George Holden envisions a world without spanking.
No more paddling in the principal’s office. No more swats on little rear ends, not even – and here is where Holden knows he is staring up at a towering cliff of parental-rights resistance – not even in the privacy of the home.
When it comes to disciplining a child, Holden’s view is absolute: No hitting.
“We don’t like to call it spanking,” said Holden, a professor of psychology at Southern Methodist University and head of a new organization aimed at eliminating corporal punishment in the United States. “Spanking is a euphemism that makes it sound like hitting is a normal part of parenting.
“If we re-label it hitting, which is what it is, people step back and ask themselves, ‘Should I be hitting my child?’ ”
For centuries, of course, the answer to that question has been yes for a huge majority of families. We’ve been unsparing of the rod, spanking our children just as we were spanked by our parents. And there’s precious little evidence to suggest we feel much differently today.
While the percentage of parents who say it’s OK to occasionally spank a child has declined marginally in recent years, that “acceptability level” still hovers between 65 percent and 75 percent nationally.
But Holden and a growing number of children’s advocates still believe the time is right for a serious effort to end corporal punishment. For some in the burgeoning stop-hitting movement, the goal is nothing less than a total legal ban on spanking in all settings, as has been passed by 33 nations in Europe, Latin America and Africa.
Knowing how Americans would recoil at the idea of Big Brother stepping between the parental palm and the child’s bottom, the goal of those looking to end corporal punishment is to drive spanking out of the culture. They want to tarnish spanking’s image as a normal part of American life with a sustained behavior-change campaign along the lines of the ones that cut smoking rates in half and made drunken driving a national taboo.
“My orientation is educate, educate, educate,” said Holden, who helped found the U.S. Alliance to End the Hitting of Children (EndhittingUSA.org). “It’s hard to know if we’re at a tipping point, but more and more people are coming to recognize the overwhelming empirical evidence that all lines up against corporal punishment.”
As in anti-tobacco efforts, anti-corporal punishment activists have started by squeezing spanking from the public sphere, shrinking the number of places where it is acceptable to swat a child. Spanking by day-care providers has been outlawed by every state but South Carolina and Idaho.
And in public schools, the biggest outside-the-home spanking venue of all, corporal punishment is well on track to go the way of the chalk blackboard. Thirty-one states have banned corporal punishment outright, the latest being New Mexico in 2011.
According to U.S. Department of Education data, the number of students paddled has drifted down in recent decades, falling from 1.5 million spanked in schools in 1976 to 223,000 in 2006, the last year for which stats have been published.
“It’s really almost gone from the schools, and that’s a huge change from just two decades ago,” said Deborah Sendek, program director of the Center for Effective Discipline, a national anti-corporal punishment group. “Parents are saying, ‘I don’t want someone hitting my child in school.’ That’s a step closer to their saying, ‘I don’t want someone hitting my child at home.’ ”
Effects of spanking
That spanking does hurt children, and not just for the five stinging minutes that follow, has become a matter of consensus among many social scientists.
Hundreds of findings have suggested that spanking correlates with a range of problems. The link cited most often is between spanking and future aggressive behavior, but research has also found that spanked children are more likely to drop out of school, suffer psychological problems and abuse their own children.
“I would say that there is pretty reasonable consensus among researchers now that there are more harmful effects than good effects to physical punishment,” said Adam Zolotor, a pediatrician and professor of family medicine at the University of North Carolina.
Robert Larzelere, a professor of human development at Oklahoma State University, doesn’t agree. He sees a classic chicken-egg paradox at work: Did the spankings lead to more aggressive kids, or are aggressive kids the ones most likely to be spanked?
His own research suggests it may be the latter. Larzelere was able to tease out similar correlations between aggressive behavior and being put in “time out,” being sent for counseling and other measures a frustrated parent would take with a troublesome child.
Larzelere advocates the kind of spanking he used with his own children: mild, rare and as a backup to gentler methods. “If it’s used in the ideal way, it works early and isn’t needed anymore,” he said.
That’s the kind of sanitized corporal punishment that Zolotor read about in medical school textbooks: moderate blows, with no belts or other objects, leaving no bruises and done after the anger of the moment has passed. But it’s not the kind he sees in his practice.
“Most spanking happens when our blood is boiling and we react,” he said. “Once you calm down, most reasonable people don’t want to resolve a problem by striking someone.”