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To Spank or Not to Spank: That is the Question

Most of us who are age 40 and older grew up in homes where spanking was a normal consequence for a child’s poorly chosen behavior.  Then, popular opinion shifted, and spanking became viewed as a form of child abuse.  Now, there’s a new spanking study out that shows that children who get spanked
grow up happier and more successful than those who aren’t, and (according to this study) the spanked children are even more likely to want to go to college.  Obviously, this recent research differs from findings over the past decade, which have been strongly against spanking. What’s a parent to do?  Let’s take a time-out to assess the facts of the situation.

This recent, controversial study was headed by Marjorie Gunnoe, a psychology professor at Calvin College, a Christian-based college in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  Research for the study involved interviewing 2,600 people about spanking.  The study concluded that spanking a child up to age six can generate the positive outcomes referenced above, whereas spanking a child after age six was linked with behavioral difficulties such as playground fighting.  Why would age make a difference?  Could it be the sense of personal dignity that may or may not be affronted when spanking a child?  Could it be the degree of force used when spanking an older child as compared to a younger child?  Could it be the reason for the spanking: a need to keep the child safe (as in I-told-you-NOT-to-play-in-the-street) or a need to redirect safety-irrelevant misbehaviors (as in I-told-you-not-to-talk-back-to-your-mother).

Perhaps just as important as these questions is the behavior of the parent that is concurrent with the spanking or time-out.  Is the parent spanking because he/she has lost control of his/her anger and is striking out at the child, thus teaching the child that physical violence and unchecked anger are appropriate adult behaviors?  Is the parent screaming at the child?  Studies suggest that even time-outs can have negative effects on children when the parents are screaming in anger as they sentence their children to time-outs.

As anecdotal evidence on this dilemma, this author has spoken with adults who were and were not spanked as a child.  Representative is this person:  “I was spanked (rarely) as a child.  From my earliest recall, my parents would always talk calmly to me about my infraction (whatever I’d done to prompt their redirection) and how they wished me to behave in the future.  When or if I again violated the code of conduct (for lack of a better term), my parents responded by speaking with me and punishing me in the manner they deemed appropriate.  I remember them explaining to me why they were choosing whatever method of redirection that they chose (spanking, grounding, etc.).  (Time-outs weren’t heard of when I was young.)  Usually, but notably not always, I understood that I had violated the code, and I felt that my parents’ response to my behavior was just (although sometimes I had to let my emotions simmer for a few hours before that realization dawned on me).  Sometimes, especially when I was quite young, I remember wishing that the code of conduct would allow me to do the things that I wanted to do, but I knew that my parents were consistent in reinforcing their boundaries, so, as I matured, I grew to accept the code of conduct.  My parents never spanked me hard enough to leave a mark, and I think it’s important that my bottom was the focus, not my stomach or other areas that are even more controversial.  Yes, I felt that being spanked was embarrassing, but again, once I got past the moment, I usually felt that the spanking was appropriate.  And no, I don’t remember being spanked after sometime in early grade school.  After that age, my parents seemed to think that I had developed a sufficient capacity for bigger-picture reasoning (not just what-I-want-right-now) that more could be achieved through discussion than punishment.”

So, does all this mean that, when your child misbehaves, you should calmly speak with and spank your child who is six years of age or younger . . . and verbally redirect your child if he/she is older than six?  Before you decide, keep in mind that the Department of Health and Human Services in your state may still consider spanking (at any age) a form of child abuse.

In sum, to spank or not to spank . . . this is a question to which Shakespeare himself could not pen an appropriate answer.    

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