Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Spare the Rod or Spare the World?

To spank or not to spank? This has been a long debated topic for years as political correctness, child psychology, and big brother government have crept into your home in the last generation or two, leaving parents scratching their heads in determining the best approach for disciplining their children. A recent study has come out, echoing the findings of studies before it, stating that spanking can lead to a multitude of issues for your children, including anger management problems, increased aggression, low self-esteem, mental illnesses, and a general distrust of their parents and any others they will eventually develop future relationships with. But how detrimental is spanking?

A recent study published in the Journal of Pediatrics claims that individuals who were “physically punished” as children have been shown to be more likely to suffer from mood disorders, anxiety, substance abuse, and personality disorders. Previous studies have also claimed that these individuals are more likely to “hit their spouse and/or children and engage in violent and criminal behaviors”. Any parent reading the laundry list of risks would probably be subject to a panic attack and immediately ban any form of corporal punishment, or as they say, “physical punishment" in their homes. But what is “physical punishment”?

The article lists physical punishment as “slapping, hitting, pushing, and shoving”, the operational definition of which, it would appear, goes beyond the traditional swat on the butt most of us were probably used to growing up. In fact, many previous studies seemed to have difficulty defining physical punishment and drawing the distinction between general spanking and certifiable child abuse. Even famed child psychologist Diana Bamrind (the queen of parenting styles) cited the faulty methodology in these studies by noting that one study in particular grouped general spanking disciplinary styles with physical contact that left bruises, welts, and even drew blood. Mixed and melted together, the harsher forms of discipline (child abuse) overshadowed simple spanking on the rear-end, and the results demonstrated severe adverse effects in the overall sample population. However, given that the general public comes to learn of these studies through mass media (CNN, Time magazine), sources which glaze over the details, they are never given the full account of the study, its faults and short comings, operational definitions, or the demographics of the sample population used. Once traditional spanking was taken into account and those children who were merely swatted on the butt were examined alone, they were found to be no more maladjusted than other children who were not spanked.

Parents today and of generations past frequently argue that they were spanked as children and they grew up just fine. Many of us did. A good whooping put the fear of God into us and we never committed the same crime twice. Well, sometimes we did. That was all part of the learning process and well, let’s face it, just being thick-headed. But is spanking effective? Studies that have been able to cipher through the muck of abuse and spanking have shown that while spanking is not detrimental to children’s well being, it is no more beneficial than children who are disciplined in other ways, such as using positive and negative reinforcers and punishment. However, I think it is fair to argue that parenting and disciplinary styles are not a one-size fits all, and various approaches need to be tested to find the most effective intervention for your own child. Some children respond well to token economies for rewards and doing chores on a Saturday afternoon when they’ve misbehaved. Others require a more forceful intervention to leave a lasting impression. That is not to say that spanking should be a knee-jerk reaction, utilized for every slip up and misstep, but it may be necessary to employ it once in awhile. It is a parents’ choice to find what method works for them.

Unfortunately the government doesn’t necessarily agree, and studies like this only pave the way to allow the government to tighten its grip on our individual freedoms. As the lines of child abuse and discipline grow significantly more blurred, social services have been putting in more footwork to prevent parents from lifting a finger against their children, claiming child endangerment. As the disciplinary action has been criminalized, more and more people who continue to spank are doing so behind closed doors, too afraid to react to poor behaviors in public for fear of some by-stander reporting them to DCFS. Should parents feel reluctant to intervene, glancing over their shoulders before dealing with an unruly child as they see fit? One could never know how to react as society polarizes.

As previously mentioned, many people were spanked and found no significant harm in it. Others have taken today’s studies and their findings and agree spanking is wrong and reflects poorly on parents. But let’s be real here, most of us have heard that screaming crying child in the store, tantrums and all because they could not get the toy they wanted. Many of us curse that parent for doing absolutely nothing: allowing the child to continue screaming or giving in, gently trying to soothe them when all we really want to say is “what that kid needs is a good whooping”. Others have seen spanking and tsked the parent for being too aggressive. What constitutes good parenting anymore? No one seems to know, so why not leave each to their own? Just spare the world of your crazy brat!

Now let me clarify my position once more. I have been spanked, I have been abused. I have worked with kids who needed to be spanked, I have worked with kids who have been abused. I have spanked my nephew, I would not call that abuse. I find the two disciplines to be mutually exclusive. Thus I am not advocating for parents to beat their children, nor am I ruling the idea of physical contact out entirely. Any “intervention” that leaves a bruise or a welt I am completely against. Any physical contact that lands anywhere but on the butt I am not okay with. A slap, a swat, a flick has no place anywhere else. A spanking completed with anything but a hand is unacceptable in my book. Many people from the older generation are used to the tangibles approach: the use of a switch, a belt, a shoe, even some I’ve spoken to have listed extension cords. Everyone remembers paddles, my dad came from a generation where even teachers could spank in school and his mother gave verbal permission for them to do so. Again, not acceptable for me. But trust, if you are on one, you will get one in my house. During a recent discussion with a woman I met, I argued that my nephew would be spanked for "deliberate disobedience", explaining for example, that if he made a mistake and broke a rule such as running into the street accidentally, he would be disciplined other ways. However, a factual event found my nephew standing on the curb and me standing behind him repeatedly telling him not to go in the street. He thought it over for minutes, glancing back and forth between me and the road before taking a flying leap into the streets. He was spanked. The woman argued that I had challenged him by telling him not to go into the streets, thereby inviting the disobedience and the spanking was unjustified. Yeah, I challenged him not to become roadkill. Next time I'll be sure to sit him down over a nice cup of cocoa, hand him a toy so his feelings aren't hurt, and explain to him gently why he's in a body cast.

We all need to learn to take these studies at face value and use them as a supplemental guide, not our holy book of parenting. We all need to acknowledge the difference between a spanking and abuse, and recognize in ourselves when we might be crossing that line. We all need to remain open to other techniques and styles that may prove just as if not more effective, and keep our options open. And we all need to keep in mind that at the end of the day, if your child is a brat, what you’re doing is not working. A swat on the butt will not bring out the next Charles Manson in your child, but avoiding one won’t breed the next Ghandi either. Whatever you do to put the fear of God in your child, remember, at least you’re not throwing them out of Eden and condemning every female after them to excruciating child birth and making them wear clothes and...well I guess the clothes thing had to happen...all I’m saying is the summer’s getting hot. Yeah. Just do what you gotta do to keep your kid from screaming in Target and ruining my peaceful shopping experience, please and thanks.