Spanking: parenthood’s dirty little (and common) secret

This week I read a really great article in the Boston Globe about spanking, called “What if spanking works?” I was surprised to read that 70 percent of Americans think that spanking is sometimes necessary—and 90 percent of parents of toddlers spank them.

Ninety percent?

Clearly, as the article points out, this is happening behind closed doors—because it’s a really big no-no to say in public that you spank your kid, and an even bigger no-no to do it in public.  If you do either one, or if your child says anything to someone like a teacher about being spanked, there’s a reasonable chance that the Department of Children and Families will be knocking on your door.

Although I wouldn’t have guessed 90 percent, I certainly know that parents spank their kids. As a pediatrician, it’s part of my job to talk with families about discipline—and in those discussions, spanking comes up relatively frequently. And when those investigators go knocking at my patients’ doors, as part of their investigation they call me. So I’ve had lots of conversations with families about spanking.

What has been very clear to me is that the vast majority of parents who spank do it in an effort to do the right thing. They aren’t out to hurt their kids; they are good parents. The Globe article quoted Dr. Murray  Straus, a sociologist at the University of New Hampshire who studies corporal punishment and kids, as saying that people think that spanking will work when nothing else does. From what I’ve heard from parents over the years, this rings true to me.

Parents see it as a way to make their children understand that they are really serious about something. My mother spanked me as a child—but she reserved it for two circumstances: when I did something dangerous (like running out into the street) or when I told a lie. These were the things she most didn’t want me to do, and she saw spanking as the way to get that message across.

But research shows that actually, spanking isn’t more effective than any other form of discipline—and it can end up having effects that parents really don’t want.

The most common “side effect” of spanking is that spankees are more likely to hit other children. This makes sense to me, and is something I talk about with parents a lot. When you spank a child, I tell them, you are teaching them that hitting is okay—especially that bigger people can hit smaller people.  Is that a lesson you really want them to learn?

But it’s not just that. Kids who are spanked are more likely to suffer from depression—getting hit certainly affects how you feel about yourself and life. They are also more likely to have trouble controlling their temper—also not surprising, given that so often parents do it in moments of frustration or anger or both. It’s not exactly setting the best example for temper control. Spankees may even have a lower IQ.

Now, not every kid who is spanked turns into a depressed, angry high-school dropout who beats people up. There are plenty of kids who turn out just fine. But if it’s not more effective, and there are other ways to discipline your child, why take the risk? Why not try time-out, or taking away TV privileges? There’s a lot to be said, too, for taking a deep breath, walking away, and discussing punishment when everyone’s calmer.

I don’t spank my kids. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t thought about it in those moments when I have either been pushed to the absolute limit of my anger or frustration—or when one of my children has done something that has scared the bejesus out of me and what I wanted more than anything was to be sure that they never, ever did it again.

But I don’t do it. My memories of being spanked are filled with humiliation and pain, and those aren’t memories that I want my children to have.

Until I read the article, I didn’t know that many countries—like Sweden, Germany, Spain and Venezuela—have banned spanking. Attempts to do anything similar even on a local level here in the US have fallen flat pretty quickly.

Although I understand why spanking is parenthood’s dirty little secret (nobody wants the Department of Children and Families at the door), I wish we could find a way to talk more openly about it.  If we don’t talk about it, we don’t get the chance to help people understand why it can be harmful—and help them learn about other ways of discipline. If we don’t talk about it, we miss a chance to reach out to stressed parents and give them support. Parenthood is really hard work, and we do better at it when we have help.

We all want to do the right thing for our kids. We want them to be well-behaved, we want them to be safe, we want them to learn right from wrong. I think we can do that without spanking—especially if we work together. Only if we work together.