To Spank or Not To Spank: A Controversial Study Says "Maybe"
I was spanked as a child. If you’re an adult of my generation, odds are that you were, too. My memories of being spanked aren’t the 1950’s television version where the mother waits until the father comes home to report the offense, at which time the father sternly takes the child into his study and delivers the punishment while the child is bent over the father’s knee. My memories are of me and my siblings running around the house, the neighborhood, or the grocery store, trying to escape my mother and, when finally caught, being whacked on the backside while still standing. There was no parental shame in public spanking, at least not in my upper middle class neighborhood, and no one called child protective services when it happened.
When I became a parent eleven years ago, I knew at a gut level that I didn’t want to spank my kids. I never wanted my children to fear me. I visualized my husband and myself as the perfect modern parents. Our style of “discipline” would be called by the politically correct term, “behavior management”. We would talk and educate our way through our child’s bad choices or accidental misbehaviors until they happened no more. Ha!
Within the span of six years, we had three children. Each of them a beautiful little soul full of energy, curiosity, and free will. It wasn’t long before my resolve to never make my children fear me began to break down. Soon, I was employing the Mommy Vice Grip as I dragged our offending child, kicking and screaming, into their room for a time out. Every once in awhile, to my horror, I would find myself giving them a quick smack on the bottom as I took them down the hallway. It’s very hard for me to admit this because it feels so against what I believe in. But, it’s true and I know it is a hidden truth I share with many parents.
My children got older and I started noticing how they behaved when they were frustrated or angry with each other. I was shocked to realize that they mirrored many of my own behaviors. I knew that if I was going to ask them to change their actions I would have to change my own. Granted, I wasn’t what I would really classify as a spanker, but regardless, it took me a long time to learn not to touch my children in anger. I had to learn how to do something I had never been exposed to as a child. I am still far from perfect.
As I was driving my kids to the school bus the other morning, I heard a Michigan public radio news report about a recent study that suggests that spanking at an early age may be beneficial. I was shocked, indignant, and more than slightly curious.
As soon as I returned home, I was googling the study by Marjorie Gunnoe, a psychology professor at Michigan's Calvin College. The research was conducted by interviewing a sample of more than 2,600 people, including a core group of 179 teenagers. The following is an excerpt from a Grand Rapids Press article about the findings.
“While timeouts and other disciplinary methods work for some parents and is encouraged by some child psychologists, a Calvin College psychology professor says her research shows corporal punishment forms more well-adjusted people later in life.
Marjorie Gunnoe says the study finds children who remember being spanked on the backside with an open hand do better in school, perform more volunteer work and are more optimistic than others who were not physically disciplined.”
“The practice should be considered when lawmakers across the country consider banning spanking, Gunnoe said, noting 24 countries have barred the punishment.
This is a red light for people who want to legally limit how parents choose to discipline their children," she said. "I don't promote spanking, but there's not the evidence to outlaw it."
As much as I hate to admit it, I would actually say that I fit all of those behavior outcomes. But, there is no way I am going to admit that my childhood spankings are what led to any of my own positive attributes. And there is no way, regardless of research, that I will feel comfortable spanking our children. On the other hand, I have friends who I know for a fact spank their kids on a regular basis. I can’t say I don’t cringe when I hear them threaten a spanking but I don’t consider them bad parents. I don’t consider their children as better or worse behaved than my own.
I kept digging, maybe because I wanted to know if I should stop judging my parents so harshly for all those spankings. It turns out there really isn’t a clear answer.
It does seem that Gunnoe’s study is not being widely accepted. In fact, while it has been nationally distributed, it has not been published in any professional journals and was rejected by the Journal of Family Psychology. There were also some interesting aspects to the findings that weren’t covered in the news report I had heard. Most importantly, Gunnoe believes spanking is only effective between the ages of two and six. After that, the spanked children began to score worse on negative behaviors than the non-spanked children, meaning that they were more prone to anti-social or violent behaviors.
Gabe Griffin, a Pediatric Psychologist, said the following after reviewing the research. "It can very easily cross over from a discipline in a calm, measured way to an out of control moment. Parents always think it’s in a controlled manner, but clearly it's not. Obviously it's not going to harm every kid, but the potential is there and it isn't worth the risk."
Dr. Diane Sacks, former president of the Canadian Pediatric Society, believes that research has proven that spanking, whether short or long term, leads to “bad physical behavior.” She goes on to state, "Many studies show that when children are spanked in order to teach, they don't learn. When afraid, children learn poorly. Fear is a very bad teacher."
I guess I found what I was looking for. Well respected authorities that are saying what I want to hear, reinforcing what my gut was feeling. Spanking doesn't work.
Still, I couldn’t shake the lingering echo of Dr. Gunnoe saying that for some kids, spanking is what works. I have a dear friend, a liberal, socially active, teaching credential friend, who confided to me, when our firstborns were toddlers, that they spank their son. Her husband, another very liberal soul, was spanked as a child and believed it did him good, insisted that they pass on the tradition. I will never forget the whispered voice my friend used when she told me, or the tentative look in her eyes as she waited for my reaction. It was something she felt she had to hide because it went so against all of our modern parenting bibles. Today, her four children are all healthy, well-adjusted, socially appropriate, and thriving in school.
I have two purposes for writing this post.
First, I’m interested in the discussion that might evolve from this study and your own personal experiences. So many questions raced through my mind when I learned about this research and I am curious as to the response others will have.
Second, I want to make those parents who are struggling to find alternatives to spanking aware of a book that has changed my life. The book is called Giving the Love That Heals, by Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt. I’ll admit that it may be not be everyone’s cup of tea but, for me, it helped me reconcile the lessons I was taught as a child with the lessons I want to teach my own children.
photo courtesy of the Grand Rapids Press/mlive.com