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To spank or not to spank?

July 09, 2012

How you choose to discipline your child is an intensely personal decision. I wonder if there is any other choice that we’ll make for our children that has the potential for such deep and far-reaching effects. And yet, most of us are still figuring it out as we go, aren’t we?

I’ll be the first to admit that I struggle with this one. On one of the rainy, overcast days a few weeks ago, my friend and I took our toddlers to the Orlando Science Center. It was a madhouse, and our kids took turns acting out in the midst of the chaos. When her son disobeyed her directions twice, my friend gave him time-out. And as soon as he was finished with time-out, he resumed doing exactly what she told him not to do.

She turned to me and asked, “What do you think I should do? Should I spank him”? And I looked at her, mustering all of my parenting wisdom, and said, “Ummmm. I don’t know.”

And, I wasn’t saying that because I was uncomfortable or trying to avoid an awkward exchange. I truly did not know. And I still don’t know.

This scenario, along with many others that have taken place in my own home, played over and over in my head as I read this new study published in the journal Pediatrics.

The study

This study discusses the relationship between physical punishment in children and the development of mental disorders in adulthood.

Researchers interviewed 34,653 adults in the United States to determine whether they experienced physical punishment as a child. Physical punishment was defined as the act of hitting a child as a means of discipline; it included but was not limited to the act of spanking.

Participants were asked the following question: “As a child, how often were you ever pushed, grabbed, shoved, slapped or hit by your parents or another adult living in your household?” Those who responded with “sometimes” or a greater frequency were determined to have experienced harsh physical punishment.

While it is well established in medical literature that physical, sexual and emotional abuse contribute to a range of mental disorders, this study looked only at those who experienced harsh physical punishment in the absence of abuse or mistreatment.

In other words, this study aimed to determine whether the forms of physical punishment employed in many households in our country as an acceptable and effective form of discipline may affect a person’s long-term mental health.

The results

  • 5.9% of those surveyed experienced harsh physical punishment alone without more severe forms that would be considered child mistreatment
  • Females were less likely than males to be punished physically, and blacks were more likely to experience harsh physical punishment than whites and Asians.
  • Those with higher education and income levels both were associated with an increased use of harsh physical punishment
  • Those who reported a history of harsh physical punishment were significantly more likely to suffer from a range of mental disorders including major depression, mania, mood disorders, anxiety disorders as well as alcohol and drug abuse.
  • Those who reported a history of harsh physical punishment also were significantly more likely to suffer from various personality disorders: schizoid, schizotypal, antisocial, borderline, narcissistic and obsessive-compulsive personality disorders.

What it means to me

This study sheds light on an issue that affects many, many families.

It should be said, though, that this study didn’t prove that physical punishment causes mental disorders, but showed an association between the two. It also didn’t address the children who experienced a lesser physical punishment (i.e. spanking only as a well-defined and controlled discipline but without the pushing, grabbing, shoving or slapping which were included in this study).

And while this discussion represents only one facet of an incredibly complex issue, it cements for me some of my personal feelings on the topic. Familial, religious and societal pressures heavily influence our views, and I grew up in an environment where it was not only acceptable to spank, but a measure of good parenting. And amongst my friends and peers, physical punishment is still the norm.

But this study, and others that have shown that physical punishment contributes to aggressiveness in children, go along with what I feel deep down inside. Physical punishment may be incredibly effective in the short-term, but it is not worth the price my child will pay in the long-term.

I don’t pretend to know what is right for every family. What is the answer for those families that say that time-outs don’t work for their kids, that spanking is the only thing that works? If they chose to transition to a parenting style focused on teaching and rewards rather than punishment and physical reprimands, would it be effective? I truly don’t know.

I do know, though, that I want my child to grow into an adult who shows respect to others and exhibits the self-control that only comes from a parent willing to do the necessary work. But, I’m convinced that, at least in my own home, I can communicate the message that my child needs to hear without using my hands to cause pain, physical or otherwise.