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Is Spanking Right Or Wrong? Science Has An Answer

Would you ever spank your child?

Over at the Stir today, Linda Sharps has some interesting things to say about spanking. She’s in a similar position to my own. She doesn’t spank her kids, and doesn’t see the day coming where she ever will.

But she says she understands better now why some people do it, and doesn’t feel comfortable saying it’s always wrong for all families all of the time.

For myself, I find that the longer I’m a mom, the less willing I am to sit in judgement about other people’s parenting choices on just about everything. I know what’s right for me and my family. I know how hard it is to show up and keep doing the right things, day after day. I know there’s a broad range of right choices, and that all parents make mistakes.

It’d be nice if there were just a clean, clear answer to the spanking debate. Turns out, there might well be.

You Are Not So Smart isn’t a parenting blog. It’s a blog (and a forthcoming book) about the quirks of human behavior. In a recent essay on something called “the backfire effect”, they used spanking as an example of a topic people get deeply emotionally invested in, so much so that they refuse to believe evidence that disagrees with their emotional position.

Here’s how they introduced it:

Well…consider a topic like spanking. Is it right or wrong? Is it harmless or harmful? Is it lazy parenting or tough love? Science has an answer, but let’s get to that later. For now, savor your emotional reaction to the issue and realize you are willing to be swayed, willing to be edified on a great many things, but you keep a special set of topics separate.

Science has an answer?! My interest was piqued. I’ve been writing about parenting for years. I read every spanking study or article I see. I had no idea there was a definitive answer from scientists about its impact on children.

I will spare you the thousand or so words on how the backfire effect functions before I came to the big reveal on what science says about spanking. Here it is:

So, how about spanking? After reading all of this, do you think you are ready to know what science has to say about the issue? Here’s the skinny - psychologists are still studying the matter, but the current thinking says spanking generates compliance in children under seven if done infrequently, in private and using only the hands. Now, here’s a slight correction: other methods of behavior modification like positive reinforcement, token economies, time out and so on are also quite effective and don’t require any violence.

The authors of You Are Not So Smart ask whether your opinion has changed after reading that. I’m betting it hasn’t. Mine didn’t. They are totally right: spanking is a topic most people have strong emotional responses to, and all the facts in the world won’t sway us.

I find spanking abhorrent. I don’t spank my kids, and can’t imagine that I ever would. Knowing that it “generates compliance in children under seven” doesn’t sound like a ringing endorsement to me. It might work, but at what cost to the child’s developing sense of self? Or your emerging relationship with your kid?

I had the same response reading Linda’s post on The Stir. There were plenty of reasoned comments from people saying that they spank their children, or think spanking is acceptable. I read them, and I perhaps understand a bit where they’re coming from, but I think their premise is just wrong. Spanking is wrong, in my head. It’s as simple as that. There might be a wide array of right answers when it comes to disciplining a young child, but spanking is not one of them.

That said, the ambivalent science does influence me in one way: it makes me aware that my position is an emotional one, based on my feelings about what is right. There’s no hard evidence to back me up. Spanking isn’t objectively bad. It just seems bad to me. I may never spank my children, but I can accept that this is my position. Other people might disagree and still be good parents.

What do you think? Would you ever spank your child? Does knowing more about the science on spanking sway you one way or the other?

Another mom tackles this issue: I don’t Spank My Kids

Photo: PinkStockPhotos

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