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A Spanking Good Idea?

November 15, 2007
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Spare the rod, spoil the child ... This is going to hurt me more than it hurts you.

So goes an old saying, and a more modern one, about the practice of punishing children by spanking them.

But another school of thought states that spanking is cruel treatment and unnecessary punishment, and that there are other, saner ways to correct children that don't involve hitting and putting hands on them in a threatening fashion -- calmer ways that achieve the desired results.

Recently, a man created national headlines in the United States by making and selling wooden paddles to parents for use in spanking. He claims that God told him to make the paddles, but disclaimed any responsibility also for either misuse or injury when the paddles were put into action on the belligerent behinds of their intended targets.

To shed light on the spanking issue -- one that generates considerable controversy and opinions -- several area medical professionals offered their expert insight on the topic.

"There is a lot of emotion that goes into discussions about spanking, but basically, spankings are a bad thing," said Nathan J. Blum, M.D., department of pediatrics at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. "Frequent spankings by parents can be abuse, and dangerous to the child's physical and mental health; however, I don't have a hard time with a swat on the bottom done, on occasion, always with an open hand. But, of course, nothing beyond that, ever, and only to make a point, if, for example, a toddler runs into the street.

"Let's face it, no parent is perfect, and no kid is perfect. Still, the swat is not absolutely necessary and should be avoided, if at all possible."

And spanking done beyond the elementary-school years, beyond the age of 6 or 7, he continued, is harmful since the child, as he becomes older, may view it as acceptable behavior.

Also, children who were either spanked or abused are much more likely to either spank or abuse their own kids, he said.

"Spanking is not necessary to raise well-behaved children; there are other ways to correct. Usually, parents spank when they're angry and have lost control. That's when it can become abusive. As a guideline, the American Academy of Pediatrics condemns spanking and says no spanking at all is good," stated Blum.

Teach by Example

One of the most viable options to spanking is to teach kids by example; for instance, teaching them to share if they're squabbling over a toy, not using physical force to get them to stop. When they get the message, reward this appropriate behavior with praise and attention, he recommended.

"Pro-social behavior is taught in this way, but good teaching also requires close monitoring of children's behavior," the doctor pointed out.

Another option: Use timeouts. This technique will teach kids self-calming skills "since it's a good punishment and a strong strategy for young children to learn that can carry over into adult life when staying calm really counts," he added.

Discipline and punishment, explained Blum, are different, but all too often are considered the same thing: "Discipline means teaching, but punishment is a response to a behavior that is designed to discourage a repetition of that behavior.

"The problem with punishment is that it teaches kids what you don't want them to do, but it doesn't teach them what you want them to do," he said.

Clearly, noted Blum, in the matter of spanking, there are some cultural factors that affect the acceptability of it -- some people view it as the only right way to bring up kids. "And there are some kids who are developmentally delayed, and some who are more temperamental. Such children present much more of a challenge to parents, who must practice patience and self-control.

"In all of this, some thinking ahead by a parent is needed. But if a parent is hitting a child frequently and resorting to timeouts very often, then it's time to get some advice," he stated.

"There are times when you're going to wind up hitting your kid; recognize that you did, and work to end it."

At Abington Memorial Hospital, Steven Shapiro, D.O., chairman of the department of pediatrics, said, "I am not a fan of spanking, since kids perceive that it's okay to hit other people, so more damage can come of it before any good is done. If parents are using 'spare the rod, spoil the child' as a guide to maintain control, they've missed the point about their role as parents.

"The first thing that came to mind, as I was thinking about this topic, was 'thy rod and thy staff shall guide me' from the 23rd Psalm. Parents are here to guide their children with only that kind of rod and staff. They're not commanded to injure children. Those who spank are dealing with other issues. If they're yelling too much or are 'reflex hitters,' they need to get professional help.

"For example, even if a parent smacks a child's hand when the child picks up something, then drops it and it breaks, that parent is sending the message, 'I don't want you to use your hands to explore the world,' and that's wrong, since a child must explore the world around," explained Shapiro.

Parents must articulate what they want a child to do and must build up the idea that they value the child, he said. What he called the hugs-to-hits ratio must be 100 times more hugs, because a child will remember just one hit, especially if delivered in anger.

"The parent-child relationship must never be built on fear," he warned.

Harris Rabinovich, a senior child psychiatrist at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia, said that some principles set up to raise children are fairly straightforward. "Corporeal punishment is not acceptable since it's negative reinforcement, not positive reinforcement. Also, most people set up punishment systems -- some physical -- and not reward systems, because they take good behavior for granted.

"There is an historical view of children that says they do bad, that they use bad judgment, that they're repulsive and animal-like, that they're not fully formed, so there are those parents who resort to hitting as a solution when children misbehave," he said.

"However, there are some parents who are good at reinforcing the positive, who talk with their kids about what is right and wrong. While there are some kids who are very provocative, who are harder to raise than others, we're all a combination of nature vs. nurture, and for each one of us, those forces are different."

Spanking is never acceptable, he continued, since it teaches kids that bigger people are allowed to hit smaller ones, and can lead, for example, to those classic examples of bullying and later to physical confrontations with others, including parents.

But a swat on the bottom for some very serious reason -- for example, behavior by a child that places that child in danger -- is okay, as long as a parent also tells the child, "I'm glad you're okay," acknowledged Rabinovich.

"Kids should listen to parents out of respect and affection, not fear," he said. "Parents who rely on fear should seek help."

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