May 4, 2001 -- Do children need to be spanked? And when does spanking become child abuse? Parents and caregivers of children have been pondering these questions for years. But the debate over the pros and cons of spanking is once again center stage with the recent events surrounding the Atlanta-based House of Prayer church.
Forty-one children from the east-Atlanta church have been placed in foster care by state officials due to allegations that church members systematically beat some of them on church property at the urging of their pastor. Church members say they only whipped their children as punishment for wrongdoings, and have refused a state offer to return the children in exchange for agreeing to stop the practice.
"For a while it was about all we talked about in the break room," Atlanta engineer Scott Williams tells WebMD. "Nobody admits to spanking their own kids, but I'm sure a lot of people do. And it isn't really clear that this was child abuse."
Statistics bear out Williams' assumption that the majority of parents still spank. But most of the country's best-known children's experts reside firmly in the antispanking camp.
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T. Berry Brazelton, MD, has written 30 books on child rearing and has been a familiar face on television for more than a decade. He is the founder of the Child Development Unit at the Boston Children's Hospital Medical Center.
"When you spank, you are not respectful of the child," Brazelton tells WebMD. "If we want our children to have self esteem and self respect, then that surely is not the way to give it to them. A second point is that we are living in a violent society, and to pass on the message that violence is the way you settle things is not something parents should be doing today."
Brazelton says parents almost always resort to spanking when they have lost control of the situation. Many parents who do spank feel bad about it, he says.
"Everywhere I go, people ask me about it," he says. "There has definitely been a change in attitudes. I don't think most people want to spank, but I think it is hard for them to control themselves."
In 1998 the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) weighed in on parental spanking with a policy statement, designed to assist pediatricians in advising parents on the issue. The statement stops short of saying that parents shouldn't spank, but it concludes spanking is no more effective than other behavior modification activities like time-out or removal of privileges.
"Corporal punishment is of limited effectiveness and has potentially deleterious side effects," the statement reads. "The AAP recommends that parents be encouraged and assisted in the development of methods other than spanking for managing undesired behavior."
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.
Child and adolescent psychiatrist Alvin Rosenfeld, MD, co-author of the book "The Over Scheduled Child: Avoiding the Hyperparenting Trap," says it comes down to a question of what kind of child you want to raise.
"Our children almost invariably pick up our values as we live them, not as we say them," he tells WebMD. "So if we demonstrate to our kids that hitting is an appropriate way to deal with displeasure, we shouldn't be surprised when they do the same thing."