters for their cause. In April this year, the AAP’s Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health, claiming to be guided by information from the conference, came out with a document that took a strong antispanking stance. This despite the lack of consensus among the 24 experts invited, and despite the fact that the experts agreed that conclusions couldn’t be drawn without more research. Why would they now take such a strong stance when nothing new and definitive has been published to clear up the controversy? One of the 24 experts at the conference attributes it to politics, not science — he suggests they succumbed to pressure from outside child-advocate organizations.

In any case, in 1996, the Canadian Paediatric Society’s Psychosocial Paediatrics Committee also carried out a review of virtually the same evidence, and came to the more evidence-based conclusion that “Controversy persists regarding the consequences of spanking. Additional research is needed to clarify issues.” In an article written last year in the CPS journal Paediatrics and Child Health, the chair of the committee, Dr. William J. Mahoney, wrote: “What is missing from the available literature is evidence that disciplinary spanking administered in a non-angry situation has negative outcomes. There is some evidence that it can be effective.” I recently spoke to Calgary pediatrician Dr. Peter Nieman, a member of the Psychosocial Paediatrics Committee of the CPS, and the principal author of its statement on discipline. “We thoroughly examined the evidence from both Canada and the U.S,” he said. “The truth is, there is really not enough scientific data to say that appropriate disciplinary spanking is bad, period, and it should be banned, period. Appropriate spanking is not harmful physically or mentally to a child.”

SO WHERE DOES THIS REJECTION OF THEIR SCIENTIFIC CLAIMS LEAVE THE antispanking lobby? With a lot of sermonizing, loads of half-baked opinions, and very poor moral arguments. In the spring 1994 issue of Empathic Parenting, the journal of the Canadian Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, British child psychologist Penelope Leach writes, “Spanking is wrong because we all agree that hitting people is wrong and children are people.” This sort of argument may sound good on first reading, but we can’t make such blanket statements because in many situations most of us agree hitting people is “necessary.” If you go to a bar and start a brawl, the bouncers may use reasonable force to eject you; if you go outside and continue, the police will show up, and ask you to cease and desist. If you do not and “show verbal non-compliance,” you might receive a disabling whack, delivered to the outside of the thigh with a nightstick. Comfortable middle-class antispankers forget that our society gives authority figures the right to use “reasonable force” to control public disturbances; similarly, in that microcosm of society, the family, the authority figures of the home — parents — should have the right to do the same to control the behavior of their children.

Leach’s arguments get worse: “When a mugger hits an old lady for money,” she writes, “or a child hits another for candy, is it any different from when a parent hits a child to get him to obey?” It’s difficult to take this seriously. Unlike normal parental spanking, mugging for money and snatching candy are purely egotistical acts; when responsible parents spank their children, they seek neither personal satisfaction nor gain: they seek to correct inappropriate behavior, for the child’s ultimate benefit. In many cases, the parent is reluctant to spank, and feels terrible after doing it. Does this describe the average mugger or candy-snatching kid?

Other antispankers argue that if we consider ourselves moral beings, we should not strike children to correct them. But parents who spank generally do so as part of a larger effort to teach children moral behavior. Antispankers argue that this is illogical, because you can’t teach people not to hit others by hitting them, yet many useful, and even necessary, human behaviors appear illogical on paper. We fight large conflagrations by setting small controlled fires; in medicine, we end major pain and suffering by inflicting the relatively minor pain of surgery, injection, or dental operation. Causing children minor pain to correct a larger ill is neither inherently immoral nor illogical.

Antispankers suggest, in place of spanking, time-outs, reasoning, and removal of privileges. These are fine measures, which should be among every parent’s disciplinary tools. But are they workable at all times and for all ages? Antispanking dogmatists stoutly insist that they are; if you point out that these measures are not working for your kid, you’re simply not doing it right, you incompetent parent. But columnist John Rosemond, the bête noire of the U.S. psychological community, explains that time-outs sometimes don’t work. “The letter writer advises that time-out will work if it is used consistently,” he writes in one of his newspaper columns. “The problem is, one cannot use time-out consistently. It is difficult, if not impossible, to use if a behavior problem occurs away from home or when the parents are rushing out of the house to make an appointment. And children who are inclined toward misbehavior figure these things out quickly.” As a parent, I wholeheartedly agree. As for reasoning, a review of studies on verbal explanation and reasoning led by Nathan J. Blum of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, and published in Pediatrics, found that “verbal explanations and instructions are not effective in changing young children’s problem behaviors.”

RATHER THAN A REPEAL, CHILD-WELFARE ADVOCATES SHOULD CALL FOR AN amendment to the Criminal Code’s Section 43, to close loopholes that allow abusive parents to escape punishment. Instead of allowing parents the right to use “reasonable force” — which can be interpreted in various ways — the law could clearly specify what is acceptable and what is not. But it should not ban spanking outright.

I personally believe that a large number of do-gooders out there are just itching to get their hands on a legal stick with which to beat that Neanderthal pro-spanking majority among parents. A general survey of Americans shows that antispanking is the moral view of a minority of the population: The greatest supporters of antispanking are educated, white, middle-class women. I have absolutely nothing against educated, white, middle-class women; I just don’t think that the morality of this minority should be imposed on the rest of us. A blanket ban will especially affect immigrants whom, I suspect, more often spank their children. Why criminalize a growing segment of our population, the majority of whom are otherwise law abiding, simply because they have a different view on how to raise decent children?

Where is all this leading? Retired Vancouver child psychiatrist Thomas P. Millar thinks that the antispanking movement is part of a wider agenda to ban all forms of punishment. It is easy to dismiss this claim until you discover that eminent antispanker Dr. Joan McCord of Temple University argues that we should question the value of all forms of punishment because they all lead to the same evil things Straus claims for spanking. The battle lines over this particular conflict have already been drawn: At a conference on Research in Discipline, held in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in 1996, McCord declared that the research showed that all punishment is unnecessary and undesirable, while another heavyweight in the field, Berkeley’s Baumrind, argued that the research showed the opposite.

If we are headed for McCord’s world, we should heed the warning of that great historian of Roman affairs, Jérôme Carcopino, writing in his masterpiece Daily Life in Ancient Rome. He was describing the Roman Empire at the height of its prosperity and decadence, just before it embarked on its 350-year decline: “The laws had once more adapted themselves to public feeling which, condemning the atrocious severities of the past, asked . . . nothing more of paternal authority than . . . natural affection. . . . But, unhappily, the Romans failed to strike the happy mean. They were not content to lessen the old severity; they yielded to the impulse to become far too complaisant. . . . The result was that they were succeeded by a generation of idlers and wastrels.”

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1 Response to Bum rap: Antispanking activists need to take a time-out and let parents use their instincts

  1. vida cropas says:

    There is absolutely no one size fits all in parenting, and it is NOT society’s place to force parents to vaccinate -or tell them how to raise their children…It is about time mothers threw away their “how to” books and reverted back to logic and common sense…But don’t worry, if kids get messed up by mindless meddling and social pressure, nifty little “disorders” will be pinned on them so they can be stuffed with meds…In my opinion -and yes, I work with these children- what most needed was some real parenting instead of this wishy washy socially imposed nonsense that has not brought about any personal improvements in terms of children reaching their optimum potential, or positive social change… Not to mention that yes, most young children are in fact tactile/kinesthetic learners who do in fact understand a swat better than: “Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah …timeout”. This is a beautiful essay for the other side. LOTS of research went into it, and it is extremely well written. -Thank you Okey Chigbo!!

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