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To Spank or Not to Spank?

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Barbara Howard, MD, who helped write the policy statement, says she had hoped to draft a stronger antispanking statement, but ran into opposition. An assistant professor of pediatrics at Baltimore's Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Howard now travels the country speaking to pediatricians about the issue. Many still condone spanking, she says, but she has noticed a shift in attitudes away from it in recent years.

"Many parents say they only spank to stop a child from engaging in dangerous behavior," she says. "But in those situations, parents get children's attention in other ways. If a child runs out into the street, for example, the parent is going to run after that child screaming, red faced, and extremely agitated. At that point the swat on the butt is not needed. The point is made."

Murray A. Strauss, PhD, who is co-director of the Family Research Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, has devoted more than 30 years to studying the prevalence and consequences of parental spanking. His 1995 national survey found that about one-third of children under the age of 1 are spanked, and more than 90% of 2 to 5 year olds are hit by one or both parents.

"Spanking is virtually universal for toddlers," he says. "Even parents who say they don't believe in spanking appear to resort to it because they think it is the only thing that works. What they don't realize is that the [relapse] rate for any crime committed by a toddler is about 80% over the course of a day, and about 50% within two hours, no matter what the punishment."

Strauss says spanking has the same immediate failure rate as other disciplinary measures tried by parents, but it often feels more effective, because it is a method of last resort.

"It is the best-kept secret of American child psychology that spanking doesn't work any better than anything else," he says. "All of the methods work equally well, or to put it another way, they all work just as badly. Because with a 2 year old nothing works at first," he says. "But any method that is repeated enough times -- be it spanking or reasoning with a child -- will eventually get through."

The long-term consequences of spanking, Strauss says, can include aggression, depression, poor academic performance, and a host of other problems.

"Study after study shows that the more parents hit kids, the more those kids hit other kids," he says. "The great irony of it is that a child hitting another child is one of the things that is most likely to bring on corporal punishment by the parent, so it's a vicious circle."

Strauss' surveys do show that older children are being spanked less these days. A 1995 survey found that approximately 35% of 13 year olds were spanked by a parent, compared to about twice that number in a 1975 survey.

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