Dads Against the Divorce Industry

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Study muddles spanking controversy

by Cathy Young

"Spanking May Promote Delinquency." "Study Links Spanking to Kids' Antisocial Behavior." "Experts Say Spanking Deserves Bad Rap."

   The headlines earlier this month seemed to confirm the politically correct wisdom. A new study about family violence by researcher Murray Straus, endorsed by the American Medical Association, reportedly showed that children who are spanked for bad behavior exhibit more such behavior later on.

   Opponents of corporal punishment will, no doubt, cite this research for years - without mentioning its limitations. Straus' work on domestic violence is a model of good scholarship. This time, though, his team didn't do the survey, but analyzed findings from phone interviews conducted two years apart by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Information on the kids came solely from mothers - and the ones who spanked reported more mischief two years later. But perhaps these moms were more likely to notice negative things about their children.

   Moreover, the kids were 6 to 9 years old, an age when many pro-spanking experts feel corporal punishment is no longer appropriate. An even more serious issue is the age of the moms. The survey was limited to women 21 or younger. That means some of them gave birth at 12. Is that a sample from which we can generalize to the entire population?

   Other research does not support Straus' warnings about "violent child-rearing." Of 11 studies analyzed last year in a report by the American Academy of Pediatrics, only one found spanking had a harmful effect on children; six showed positive results and four concluded it made no difference.

   Besides, look around. The use of spanking has declined considerably in the past 30 years. To say there has been no corresponding drop in antisocial behavior among youngsters would be quite an understatement.

   Studies or no studies, the debate about sparing the rod is conducted on an emotional level. Supporters of physical discipline often invoke the Bible. Opponents say spanking teaches children that "violence is OK" and that you can use your size and strength to assert your power over someone.

   I have no children and thus no personal stake in the matter. My experience puts me in the I-was-spanked-and-turned-out-OK camp, though I'm always appalled when I see a parent smack a kid in public with a nastiness bordering on malevolence. Overly frequent spanking probably can cause harm. But some psychologists say parents who don't use physical discipline in a restrained, constructive manner are more likely to lose their temper and inflict real abuse.

   Besides, I'm irritated by the silliness of common anti-spanking arguments. Such as, "How come it's illegal to hit anyone else but legal to hit your own kid?" The parent-child relationship is unique in ways far more dramatic than that. You are not legally responsible for anyone else's physical safety or economic support. There is no other person who cannot leave your house without your permission. You might as well ask why forcing any other person into your car and taking him somewhere he doesn't want to go would be a crime, but not with your child.

   Or take the cliche that spanking teaches that violence is an appropriate method for solving problems. In fact, any punishment - physical or not - has a coercive element that isn't a good model for normal interaction. If you take a child's toys away, will she conclude that grabbing others' belongings is the way to settle disputes? If you make him take a "time-out" in his room, will he learn that whenever someone annoys him he can lock that person up?

   To most anti-spanking partisans, it seems, the important thing is for children to "feel good about themselves." They inhabit a world where the lion lies down with the lamb, and a parent can reason with a 2-year-old. Between these two, my bet is on the lion.

Cathy Young is vice-president of the Women's Freedom Network. You may write her at The News, Editorial Page, 615 W. Lafayette Blvd., Detroit, Mich. 48226.



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