BABY BOOMERS and generation X-ers may recall spanking as part of their upbringing. In many cases, it was highly unpleasant, but recognized as a definitive means of reinforcing correct behaviors.
However, as time went on, with more conscientious parenting techniques and discussions gaining attention (especially with shows ranging from Donahue to Oprah to Dr. Phil), the line between a mild push on the tush and full-on child abuse has blurred beyond recognition in many areas and schools of thought.
According to one recent study covered in Pediatrics magazine, epidemiologist Tracie Afifi of the Department of Community Health Sciences at the University of Manitoba, Canada, concluded that children who are spanked, hit or pushed as a means of discipline may be at an increased risk of mental problems in adulthood, ranging from mood and anxiety disorders to drug and alcohol abuse.
In this country, many physicians have weighed in on the consequences of spanking as well as alternative and healthier ways to send a child a clear message about correct behavior without the potential psychological side effects. While opinions on the right ways to discipline vary between experts as well as parents, there is a growing consensus that spanking may produce a desired result (a change of behavior) in the short term, but may have a negative outcome when looking at the bigger picture.
Philadelphia-based Chuck Williams, a clinical professor in the School of Education at Drexel University, appointed by Mayor Michael Nutter to serve on the oversight board for the Department of Human Services, goes beyond endorsing less physical and more conversational forms of discipline. He speaks from the perspective of somebody who experienced physical parental abuse as a child.
“As a community, we are all responsible for protecting our children from abuse and neglect, including within their family units,” explains Williams. “Though I want to be clear that not all spanking is abuse, there is a line that is too easy to cross. When many parents discipline their children physically, they do it at the wrong time.”
He goes on to say that “parents, at a given moment, may feel embarrassed or flustered, and strike out because of their own immediate frustration. They need a release, which may be intended to correct a child, but instead can be anything from slapping the child in the face to pushing him, grabbing him by the throat or beating him in any number of ways.”
Williams says he believes parents should think proactively in terms of their preparedness to discipline children if an issue comes up. “Parents need to be taught not to strike their children when they are angry, and that’s often when parents actually strike their children,” Williams continues.
Hitting “sends the wrong message to children, which is neither corrective or involves a parent consciously trying to teach a child a different way to behave. Rather than learn a lesson, children will draw a correlation between the punishment and aggression.” Essentially, he said, you teach your children it is OK to be violent, especially when dealing with somebody else who is weaker.
Dr. David M. Reiss, a psychiatrist based in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., says there are two ways to evaluate the spanking issue: It can either fall under the column of a well-intended means of discipline or something spontaneous that can escalate into abuse. Reiss says he believes not every person will experience long-term trauma as a result of spanking, but it still may not be the most effective way to discipline a child.
“Even if we are not really dealing with abuse, spanking is not necessarily the most effective way to discipline a child, especially if it is not intended to cause pain or be sadistic,” says Reiss. “However, if you want your child to learn a lesson, the objective is to teach your child to differentiate between right and wrong, have a conscience and stay safe.
“When you physically discipline a child, what you may end up teaching him is how to be afraid of authority rather than to focus on the behavior that needs to be changed. If a behavior changes, it changes out of fear or anger, or not to get caught, as opposed to permanently changing behavior.”
Although Reiss observes that spanking is still socially acceptable in some parts of the United States and within certain cultures, he acknowledges the questions of spanking as child abuse has caused further blurring of the line between appropriate discipline and child abuse.
On the plus side, the publicity has encouraged parents and doctors to have an open discussion, but the issue is so politicized that some people can end up missing the point.
There is also the matter of personal bias based on a parent’s own experience with spanking when he or she was a child. “Many people say, ‘I was spanked as a child and it did not hurt me,’ ” Reiss says. “That may be true for some people as they grew up normal, and no long-term harm was done. However, I still recommend people try different” forms of discipline not involving physical contact “and stick to what works.”
He continues: “If the punishment can make a child think — by such actions as withholding something they want, being stern, or removing privileges — those kinds of punishments are more likely to result in a change of behavior.
“Children can respond to the lesson in an appropriate way and learn the correct behavior rather than be afraid or respond back in anger.”
Jane Bluestein, author of The Parent’s Little Book of Lists: Do’s and Don’ts of Effective Parenting and Parents, Teens and Boundaries: How to Draw the Line, says the extra small step of setting boundaries of right and wrong with your children can make a big difference, not only in the way a parent approaches affirmative discipline, but also the ability of a child to learn the required lesson and change the behavior.
“Being able to anticipate what kids will need, or what they will be tempted to do or ask for is one of the 20 skills” in her book, she says. “There are many ways to redirect what could become negative behavior, hold kids accountable for their commitments, and focus on positive outcomes of cooperative behaviors that would ultimately make hitting unnecessary.
“Good boundaries and, better yet, good follow-through, is a great way to help kids connect their choices to the outcomes of their behaviors.”
Rather than react through a verbal or physical hit, she advises parents be a role model for their child — and they should think before they act and react.