September 26, 2009

School of Hard Knocks

NPR reported on a new study ("Does Spanking Make Kids Dumber?") by Murray Straus, professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire, which shows that children who are spanked have lower IQs. The results are being published in the fantastically-named Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment and Trauma.

In a study of American kids, Straus and a colleague asked parents of about 1,500 young children participating in an IQ research project how often they spanked their children.

The findings? The 2- to 4-year-old kids who weren't spanked at all, according to their parents, had IQs that were, on average, about five points higher after four years than the kids who were spanked. The same trend held for 5- to 9-year-olds, though the differences were less pronounced.
Straus doesn't pull any punches in his opinion of what this study means for parents, and for our society:

"It is time for psychologists to recognize the need to help parents end the use of corporal punishment and incorporate that objective into their teaching and clinical practice. It also is time for the United States to begin making the advantages of not spanking a public health and child welfare focus, and eventually enact federal no-spanking legislation."

I don't say this very often, but I think NPR was being extremely lazy in the way they chose to present this information. I don't think spanking your kids makes them dumb. I don't believe that those of you out there who choose to strike your children are actually beating their brains out of their little heads.

I do think that, in general, people with poor communication skills and a lack of education are less equipped to deal with their children in a logical, intelligent way. As a result, they lose their tempers more quickly, turn to violence and frustration more easily and, most importantly, teach those same "skills" to their kids.

Or perhaps it is simply the fact that the same intellectual incuriosity that leads these families to turn to violence to address their issues is also present in other areas of their intellectual development. Smart people don't hit their kids? Perhaps they don't need to. I would suggest that contrary to what the NPR headline suggests, it's not the kids who are made dumber by being hit.

I've written about my feelings on corporal punishment before. ("Spare the child", July 2006) It was a pretty comprehensive statement on corporal punishment, so I don't think I need to say it all again. But I think the last few paragraphs bear repeating. My feelings haven't changed one bit, except that I believe them more strongly than ever.

"You know, I was spanked as a child, and I grew up to be perfectly healthy and have raised my kids just fine."

Did you? You think? You were, as a small child, routinely subjected to violence by someone probably five times your size so that you would be subject to their demands? As a result, you grew up, had some small children of your own, and then proceeded to beat them into submission as well?

We have a different definition of "perfectly healthy", you and I. We have a wildly different idea of what it means for an innocent child to be "just fine".

You may think that I believe that if you as a parent spank your children, I automatically believe that you are a bad parent. I don't, not necessarily and not without knowing what kind of parent you are as a whole. Nor do I think your children are necessarily going to grow up to be damaged.

But I do think you are wrong. And as much as you might feel sorry for my kid for having me as a father, I guarantee I feel more sorry for yours.


DmL said...

What are we talking here... full on whoopin' or a pop on the arm? What does "spanking" even mean? This doesn't seem very scientific.

-A father that "pops" his very bright almost 3 year old

Unknown said...

I completely agree. I don't' feel it's the act of hitting the child that influences their intelligence, but rather what they aren't getting that does. I feel those who spank often use that as an alternative to actually dealing with negative behavior. Often those kids learn not to run into the street because they'll get spanked. My child on the other hand will learn not to run into the street because I will teach her that running into the street is dangerous, and she could get hit by a car. It's the teaching that makes the difference.

Anonymous said...

Rob, a word on the "I grew up fine" thing. In the context of today's society, hitting children has a different result than it did, say sixty years ago, when in fact all parents used physical punishment of some kind and were encouraged to do so. When I was spanked, it was rare, it consisted on one smack, usually on the thigh, and there was no sense of violence in it. Rather, I knew that I had provoked one of my parents to a point where this was the only response left in their arsenal, and they didn't like to use it. (My mother once spanked me and then cried for twenty minutes.) In the context of that time, spanking -- but not beating, or violent behavior, which was something distinct -- was a parent's normal response, and yes, we grew up fine. I didn't hit my own children because times had changed and I knew things my parents didn't know. Spanking years ago and corporal punishment today are not the same thing.

Rosanne C.

Robert Hudson said...

"Pops" sounds so much more agreeable that "hits". I wonder if the three year-old makes that distinction.

(Seriously? A three year-old? That seems awfully young.)

Karen said...

Let's see. I once tested at genius level IQ. Not bragging, just that it's relavant to the conversation. My husband is smarter than I am. I have 4 kids. Their ages range from 16 to 3. I never spanked any of them often, but I find that I spank less now than I did a decade ago. And to be perfectly honest, the behavior my kids exhibit is far worse than it was a decade ago. I would not have allowed my oldest to behave the way I allow my youngest to behave. I sometimes think I'm a better mother now than I was 10 years ago, and sometimes I know in my heart that I'm doing my younger kids a disservice by spoiling them (and let me be clear, they are spoiled -- her preschool teacher begged us to say no to her at least once in her life).

Why did I change? Because my for my 3rd child, spanking makes things worse, not better. In fact, yelling makes it worse, time out makes her behavior worse... basically anything other than an almost meditative calm makes her behavior worse. She's like a miniature feedback loop. Whatever emotions are going on are amplified by her.

I do think that sometimes spanking is an acceptable choice. When my child consistantly disregards my instructions and attempts something dangerous like running away in a crowd or walking into the street without looking, I will use spanking as a last resort. And yes, I have faced both those exact same scenarios and did resort to spanking and it did stop the behavior.

But for me, spanking is only what I do when I run out of other options. I do include letting the bad behavior continue as an option, but in some circumstances that option is life-threatening.

And BTW, 3 is a prime age for parents to spank. An older child can be reasoned with. "Don't run into traffic because you could be killed!" And an older child can understand how a time-delayed consequence such as grounding or losing a privilege is related to their behavior. I am not justifying the choice, just pointing out that for a 10 year old, 6 year old, and even a 4 year old there are more alternatives available.

And as to how hard we spank and how fearful our kids are... well, their daddy will sometimes grab them up and say, "I'm gonna give you a paddlywhack!" when they're playing. He then spanks them and tickles them... and they laugh. But when he spanks in seriousness he does it more carefully and lightly, but even though the actual spank is lighter, they are much more upset and they cry. It's not the way he's actually touching them. It's that they know he's not joking and playing.

I do the same thing. I'll spank as a joke... maybe saying that I just found this great drum and then paddling their butt while I sing a silly song. They laugh and try to paddle my butt (and I let them). But if I'm punishing with a spank, I don't hit any harder and they are not laughing.

I wish there were more unbiased studies on this. Most of the ones I've read seem to be done by people who have an agenda (and I do read the actual studies not just the blurb results that show up in the magazines).

Alyssa said...

That is a beautiful picture of Schuyler.

Robert Hudson said...

And BTW, 3 is a prime age for parents to spank.

I think we're going to have to respectfully disagree on how a three year-old should be treated by an adult.

Anonymous said...

My father, who was actually and literally sold at age twelve by his own drunken father to a local sharecropper, beat his three children with yardsticks and belts. My childhood memories are of running in fear from him. His behavior falls in with what you say, about lack of education and lack of other coping skills or strategies.

When my sister and I were teenagers, my dad gave us the whole "If you ever get pregnant I hope you can come to me about it" speech, and both of us were appalled at the mere idea -- if minor misbehaviors such as slurping at meals or leaving a toy unpicked up could lead to whoppings that raised welts, what in the world would be his response if we were ever to take him at his word here?

By the way, none of the three children my father hit have ever, ever so much as raised a finger to their own children. My daughter has never even had a time out. I was able to understand even in the midst of toddler tantrums what was driving her behavior, whether it was teething, exhaustion, stress, or incipient illness. And she was extraordinarily responsive to distraction, change of subject, silly humor, or even -- yes, at age three -- logic.

Jenifer said...

This drives me crazy when media (whether it be NPR -- Really NPR? I thought you were smarter than that... -- or msnbc) take CORRELATIVE studies and describe the results/implications as if they were CAUSATIVE.

I swear that was the first thing I learned in college stats: Correlation does NOT automatically equal Causation.

Anonymous said...

I slapped my daughter twice on the hand when she was young, probably 2 or 3, because she turned on the gas stove as high as she could. After the second time she never did it again and I never slapped her again. I am not sorry I did it, I was a single parent and there were occasions when she was not in my sight. I only ever intended to use physical punishment for dangerous situations and that was dangerous. Later on, while trying to teach her how to behave appropriately, removing privelges worked fine.

Anonymous said...

I know I probably shouldn't say anything here for fear of being popped, but I wouldn't ever consider hitting a child - there is just no good that can come of resorting to physical violence with anyone - much less a small being that depends on you to keep them safe. You can reason with a child of almost any age - it just takes more patience when they are younger. How do you respond to negative feedback? It may change your behavior, but doesn't it also make you just a tiny bit resentful of the person doling out the penance? What about positive feedback? Try explaining what is the appropriate behavior, such as not running away in a crowd. Explain the consequences of what could happen if they did run away in a crowd - tempered of course to their age and level of understanding. Then, let them know that if they are good and stay with mommy and daddy through the entire event, there will be an extra story tonight or a favorite food at dinner or a lolly pop. Then, when the child starts veering toward running off, say something to the effect of "remember - there's a story at stake here". That has worked for our daughter since she was 3 - for nearly two years now. Before that, she was in a stroller at outings so as not to be in danger of running off or being stepped on. (Leashes are nearly as bad as spankings, but that is another diatribe altogether.)

Anonymous said...

The only exception I take is that spanking does NOT equal "beat them into submission". I was spanked - NOT beaten - as a child, and during circumstances where I was better off knowing just HOW serious my transgression was, with a smack on the bottom or the hand. There IS a line between spanking and beating, and some parents cross over into beating when their emotions and frustrations get the better of them. Spanking, though, is best and SELDOMLY used as a tool to impress significant seriousness on a child who doesn't understand reasoning, yet.

Now, as far as the IQ thing goes, I think the test itself is far too subjective, and the definition and circumstances, plus the effects on the child, that the "spanking" has on them - well, I can't see the connection between that and intellect. I agree with Patti and Jenifer totally.

amylia said...

I think a distinction needs to be drawn between spanking and physical abuse. I do not consider spanking physical abuse if it's a tap or a slap on the wrist or a pat on the butt and I know we can sugarcoat it any way we want with words like "pat" or "tap" but there really IS a difference between beating or hitting a child and spanking them, at least what I consider spanking. I am not anti-spanking, though I don't suggest employing it often. I am, however, (of course) against raising one's hand to a child, beating, giving someone a "whooping," using a belt or some other thing (my mom used a wooden spoon) or anything that leaves a mark--bruises, welts, hand prints, etc. I mean, if you're hitting a child that is NOT the same as spanking them--at least to me. I don't have kids so I can't say what I'd do but I do not think I would spank my child. Still, I do not think people who spank their kids are bad parents or are damaging their kids if it is not done with malice or out of frustration, anger, etc.

DmL said...

Yes "pop" sounds more agreeable than "beating the shit out of" because it is far more agreeable. And yes, she's three, did I mention she was bright? She's already figured out all the tricks. Part of parenting is the teaching of consequences. Part of being a consequence is knowing that sometimes things hurt. And I would rather she get a couple of light smacks on the arm now than for her to not be able to listen and behave under pressure. Some children need a sharp reminder that their behavior is over the edge. In fact, most of the time when I "spank" my child I hardly even touch her. Her reaction? Cries the same as if I had actually given her a good slap on the leg. It is completely psychological. Before you jump to conclusions, she usually gets time-outs, and before that we've even been successful with "deep breaths" for resetting.

"I think we're going to have to respectfully disagree on how a three year-old should be treated by an adult."

Anyway, who said I was an adult.

DmL said...

Sorry to double post, but I re-read some of the above comments. People, spanking is not necessarily VIOLENCE. I "HIT" my child, like Karen, when we are playing. HUGE RESOUNDING thuds on her back and stomach. When I "spank" her, you can't even imagine how tender, quick, light, and surgical it is. She is totally responding to my attitude and not the physics of the thing. And yes, it is more or less a last resort. And substitution of a much greater harm for a much lesser while still being connected in her mind.

Please stop equating punishment with violence. If I hit her in anger, then yes, I would be wrong, and often if I am angry I do not spank her even if I would otherwise for her behavior.

But your picture of my daughter as a weak, defenseless child is flat out wrong. Anyway, I gotta toughen her up if she's gonna play college football.

KarenH said...

One thing (of many) that bothers me as I read the comments is the idea that somehow there comes a point, for many readers/parents, where spanking is somehow okay -- that it teaches a lesson, that it can be distinguished from abuse, that toddlers or preschoolers can't or won't respond to reason or logic or warnings so spanking is then a reasonable response to the problem, that it's not really hitting all that hard anyway.

Well, what happens when it isn't the parent deciding to spank and how hard? What if the child is older, but disabled; or nonverbal; or uncomprehending because of neurological problems -- and the teachers decide that the child is deliberately testing limits, or doing something potentially dangerous? Does that make spanking in the classroom an appropriate response?

We all have read about how kids with disabilities are spanked more often in schools than neurotypical kids. Or they are treated with unreasonable force or punitive measures such as isolation. Is this okay because they are "not listening," or because warnings or time-outs "didn't work"?

If you believe that a child whose mental and/or physical wiring is different should not be hit, then exactly at what points does their situation differ from a neurotypical toddler who likewise can't explain his or her frustration, who is overwhelmed, afraid, excited, or otherwise out of control? Or who cannot remember and apply adult instructions in the moment?

There's a slippery slope here between saying on one hand that it's okay to swat your toddler who is pissing you off, or even running into the street, and saying that therefore it may very well be okay to hit someone with dementia, or autism, or ADHD, or any other disability that makes them challenging to deal with. If it's not okay to hit any of the latter, I can't understand why it's okay to hit, swat, pop, or whatever you want to call it, a small child either. They are all linked by difficulties with language, attention, thinking about consequences ... not to mention by their humanity.

Karen said...

Rob, when I said 3 was a prime age for spanking, I meant that it's probably the age when it occurs most. Most of the studies on spanking show that parents use it less and less as the child grows old enough to understand and follow rules. I'm not saying it's the 'best' age, just the most common. And to me, that makes some degree of sense. It's the age when a child becomes physically capable of dangerous behavior while they are typically not capable of understanding why they need to practice self-restraint.

Karen said...


I'd like to answer your comment. I have a 3 year old who is almost too physically capable for me to restrain. He can undo his buckles on his car seat and stroller (even when they're wrapped in several layers of duct tape), climb out of a crib or playpen, wriggle out of the most adults grasp, unlock the front door (and climb up to the higher lock we installed to keep him safe) and climb over the fence around our yard. He's like a tiny Houdini. I'm not exaggerating. He's done all of those things. But he doesn't understand how dangerous things are. I can't prevent them all because frankly, I need to pee from time to time. I also need to sleep.

My son doesn't understand why he shouldn't unbuckle himself in a car or go for a walk on the highway near our home. Rewards, promises of stories, bribes with sweets, punishments, time outs, and explanations haven't worked. Right now I avoid having him in a car whenever he's being particularly irrascible and I sleep in a chair in the living room so he can't get out at night. But if I can't control his behavior, I will spank. I will NOT put his life at risk over a spanking.

However, I agree that 'spanking' can become abuse, especially by those who do it in anger. And I agree that we should always take care to make sure children aren't abused, either by their families or by their teachers, and that extra care must be taken in defense of those children who cannot defend themselves. There is a slippery slope and it is a real concern.

But in my case, as in the case of many families, the prime decision about if and/or when it's appropriate to spank comes down to the best interests of the child. I will spank to stop a life-threatening behavior after all other methods have been tried repeatedly without success. I won't spank just because I can.

DmL said...

KarenH: Please define "neuro-typical". As far as I can tell each child is unique and must be responded to with that in mind. Karen's story hilights my point. Surely her child is "neuro-typical"?

Surely you don't suggest she leave him free to roam the neighborhood?

As for your citing of abuse in classrooms, I totally agree. And yes, there are times when I shouldn't "hit" my own child, and times when it is appropriate. Just like there are times when it is appropriate to feed a child, and times when it is not. (For instance, the food is rotten, or the child is choking.)

This "all cases all the time" mentality is frightening.

Robert Hudson said...

First of all, I'm going to set a ground rule here. What we're NOT going to do is have a debate about the word "neurotypical". It's not some squishy, New Age, liberal, feel-good word invented by People Firsters. It is a clinical term with a very specific meaning to families dealing with disabilities. If you don't know what it means, look it up.

A lot of you are very keen on making a distinction between spanking and abuse, but in doing so, I feel like you're almost making my point for me. One of you even came out and said that it is nothing less than "completely psychological".

And you're right, it is. Whether you are beating your child (and I'm going to express a minority opinion here and say that if you are hitting your child, you can parse terminology all you like, but you are beating them) or merely spanking them, you are using intimidation and the fear of physical pain in order to control your child. And that may be fine with you. It's still manipulation of a child through violence, and my comfort level doesn't extend there. If yours does, that's great. Bully for you. I have my own daughter to raise and protect. Your kid is your problem.

Finally, and I guarantee this is going to make some of you mad, but here's my opinion of the whole "spanking in the case of danger" argument. You may be busy, you may have a rambunctious child, or whatever. But if you have reached the point where you feel like you need to hit your child because they are walking into a busy street, or they are putting their hand on a hot stove, (and here's the part you're not going to like) then YOU HAVE ALREADY FAILED. You didn't protect your child from danger, which was your most important duty as a parent.

And that's not the end of the world. We all fail from time to time. But at that point, whether or not you decide that you have to physically hurt your own child in order to make things right, you are already operating from a position of failure. Sorry, but you are.

DmL said...

So do you grab the kid's arm when she runs toward the street? How hard do you hold on to keep her from getting out of your grip? What if she's really pulling?

What about a squirming baby that you're trying to keep from dropping? How tightly do you hold on until you can set her down, instead of letting her fall?

Life is full of pain. As for "neuro-typical" as a clinical word- I totally agree, that's why I asked. I don't see it having a place in a blog discussion and it should have never been brought up.

I respect your personal distaste for the idea of beatings. But your "extreming" of it is odd. You have alot of ideas that I find distasteful, which is why I've usually just lurked. I'm sorry this got so drawn out, I really did just want to know more about their definitions of spankings in the article, their methods of research and say something about the looseness that I percieved there. But this idea that cropped up that spanking a child is the worst or easiest way to ruin a child is just laughable.

As for spanking being manipulative... well I don't know what to say to that. Teaching your child is manipulating your child. Interacting with them as well, it's just a question of what you are going to try to shape them into. Personally I want my child to learn that she can manipulate her environment to suit her needs and ends. Sometimes that means hitting someone.

I have an honest question, what baseline do you use to measure your manipulation?

Robert Hudson said...

Personally I want my child to learn that she can manipulate her environment to suit her needs and ends. Sometimes that means hitting someone.

Yeah, I'm pretty sure we're not going to see eye to eye on this. Good luck with that parenting approach. Seriously.

Anonymous said...

Hey newbies - Rob knew (from last time he brought this up, and from the time before that) exactly what kinds of responses he was going to get from some of you. Because he is just that kind of smartass. But it works. Bet you'll think about it a bit next time you smack your kid.

DmL said...

Heh, Rob. Thanks, I need all the help I can get, and I'll take luck if that's what's on offer. Same to you. I'm finding the conversation quite interesting, although I'm sad my questions go unanswered.

Out of respect for you I'm not going as far as I might. But I really do have tons and tons of questions, though I suppose I can see why you wouldn't want to answer them.

Nothing but best for you and your family, and know that even though we disagree on pretty much everything (except that children are important, maybe : ) I'm still in your balcony cheering you on.


DmL said...

Sorry, I couldn't resist one last barrage of questions. You don't want Schuyler to bring the education system into her service? Isn't that why you moved to Plano in spite of everything else? That's all I meant.


Anonymous said...

My husband is 12 years older than me, was raised in the South, and is more conservative politically than I am. His childhood and mine were very different, even though we both had what we would call more-or-less happy childhoods. When I was pregnant with our first, I was reading everything I could get my hands on about child-rearing and stated that I didn't want our child spanked. I was spanked once or twice as a child, but my Dad was abused by his father, and even when I was little, I understood that getting "physical" was not something he wanted to do. My husband was spanked as a child. Everyone he knew was spanked. It's just what people did then, or at least it was at that time in East Texas. He assumed that we would, of course, spank our kids.

I remember reading that you needed to discipline a small child immediately after he or she misbehaved so he/she would understand exactly what the punishment was for. I also read that if a parent decides to spank, they need to never spank out of anger, and if possible wait a while to spank to ensure that you were not angry. Those things seemed incongruous to me. If I were tempted to spank, I thought, I would surely be angry, so I shouldn't do it. And, if I waited until I wasn't angry, or scared, or whatever other emotions I was feeling passed, then too much time would pass, and the child might not understand what the problem is.

My husband and I agreed to disagree, and to see how things went. When my son was about 13 months old or so, he started hitting things and people. That was really the first consistent discipline thing that we had to fight. And neither of us could imagine punishing him for hitting with hitting.

I know that by spanking, most people are not talking about beating or even causing physical pain. I completely can understand that playing/roughhousing can be more "painful" but to me it just sends the message that problems can be solved by hitting.

My oldest is 6, and my youngest is almost 2, and she's the most stubborn child I've ever seen, but we haven't ever discussed spanking her.

I would agree that the study and the reporting thereof is shoddy here. If you haven't read it, check out the book "Freakenomics." Fascinating how numbers can be twisted to tell almost any story you want. Correlation is not causation by any means, but it's sure interesting to see how people spin statistics. By the way, my husband is brilliant--a physicist actually--so the spankings he endured didn't seem to damage his IQ (tongue in cheek people, tongue in cheek). Or maybe he would have been even smarter...


Anonymous said...

I DID NOT FAIL my child because I slapped her hand twice after she turned on a gas burner. I have never failed my child, and that does not mean that as a human being I did not make mistakes. She is now 26 years old, working with children and adults with severe autism, in much the same way that I always have. I was a single, full time working parent completely committed to my daughter. And as a previous poster stated, sometimes I did have to use the bathroom. That is a fact of life. She had her hand slapped twice; I guess that would be 22 or 23 years ago. I did not beat her, I did not scream and her or berate her, I slapped her hand and told her that she was never to touch the stove again. I did not then and do not now condone child abuse of any kind. I've worked with kids who literally beat the crap out of me and as an adult and a professional, never thought of or considered doing anything other than what was prescribed in their behavior support plans. I have never been angry at any of them. I did not slap my daughter's hand out of anger. She needed to learn quickly that that was a something she was never ever to do and she did learn it. She was showered with love and affection. She was also taught not to touch things. As a child, her curiosity got the better of her. And as a parent, I had to make sure she never did it again. And she didn't. I love my daughter every bit as much as you all love your children. She did not live in fear, she lived with love. I taught her a lot,in loving positive ways.

Karen said...

Rob, I agree that as a parent I have already failed. If my child is unbuckling his car seat while I'm driving, I've failed. If I pull over and buckle him in and duct tape the buckles so that I would have to use the scissors I keep in the glove compartment to get him out and while I duct tape I explain that he should not do that because it's dangerous, he could get hurt, it scares mommy and I'll get him out soon and if he's good and stays in I'll buy him ice cream and he STILL unwraps the duct tape and unbuckles himself, then I have failed yet again. And if I keep pulling over each and every time he does this and keep re-buckling and duct taping and expaining, bribing, warning, etc. and he STILL unbuckles and is at risk I've failed again. I agree to all that. But that doesn't change the fact that he's in danger.

Has this situation occured? Yes, on a recent trip to see family. Did I spank my child? No. I'm still working on every other possible method of keeping him safe, including not taking him anywhere in a car, a stroller, or a bicycle since he can and will escape all of those when I'm busy doing things like watching traffic. I've had parenting classes (not court ordered in case you were thinking that) and I've tried every technique they taught me and every technique in the five different parenting books I own.

But my dilemma is that at some point, I will have to not only have him in a car, but have him in a car on a busy road.

So, being practical... Do you or your readers have suggestions to avoid that? I'm being serious. Accepting the fact that I have already failed as a parent, what else can I and should I do to keep my child safe? Because I think that at this point, spanking is preferable to him flying through a windshield. So someone give me some other options.

Anonymous said...

I was spanked as a child. I was NOT in general afraid of my parents during the time when I was being spanked (both of them might be the one that spanked me). I *did* sometimes not do things that I really wanted to do (eg play with matches) because I did not want to be spanked, because I always felt really guilty and like I knew I was breaking the rules if I was being punished that way. I knew I wasn't supposed to play with matches, I knew WHY and that it was dangerous, and even understood abstractly that I might burn the house down in a worst case scenario, but I was a little firebug and if I did not know that I would be spanked, and feel awful about being spanked, I would've kept playing with them A LOT. On the other hand, I much preferred my household, where we got punished if we did something AWFUL, and it was likely to be spanking and when the spanking was over it was over (if we did something obnoxious but not clearly dangerous we just got reasoned at until we were bored), to friends' houses where "good" behavior was much more complex and demands were higher ... and punishments involved revoking access to pleasurable things for long periods of time, timeouts where you had to sit quietly for half an hour, etc.

Despite my idyllic younger childhood (that did include some spanking), when I was a teenager my family was going through some major problems and my father started to act so angry all the time that I was terrified of him. I was only subjected to physical abuse ONCE during this time period, but it was so completely terrifying (especially the part where he denied that it had happened at all), and the non-physical but verbal/non-verbal-signals environment for years before and after was so scary, that I'm still afraid of him, years later when he is a much kinder and more reasonable person.

I guess where I'm going with this is that I've BEEN spanked and I've BEEN physically abused, NOT at the same time, and the experiences were very very different. I trusted my father absolutely as a child, even though I was spanked from time to time, and I was terrified of him after he hit me in a rage *once*. I am absolutely certain that there is a difference.

I have friends who spank their children whose children also trust their parents in that absolute way (it's pretty obvious), and who are bright and outgoing and curious and exploratory... and I'm also acquainted with (sometimes you stay connected with family so the kids have somewhere to go when they get older) people who spank in ways that are petty and mean. There is a difference. I would *never* spank a kid but I am clear, from observing both kinds of spanking families, that there is a difference, and that I'm ok with some spanking and not with other spanking.

And by God, I sure don't feel sorry for those kids I know whose WONDERFUL WONDERFUL parents spank them. I would've given anything as a young teenager to trade my dad who raged in furies around the house back for the gentle, loving dad I originally had (same man) who nonetheless occasionally spanked me if I played with matches or hung one of my younger sibs over the banister (12 feet off the floor) because we both thought it was a lot of fun.

Anonymous said...


I think you have a situation that has moved far beyond platitudes in parenting books. Three year old are capable of phsyically doing things, but aren't capable of understanding danger. Lots of children at three are into things and trying to escape the house, but if you have to sleep in a chair at night to protect him, you need a different strategy.

Please seek out a behavioural specialist to help you learn to deal with your son's behaviour.

In general with small children, a negative response is just as good as a positive one. Behavioural modification can help your child learn to behave appropriately. Since you feel your child is old enough to be reasoned with, I would try the following with regard to a car ride:

1. Pick a location that he would really like to drive to. A playground, the pool, the mall whatever.

2. Explain that if he unbuckles his seat, you will pull over and go no where.

3. Then follow through. The minute he unbuckles, pull over and sit. Don't respond. Don't get angry. Don't reason. Just say, we are going no where until you sit in your seat and stop unbuckling the safety buckles. When he indicates he is ready to go, buckle him back in and start again.

4. This is hard to do and you have to be firm and consistent. There is a period of extinction where the behaviour gets worse before it gets better and this makes it doubly hard to do.

A blog comment is too brief to really explain how behaviour modification works, but it does work. (Again, we are talking about neuro-typical children. There are different considerations and techniques for kids on the autism spectrum or who have ADHD or cognitive issues.)

Find a professional and get some help.


Sherry said...

I'm more than a little disturbed to learn that so many people still feel that spanking is an acceptable way to discipline. I guess I was naive in assuming this generation of parents was evolved enough to realize how wrong it is and that there are alternatives that would help a child learn self-respect and foster more self-confidence. And I must agree with Rob when he points out that no distinction can be made between spanking and beating. They are one and the same. People seem to want to form a distinction to ease their guilt and rationalize their irrational response to their child's misbehaviour.

Do people not realize that you are only getting results by instilling FEAR in your child? And your child doesn't respect you, they FEAR you!! That fear translates to resentment! Is that REALLY the goal you want to achieve? You are hurting your child on multiple levels and in profound ways. That's not ok.

BTW, I think people grossly underestimate the capacity a three year old has to be reasoned with. Things just have to be presented in a way that they will understand. Violence is NOT the way to communicate with toddlers and for those who think otherwise, I feel sorry for your children.

Any adult who punishes a child with physical violence is merely showing an inability to control their own anger. There is nothing more disturbing than a grown adult inflicting physical (and resultant emotional) pain on a child. It is deplorable... and it should be a crime.

KarenH said...

Karen, I feel so much sympathy and concern for your situation with your son, and I completely agree with the poster who urged you to seek professional guidance and a behavior program.

Interestingly, the ABA (behavior modification program in common use) has itself been modified over the years. It originally used physical punishment for behaviors -- from shocks to slaps to water squirts -- and over the years has changed to a combination of positive reinforcement and what the earlier poster describes: not reacting to the bad behavior, using calm, refusing to go on until the child complies.

It seems to have a very high success record. But there is no doubt that following through consistently with this kind of program is very tough and requires ENORMOUS amounts of time and effort. So it is generally used for really dangerous
or problematic behaviors like those you describe, not for every issue.

I also want to say that in my earlier post I did not mean to directly criticize any one individual's decision to spank a child -- despite the fact that my own feelings are very different. What I tried to do was open the door to a larger issue: to question what happens if an acceptance in spanking moves beyond the family and into the classroom or any other arena. Are parents the only ones who can judge when it is okay to spank, and how hard is acceptable? If so, why is it not equally all right for teachers or care givers or babysitters or anyone else in charge of the child (a parent whose house your child is visiting, for example) to make their own decisions about a child's motivation or danger level, and spank? What if not everyone agrees on the degree of force or the situation required to allow its use? What separates the use of spanking from young, willful, inarticulate, impulsive children from spanking older, nonverbal, impulsive, or uncontrollable ones (my own child on the autistic spectrum, or Schuyler, or my sister's child who, as a result of a chromosome deletion and its effects, yells and hollers nearly around the clock and bangs his head or grinds his teeth until he cracks the enamel)? I don't think there are any easy distinctions to be made here.

I meant to ask a philosophical question rather than deal out any kind of direct criticism.

Mekei said...

Haven't read all the comments so pardon any repetition... How about the number of US States that still allow for paddling in their schools? Add to that, recent data that says disabled kids get 'paddled' more often on average than their 'typical' peers?! What's the lesson there? How 'bout we attempt to influence our state ed depts before we try to come into each others' homes!

Anonymous said...

Schuyler is a beautiful little girl;her sparkle shines through in those eyes and her smile just lights up the page. She is going to do very well in life, looks like she already is doing well.

Karen said...

KarenH and Anonymous,

Thanks for the advice. I did have to seek professional help for my daughter when she was this age. And I do use many of the techniques that I learned for my son. My son is not 'defiant' in the sense of meaning to challenge my authority or to be stubborn. He is just happy and excited with the world. He sees no harm in going outside to explore or in unbuckling his car seat so that he can climb over and give his sister a kiss. He is not mean-spirited, just at an age where he doesn't understand limits. And he is amazingly strong and capable, i.e. healthy. I know that this will pass. And right now this is new behavior (within the past two months) so I am still trying every potential approach before I try spanking. My point is that I would consider spanking as a last resort option rather than refuse to consider it. I see spanking as preferable to him being in a dangerous situation and even though I know it's my fault that he's in that situation to begin with, I still need to do something about it.

watchwhathappens said...

I think my perspective is somewhat different as I WAS hit and *don't* think I "came out ok". In fact, I still flinch when people make quick movements around me, and I know for absolute sure this is a direct response to being hit repeatedly as a child. My mother was full of rage and is a different person now, but she hit us HARD, until we were big enough to stop her. When you hear experts talking about how this kind of behavior changes a child's very synapses, sometimes irreparably, they are correct. Unfortunately, there are lots of people who would dismiss my experience and tell me to just suck it up or stop complaining. This is not something I speak of with anyone for that very reason. For those who are saying "there's a difference between spanking and beating a kid to a pulp", I would argue otherwise. I was never "beaten to a pulp", but I was changed forever. There's a visceral fearfulness and jittery-ness that I have that is the direct result of my mother's hitting. And my mother's hitting was HER anger, not any particularly horrendous behavior by us kids, which is often the case. I'm in my 40s and I still feel the effects. I would not wish this on any child or adult.

watchwhathappens said...

Oh, also, I should mention that the most well-behaved and delightful children I know are my 2 nieces and my friend's 5 kids. That's 7 kids all together, ranging in age from 1-14. None of them have ever been spanked in any form. EVER. I was recently in a small cramped store with lots of little breakable things with the 5 kids age 1-8. When we left, the owner THANKED the kids for being so well behaved. I've seen this happen several times. Setting boundaries and lots of love and respect have worked wonders.

7th House Doula said...

I was never spanked. My cousins, however, were "spanked" (beaten with flyswatters) when they misbehaved. The fear and misery in that house was palpable, even by me as a tiny kid. I remember sitting outside my cousins house sobbing while my uncle screamed and "spanked" them for feeding a stray dog. The crashing pots and pans, the screaming, still haunt me.

Do all parents who "spank" go to this extreme? No, not at all. But I believe all spanking comes from the same place - anger/fear. Your child is doing something out of your control and you want to regain some of that control. I hope to god you never let your temper get out of hand. My poor cousins. I could never in life hit a child.

And to the people who say, "It doesn't hurt them, it's just psychological." What the... You think just because it doesn't physically hurt, that means it didn't scar them in some way on the emotional or mental side? Cripes, I never got hit at all and I'm scarred by my uncle's actions.

Torako said...

I was spanked as a child. I don't believe I was any worse off because of it, although there were a lot of other variables (parents' divorce, lack of friends, etc etc) which I think damaged me more but I could be wrong there. Nevertheless, if I ever have kids I probably won't spank them. And yes, there is a difference between discipline and abuse. Spanking a young child for doing something which could harm them is discipline. Grabbing a teenager's hair and trying to rip it out, I'd say that's abuse. I think the line there is that one of them causes actual physical damage while the other one just makes the child realize that they shouldn't do whatever they did. Parents DO have authority. They can't always be buddy-buddy with their kids because then the kids will do whatever the hell they want. That said, I'm not a parent. I'm only 17. But that's my confusing two-cent's worth.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with maribou. I was "punished" with spankings by my mother, who wasn't an angry or aggressive person. I was "assaulted" with spanking by my father, who was invariably full of rage and shouting hateful things at the same time he was hitting me. Even if my mom's actual smacks were more physically painful, the emotional scars from that experience were nothing compared to those from my dad's temper tantrums. I also believe it is absolutely possible to experience a violent, oppressed, miserable childhood even if no one lays a hand on you physically. The emotional abuse I endured had a much deeper, longer-lasting effect on me than being spanked. I suspect that's the case with you as well, Rob, but it's so irrefutablly wrong to smack a child that it's an easy argument to win.

That said, I never have and never will spank my 7-year-old daughter.

Miz Kizzle said...

I'm aghast at how many supposedly rational adults defend hitting children. Call it a "love tap" or a "pop on the arm" it's still a larger, more powerful person using physical force and the fear of future physical force to subjugate a smaller person.
Jimmy left the freezer door open again?
Pop him one.
Tanya talked back to you?
Pop her one.
That sort of unthinking violence (yes! violence.) only creates resentment and fear in the children you supposedly love.
I don't hit the people I love. I don't hit the big people I love and I don't hit the small people I love. Case closed.
If I can raise three children, two of them quite strong-willed, without resorting to hitting, anyone can.
My parents smacked the living daylights out of me. They weren't uneducated or poor, they just had short fuses and rather than come up with a better way to direct me they hit.I was a lively and curious child who wore them out with my questions and so-called stubbornness. They succeeded in intimidating me to the point where I was so nervous that I chewed my nails to the quick and pulled out my hair and eyelashes.
I'm nearing fifty and I still remember those beatings with rage and shame. Before my husband and I had children I resolved to never strike my children and I never did. Not once.
I have an IQ in the superior range and I work as a lawyer at one of the top firms in the Northeast but I have problems with anxiety and self-image. I wonder what I would have been like if my parents hadn't chosen to hit me.
And as for DmL and the others who support"popping" little kids, I wonder how he'd like it if his boss or someone in authority over him decided he'd benefit by an occasional "popping?"

loafingcactus said...

While I do not agree with all of Rob's conclusion, the general idea is exactly what I thought when I heard the NPR article. There's more going into the overall environment of those children than a reduction to an ill-defined parenting act that is employed in a broad variety of interactions across the population.

It is not dissimilar to the article about junk food and life outcomes on NPR today, or similar articles on family breakfasts or family dinners. These things tend to be signals of certain issues in a family, but in themselves they do not define a family.

Michele said...

Wow! Just wow! I can't believe so many people find it acceptable to hit a child. It's never okay to hit a child. Period!

I just have this question...How many of you hit your spouse, co-worker, boss, or friend because they are doing something you don't like? I bet none of you raised your hand to that one!

It's abuse no matter how many ways you people want to justify it. My son has ADHHHHHD/OCD/ODD. If I can manage him without having to spank him I'm willing to bet you all can manage your children just fine.

People who hit their kids make me sick!

Chaos Mom said...

i am thinking that ppl have a very different definition of "spanking" than i do. a swat on the behind? a full-on bare bum smacking? something that requires the use of a belt or a switch?

i am also thinking ppl's reasons for using a "spanking" are very different from mine, as well.

i don't think spanking (by my definition/reason, anyway) is wrong. having said that, i can think of maybe 4 times i ever spanked my child, and he claims he doesn't even remember ever being spanked! (he's almost 18 now)

Jana said...

I have a three-year-old. My husband and I are struggling with how to communicate what is and isn't appropriate behavior. I have to admit that spanking (typically the threat of spanking) is the only thing that's seemed to work. But I don't like doing it, and I would like to find another way.

So, this is a plea to Rob's readers: point me to books, to website, to sources that will help me find ways to effectively educate, inform, and discipline my child without spanking. Because I'm no idiot and I really don't want to do things the idiot way. But I also want my daughter to grow up to be a respectful, considerate and thoughtful person.

Anonymous said...

I don't believe in spanking and don't spank my children. However, I think that's quite different from the "danger reflex," i.e. your child starts running toward the street and you reflexively grab him, possibly yanking too hard in your fear and haste to save him. I can also see myself possibly lunging at my child, reaching for a hot stove, and slapping his hand away if I truly thought he was going to burn himself. But in those moments, you are not "punishing" your child, you are trying to prevent an injury from a physical danger. And afterwards you can explain what happened, and apologize, etc (yes, even to a 3-yr-old). In my mind spanking is something done (usually in anger), in response to an undesirable behavior, as a punishment.

Anonymous said...

Jana-try the book "How to Talk So Your Kids Will Listen and Listen so Your Kids Will Talk." I have found it very helpful.