Spare the Rod

AUGUST 25, 1997
VOL. 150 NO. 8

By Michael D. Lemonick

One of the toughest parts of parenting is the seemingly endless series of decisions you have to make. Breast-feeding or formula? Cloth or disposable? Day care or the mommy track? It is not as though there is an absolute right answer to any of these questions–yet parents often feel the wrong choice could be disastrous. That is especially true when it comes to spanking. Every parent has been in a situation where a whack on the rear seems like the only recourse to little Janie’s or Johnny’s tantrum. But at least since the 1960s, the conventional wisdom propounded by parenting gurus has been that hitting is generally unwise because it sends a message that violence is an acceptable way to solve disputes.

Now comes a scientific study that frames the issue in larger societal terms. Writing in the journal Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, University of New Hampshire sociologist Murray Straus and his colleagues report that “when parents use corporal punishment to reduce [antisocial behavior], the long-term effect tends to be the opposite.” Not only that–the authors suggest that if you spare the rod, you will help reduce the overall level of violence in American society. Straus’ study, first presented at a conference in 1994 and now appearing in formal publication with a more careful analysis of the data, is highly controversial. It may prove something, say critics, but not what Straus thinks it does. The problem has to do with who was in the study. Straus and company culled their information from telephone interviews conducted by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics beginning in 1979 with 807 mothers of children ages 6 to 9. They were asked how many times they had spanked their children in the past week and what the kids’ behavior was like–did they lie, cheat, act up in school?

Then the bureau polled the same group two years later. Sure enough, the kids who had been spanked had become increasingly antisocial.  But when you look a little closer at these findings, they start to seem a bit murky. To begin with, observes Dr. Den Trumbull, a Montgomery, Ala., pediatrician who is vocal in the spanking debate, the mothers ranged in age from 14 to 21. That is hardly a representative slice of American motherhood. Moreover, those who spanked did so on average twice a week. These factors, says Trumbull, plus the fact that some of the kids were as old as nine, “are markers of a dysfunctional family in my mind, and in the minds of most psychologists and pediatricians.” Trumbull also observes that limiting the study to 6-to-9 year-olds skewed the results: by then kids can understand the consequences of their actions. For them frequent physical punishment is likely to be humiliating and traumatic–and might well lead to worse behavior down the line. Straus disagrees. He writes, “It is plausible to argue that [corporal punishment] of toddlers will have a greater effect [than it does on older kids] because it occurs at a crucial developmental stage.” Plausible to Straus, anyway.

According to Trumbull, more sophisticated studies have consistently shown that corporal punishment is effective and not harmful to long-term development if it is confined to youngsters between 18 months and 6 years. Younger children have a poor understanding of the consequences of their behavior. If inappropriate behavior gets out of hand–especially if it poses a danger to the child or to others–a smack on the bottom may be the only way to control it. Trumbull, a pro-spanking partisan, adds that he favors corporal punishment only as a last resort, after putting a child on time out–a few minutes of inactivity–then warning him or her that the next miscue will bring a whack. Still, he says, punishment should be limited to one or two mild slaps on the buttocks. His views are widely shared. More than two-thirds of pediatricians in recent polls approved parental spanking in certain situations. “The usual example,” says child-abuse
authority Mary Ann Mason, who teaches a course on Children and the Law at the University of California, Berkeley, “is when a kid races across the street in front of a car. The slap literally imprints on him the need for safety. No one would consider that child abuse.” It is the legitimate fear of child abuse that Trumbull believes is largely behind the anti-spanking movement.

The backlash started in the 1960s, he says, with the advent of more permissive parenting. But in the past decade or so, a shocking rise in child-abuse cases has had public-health officials scrambling for an explanation. Blaming spanking made sense; the notion that violence begets violence has a certain touchy-feely logic. Besides, most parents feel terrible after spanking their kids. What better reason to cut it out? Trouble is, while spanking is down, child abuse is still up. It appears that well-meaning professionals have been using the wrong whipping boy–and Straus’ study offers little reason to change that assessment. –Reported by Alice Park/New York and Jacqueline Savaiano/Los Angeles