There is now a national conversation about the difference between spanking and physical abuse. Many Americans are uncomfortable about physical punishment that injures children, but still favor milder forms such as spanking. In accepting spanking as a form of discipline, we, as a country, are condoning violence against children.
Spanking is hitting, plain and simple. Think about it. Spanking involves a big, powerful person hitting a smaller, less powerful person. Just calling it “spanking” instead of “hitting” does not change that fact. Children are the only group of people whom it is legal for adults to hit. Across all states in the U.S., parents have the right to hit their children in the name of discipline, and in 19 states including Texas, school personnel have the right to hit children in schools. Indeed, school disciplinarians typically use large wooden paddles to strike children when they administer corporal punishment. If an adult were to hit another adult with such a paddle, it would be considered a weapon, and the act would be considered assault.
It is time for parents and educators across the U.S. to rethink our use of spanking as a form of discipline. Research clearly shows that spanking is ineffective at teaching children how to behave appropriately in the future. In fact, spanking actually increases children’s disobedience, problem behavior and aggression. It also increases their likelihood of developing mental health problems such as depression or anxiety. When parents spank often, they increase the likelihood they will injure and physically abuse their children. There is no research evidence that spanking is necessary or effective at correcting misbehavior, regardless of the age of the child.
Yet parents continue to spank despite this growing evidence of its ineffectiveness and harm, primarily because they were spanked by their parents when they were children. Adults throughout America are repeating the phrase, “I was spanked and I turned out OK,” and using that as justification for spanking their own children. Those statements are wrong on two grounds.
First, everything we know about how children learn tells us that hitting does not teach children how to behave. Rather, when parents teach lessons to their children, lead by example, praise children when they behave appropriately, and serve as a source of love and support for children, children learn what behavior is expected of them. Spankings are memorable because they hurt us both emotionally and physically. It’s harder to remember all of the talks, hugs and compliments our parents gave us over the years, but it is those acts, not the spankings, that helped us become who we are as adults.
Second, just because our parents did something to us does not mean we should repeat the same behavior. In my generation, our parents smoked or drank while pregnant and drove us in cars without car seats or even seatbelts. We now know that each of these behaviors is potentially damaging if not life-threatening to children, even though they were “normal” at the time and what everyone did. We can learn from the mistakes of previous generations and from the benefit of years of research by using more effective and less harmful ways of raising our children.
Those of us who were spanked by our parents and “turned out OK” were lucky lucky that our parents did all the other things that help raise well-adjusted children and adults. It is time to flip the adage on its head to say, “I turned out OK not because I was spanked, but in spite of it.” Current and future generations of parents can break the cycle and raise confident, well-behaved children without hitting them.
Elizabeth T. Gershoff is an associate professor of human development and family sciences at The University of Texas at Austin and an expert on the effects of spanking on children.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Houston Chronicle, Corpus Christi Caller Times, and the Fort Worth Star Telegram.
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Spank debate: Is spanking discipline or is it a form of child abuse? UT expert weighs in. http://t.co/fAvhiq66OD.
— Texas Perspectives (@TexPerspectives) September 22, 2014