Political Physics: To Spank or Not to Spank

When I was growing up I got spankings (or beatings as the older black women in my family called them).  I am not sure when I got my first spanking, but I know that spankings were regularly used as a form of punishment in our household.  My mom used a belt and my very southern Nana Mary preferred a “switch” that she would pluck off a tree.  Spankings were the main form of punishment until I was well into Junior High.  Then I began to have things (e.g., television and a phone in my bedroom) and I began to go out with friends.  So my mom moved away from spankings and started taking away my things and grounding me.

As someone who received spankings as the primary form of discipline throughout much of my life, the constant debate and new studies around whether or not to spank your child fascinates me.

According to a new study published in Pediatrics, “researchers at Tulane University provide the strongest evidence yet that children’s short-term response to spanking may make them act out more in the long run. Of the nearly 2,500 youngsters in the study, those who were spanked more frequently at age 3 were much more likely to be aggressive by age 5.”  The researchers found that children who had been spanked were 50% more likely to be aggressive.  These 5 years olds “were more likely than the nonspanked to be defiant, demand immediate satisfaction of their wants and needs, become frustrated easily, have temper tantrums and lash out physically against other people or animals.”

And Judith Graham, a researcher at the University of Maine argues that the effects of spanking last well into adulthood.  “The long-term adult effects show up as higher frequencies of crime, spouse abuse, depression, and lower earnings.”

Okay, so according to these studies I should be aggressive, hot-tempered and just profoundly screwed up.  Listen, though I can totally channel my inner bitch at times, I do not physically abuse my spouse, I have never committed a crime and I make a nice chunk of change.  And my brother, who grew up in the same corporal punishment household as me, does not abuse animals and in actuality is one of the gentlest human beings I know.

Does that mean there is no connection between spanking and aggression?  Of course not. But I do not believe the argument is as black and white (e.g., spank or no spank) as it is made out to be.  And the long-term impacts, if any, are unclear.

In fact, a recently released 2010 study by Dr. Marjorie Gunnoe, a psychology professor at Calvin College, has found that there are indeed long-term impacts of spanking and those impacts are positive.  Contrary to most theory on spanking, Gunnoe suggests that “while timeouts and other disciplinary methods work for some parents and is encouraged by some child psychologists, corporal punishment forms more well-adjusted people later in life.”  According to the research, “children spanked up to the age of 6 were likely as teenagers to perform better at school and were more likely to carry out volunteer work and to want to go to college than their peers who had never been physically disciplined.”

Gunnoe recent study builds on work she did in 1997, where she studied population-based survey data from 1112 children aged 4 to 11 years in the National Survey of Families and Households. Controlled for several family and child factors including children’s baseline aggression.  During that study Gunnoe assessed children five years after spankings had taken place to assess their behavior and she found that “for most children, claims that spanking teaches aggression seem unfounded. Other preventive effects and harmful effects of spanking may occur depending on the child and the family context.”

So, am I suggesting that all parents should take a belt to their children?  No.

But I think spanking is a viable tool in a parent’s tool kit and using spankings in moderation or as a method of last resort is not going to screw your kid up.  As Dr. Gunnoe notes, “The claims made for not spanking children fail to hold up. They are not consistent with the data,” [however], I think of spanking as a dangerous tool, but there are times when there is a job big enough for a dangerous tool. You just don’t use it for all your jobs.”

Like many things, I think it is a personal choice that a parent needs to make based on their child, family situation, external circumstances, etc.

My husband and I have decided to use an alternative to spanking as our primary method of discipline – talking, consistency and timeouts.  So we are clear with our kids about what the expectations are and clear about what happens if those expectations are not met.  Then we leverage timeouts when negative behavior manifests.  But we have also (sparingly) used spankings as the discipline of last resort when there was no other option based on our assessment.  As parents, we feel like we know best what works for our kids and what approach makes the most sense given the circumstances.  For us, research be damned, it is our prerogative to make decisions concerning our children.

I must admit through that I often wonder if we had been in different financial circumstances (e.g., had more things to take away as punishment) or if my mother had been older when we were born, if the primary method of discipline would have been something other than spankings.  I do not know.  But do I resent my mom for spanking me and wished that she had gone a more pacifist route?  No.  I think overall she did the best job that she could raising us and used the tools that she had at her disposal.  And hey, she didn’t do such a bad job.

Chris Rock always talks about how as a father his major goal was to keep his daughters off the stripper pole.  Well no stripping for me (or my brother), so by his standards my mom was a successful parent.

I like to believe that spanking or not spanking, I can at least keep Zora (and Sekou) off the stripper pole.

featured image credit: HA! Designs – Artbyheather