It’s time once again for me to clarify my position on spanking. I arrived at this reluctant conclusion because twice in the last week, I’ve been informed that I believe in it, which is not exactly true.
The problem is that in today’s anti-intellectual environment, if one does not take a strong public stand against some controversial issue, then lots of folks think one must approve.
First, I do not hold a mere opinion on spanking. My position is based on solid, replicated research done by objective people who aren’t seeking to affirm an ideological presupposition. The researchers in question are Robert Larzelere, professor of psychology at Oklahoma State University, and Diana Baumrind, professor of psychology at UC-Berkeley, retired. In my estimation, Larzelere’s and Baumrind’s studies of the outcomes of so-called corporal punishment are the only such studies worth the paper they’re printed on.
Unfortunately, the media are prone to giving attention to studies that purport sensational outcomes, such as the claim that spanking lowers IQ or predisposes a child to criminality. Larzelere and Baumrind (L&B) have devoted much of their work to critiquing the studies in question, exposing their design flaws and authors’ contaminating biases.
In a 2010 paper ( scholarship.law.duke.edu), L&B report that authoritative parenting – characterized by a high level of nurturing (unconditional love), reasonably high expectations, respect for autonomy and firm discipline (unequivocal authority) – consistently produces the best outcome (according to measures of child well-being and adjustment). All of the authoritative parents in their studies reported that they occasionally spanked. In this parenting context, L&B were unable to identify any negative outcome to occasional, moderate (two swats with the open hand to a child’s buttocks) spankings.
Furthermore, they found that when used in conjunction with other discipline such as time-out and removal of privilege, spankings served to enhance the effectiveness of these other methods and could be and usually was phased out. They stress that spanking should not be used with a child below 18 months of age and have previously found that its effectiveness, even when used appropriately, greatly diminishes after the sixth birthday.
Therefore, that is my position. I do not BELIEVE in spanking in the sense of thinking it is essential to proper discipline. I do believe, however, that with certain children, given certain offenses, and when the parents in question qualify, by L&B’s definition, as authoritative, spanking can be effective and is not harmful.
That rational, logical, research-based position will satisfy some, but it will not satisfy anti-spanking activists, who would have the government tell parents how they may and may not discipline their children. They see no difference between two open-handed swats to a child’s rear end and a brutal beating. These are some of the extremists Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis had in mind when he wrote, “The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning, but without understanding.”