Iakov Filimonov/Shutterstock
Source: Iakov Filimonov/Shutterstock

Did your parents spank you? Mine spanked me, plenty. And, no, this will not be a story about my awful childhood. That’s because my parents were actually nice people practicing discipline in a way that, for their generation, was thoughtful.

My father’s rule of thumb, for example, was “Never strike a child when you’re angry. You can’t even touch a child in any way when you’re angry. You’d scare him, and that would be terrible.“

In other words, momentary pain was intended to be an instructive, aversive Skinnerian shock. Fear was not. Dad was that kinda guy.

When I grew up I was not that kind of parent. I didn’t spank at all, and certainly not when angry. Except for once, when I spanked my son. I was afraid. More about that later.

Discipline styles come in waves. The way I remember things, in the 1950’s virtually everyone spanked and set strong rules. In the '60s and '70s many parents were more laissez-faire, hoping not to dim their children’s natural inquisitiveness, and trusting that kids learn by trial and error. After that came the current climate of helicopter parenting with no corporal punishment. Ahem. “No corporal punishment” is what helicopter parents lead us to believe. But did you know that a 2013 Harris Poll found that four out of five American parents spank?

Why do they? 

After 1997 we all should have known better. Beginning that year, published studies have consistently shown that spanking doesn’t have much of a positive effect on behavior. Meanwhile, it can harm parent-child communication and lead a child into patterns of anxiety and aggression. Based on this research, 38 countries have made spanking illegal. Why has America not? And why do so many American parents still spank?

This month the journal Personality and Individual Differences published “Smacking Never Hurt Me,” an article that offers some answers to these questions. Australia is one of the few Western nations where spanking is still legal, and this article was authored by research psychologists at Australia’s University of Queensland. The researchers wanted to know whether fictitious popular beliefs keep spanking alive. They asked 366 freshman psychology students about 10 myths identified in modern spanking studies:

  1. Spanking is harmless.
  2. Occasional spanking does no damage.
  3. It’s unrealistic to think a parent would never spank.
  4. Spanking works. It helps build character and teaches responsibility.
  5. It works with boys and with girls.
  6. Spanking is better than other methods of discipline.
  7. Without spanking children will become spoiled and run wild.
  8. Spanking teaches respect.
  9. Spanking is the only punishment a child understands.
  10. A child should be spanked every time he or she misbehaves.

The 366 young adults were also presented with discipline scenarios and asked to identify how they would respond to each one: A time out? A discussion? A smack on the bottom?, etc.

What the researchers found was that the study participants who believed more strongly in spanking myths also indicated more frequently that they would spank. That’s not surprising. But these were psychology students. I, anyway, think of psychology students as interested in the motivations for and consequences of human behavior. Why did they believe in these myths when the dominant conversation in psychological literature about disciplining children warns about the danger of spanking and examines other less harmful, more productive parenting styles?

Well, as the authors of the study pointed out, very few of the participants were actually parents. They may have been reading psychology bulletins about mating behavior, not parenting styles. Time will tell, I suppose, if having children will make them think twice about hitting them.

But, please remember: I spanked once. I did so knowing full well that the fear of a slap from me was not what I wanted my children to carry with them. So why did I do it?

A rare tornado had just moved through our rural neighborhood. Our house was fine but a few of our trees were down. One was in the perilous “widow maker” position—almost down but caught on the branches of a nearby tree, branches that might at any moment give way.

Have you ever had a tornado turn parts of your road into tinder? It’s awe-inspiring. I was caught up in one kind of awe, and my two-year-old son was caught up in another. He was amazed by that widow maker. I very carefully and clearly said to him that he should not go near that tree. It could fall the rest of the way and kill him.

Author's drawing.
Source: Author's drawing.

“Wow! Death! Gimme some of that!” is what I imagine ran through his mind, because as soon as I’d finished warning him he set out full speed for the tree. I caught him by the arm and swatted him on the diaper. Immediately I was appalled by my action. And while I didn’t waste the next 20 years fretting about that moment, I have rarely admitted my action to anyone.

But thanks to "Smacking Never Hurt Me," I think I'd better understand the moment I hit my child. The researchers speculated about why adequately informed parents like me sometimes spank. They point out that a host of studies show that children who are spanked often become parents who spank, and suggest that people who are spanked during their preverbal years may store those experiences in their still-quite-primitive brains. During times of stress they may react as their parents once reacted with them. “They respond instinctively rather than cognitively,” is how the researchers put it.

Whatever. It was so long ago. He’s fine. I’m fine. The neighborhood’s fine. The tree fell down and no one was hurt. Really. It was only one tap on the diaper. (I think that’s Myth #2 I’m relying on here.)

Author's website
Source: Author's website

For more information: Antonia M. Kish and Peter A. Newcombe, "Smacking Never Hurt Me: Identifying Myths Surrounding the Use of Corporal Punishment," Personality and Individual Differences.

By day Rebecca Coffey is a science journalist, contributing to Scientific American, Discover, and Vermont Public Radio, and other radio and newspaper outlets. But by night Rebecca is a novelist and humorist.

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