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Hitting kids for their own good

3/10/2014

Among many families, discipline by spanking is an institution. I got some "lickin's" myself. A slender spirea-bush switch could leave welts.

My parents were loving, did not view spankings as abusive, and were just doing what they learned from their own parents. They were spanked, like their parents and grandparents before them. They were doing the best they could, but they never questioned the effectiveness of the practice. When it didn't work (as was clearly the case with my sibling), they just kept doing it, hoping for better results.

The same linear familial transmission of physically violent practices also occurs in the context of "child abuse." Abusive parents and spouses tend to have children who become abusive parents and spouses.

But we never spanked our own kids. It's a tradition that stopped with us; our kids don't spank their kids either.

By "spanking," I mean delivering blows with one's hand or some object like a paddle or switch, not just a swat on a well-padded butt to focus a toddler who hasn't learned to listen yet. Blows that are actually painful, and might even leave bruises or welts.

There are many problems with spanking. Essentially, we can only spank someone if we're stronger than they are -- we don't want to become the spankee ourselves, at the hands of a hulking, hormonally chaotic teen. So spanking exploits a critical size and strength discrepancy between parent and child. It's an exercise in applied power.

This lesson is not lost on the child. Experiencing helplessness, terror, humiliation and rage, he learns sheer strength and power provide both a means and an entitlement to inflict suffering. Just wait, he thinks -- someday I'll be the one with the power.

Violence, he learns, is an acceptable way to make other people do what you want them to. If you're in a hurry, why not skip the carrots entirely and go directly to the stick?

There's another lesson too: If Mommy gets mad enough, she will hit me.

In the eyes of a child, the presumed guilt is shared at best. Kids often don't reason their way to their behaviors. They act impulsively, impetuously, hastily, driven by surging and often unfamiliar emotions. They don't conduct situational analyses, assess risks and benefits, and then select the most prudent action.

A spanked child, bursting with anger and resentment, is more likely to project his guilt onto the parent. "What I did wasn't all that bad; Mom is the one who's being unreasonable -- this is mostly her fault, not mine." It encourages evasion, because it seems the primary mistake is just being caught.

Since the kid won't reliably react to such punishment with reason, any benefit would have to occur on a subconscious level. We know this as "conditioning," or the "stimulus-response" effect. Subconsciously, the theory goes, the kid will forego future bad decisions just because his brain associates the behavior with the painful consequences. He needn't consciously think "if I do this, I'll be spanked."

This "aversive conditioning" actually does work for some situations ­-- in animals, certainly, and among humans as well.

The trouble is, effective conditioning requires the stimulus (misbehavior) and the response (punishment) occur close together, not separated by many minutes or hours. If the infraction happened yesterday, and the spanking today, the close subconscious connection never happens. So "wait until your father gets home" is not only unfair to the father, but ineffective as a conditioning exercise.

Should we therefore spank as soon as possible after the infraction becomes known? Generally, that's a bad idea. At that particular time, those doing the spanking are often angry, upset, frustrated -- and therefore, in many cases, intemperate. Anger, not correction, dominates the scenario. Blows can be harder than the parent intends or realizes. Discipline fades as violent anger looms. This just isn't such an issue with a "time-out."

Spanking tends to focus attention on the punishment, not the crime.

When a kid is acting out in violent ways -- breaking windows, assaulting a sibling -- the use of force might be unavoidable. In such situations, spanking would probably not be the method employed -- wrestling to the floor, or pinning arms, perhaps. But this isn't discipline, it's damage control. Calling the cops might be necessary.

Aside from its potentially destructive consequences, and as a practical matter, spanking has never been shown to work any better than other methods.

We try timeouts, curtailing privileges, banning cellphones and TV, and those don't always work either. When they fail, there's no reason to believe escalating to spanking will finally solve the problem. Shall we then spank harder? More often?

In fact, some kids resist any kind of disciplinary intervention. Many of these suffer from emerging conduct disorder, "oppositional-defiant" kids who might progress to "antisocial personality disorder" in adulthood. They lie, cheat, steal, but usually seem to be ordinary nice guys. They do not respond to any discipline, and spanking only provokes them to more intense aggression. Sadly, these are the ones who are most likely to get spanked -- a lot.

Too often, spanking is an act of desperation. Desperate acts undermine our moral authority. Desperate people aren't good role models.

Discipline can be tough. But spanking is more likely to make things worse than better. Far from serving as a last resort, it shouldn't even be an option.

Jon Hauxwell, MD, is a retired family

physician who grew up in Stockton and now lives outside Hays.

hauxwell@ruraltel.net

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