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Parents in Aggressive Domestic Relationships More Likely to Spank Kids

A new study published in Pediatrics suggests that parents who are aggressive toward one another are more likely to slap their children.  It’s important to note that we’re not talking broken-bones-and-cigarette-burns-level domestic violence here; just basic aggression (or passive-aggression), such as, “slaps, kicks or keeping a partner from seeing his or her family,” according to Reuters.  

Researchers found that 7 out of 10 U.S. families reported this type of abuse between couples, and within those families, 2 out of 3 toddlers were “spanked by a parent within the last month,” according to lead author Catherine A. Taylor, of the Tulane University School of Public Health.

Is that the relationship dynamic that was at play in the recent incident on Southwest, where flight attendant Beverly Kay McCurley intervened as a mother hit her child?

According to the Dallas Morning News, “McCurley told officers she saw the mother hit the child on the face with her open hand while the father yelled at the mother to stop screaming at the girl.  McCurley described the mother as agitated.  She said the woman also slapped the baby on the legs and told the child to shut up…. The father told McCurley the parents had several arguments about the mother hitting the child.”

Obviously there’s no real way to get inside this marriage from the contents of one news article, but I wonder if the parents weren’t suffering discord in their relationship, the kind that makes even routine things like a baby crying seem catastrophic.  Maybe the mother felt like other people on the plane would judge her harshly for letting her baby cry, and she felt desperate to end the noise?  The mother later told police, “When she’s screaming and she can’t hear me say no, that’s the only way I can get her to stop.”

Of course hitting a crying child is only going to make them cry harder, but I understand the feeling of helplessness that drives people to do it.  At the end of my marriage, when tensions were high and the air of aggression was thick, both my ex and I hit our daughter on one or two occasions when she was unable to stop crying at bedtime.  Of course we used spanking as a last resort, after trying for an hour to soothe her with singing and hugs and stuffed animals.  But when you feel trapped, when you’re trying to deal with the pressure of a crying child on top of a bad relationship, it’s easy to react in ways that don’t make sense.  (I mean, why didn’t we just shut the door and let her cry it out?  I don’t know.  Because that seems cruel, too, I suppose.)  

Taylor says, “Parents that find themselves in relationships where there is aggressive or controlling behavior, even if it is minor, may want to seek counseling for themselves and for the good of their children.”  Reuters notes that, “Earlier studies have hinted — but not proven — that spanking may leave a psychological mark on toddlers, prompting aggression years later.”  While psychologists recommend time-outs and other types of non-physical punishment, and both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Psychological Association discourage spanking, a 2008 U.S. survey showed “that 77 percent of men and 65 percent of women agree that a child sometimes needs a good hard spanking.”

We’ve written about spanking a bunch here on Strollerderby, and while most readers are against it, those who are for it say that it can be used in a controlled manor as an effective form of punishment.  I won’t bother to dispute that for a select few, corporal punishment can be used in a deliberate manor.  But I think this study proves that in most cases, it’s not doled out so precisely, nor is it effective.  It seems doubtful that in most cases corporal punishment is being used consciously as a parenting tool; instead, it seems to be a way for frustrated and hurt parents to displace their anger, a sad fate for any child to face.  I hope this study sheds light on the importance of parents maintaining a healthy relationship with one another, and makes people realize it can actually be better for the kids to leave a relationship that has been proven beyond repair.

Photo: Doane College

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