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Controversy About The Use Of Physical Discipline

Although almost everyone seems to have been spanked while growing up, there continues to be a heated controversy about the efficacy and wisdom of spanking children. Most people, including some child development experts, seem to believe that limited, nonabusive, physical punishment is not harmful to children and is often necessary to teach children respect and obedience. On the other hand, many child development experts and some people are convinced that even moderate amounts of corporal punishment can be harmful to a child and consequently should be avoided at all costs. After decades of discussion in a variety of settings, about the only thing that is certain is that almost everyone seems to hold a strong opinion on whether or not children should be spanked.

In the first half of the twentieth century, most parents in the United States demanded complete obedience on the part of their children and usually followed the adage "spare the rod and spoil the child." As a result, there was little discussion about whether or not it was in the best interest of their children to spank them or use the hickory switch if they misbehaved. Further, corporal punishment was practiced in many public schools in the United States well into the second half of the twentieth century, usually with the blessing of the parents.

However, from mid-century on, experts like Benjamin Spock (1946), Thomas Gordon (1970), T. Berry Brazelton (1969), and others began to speak against the harsh discipline of earlier times and suggested that children were individuals who needed to be treated with rights equal to all other members of the family. Instead of seeing the parent-child relationship as a benevolent dictatorship, they suggested the relationship should be viewed as a democracy. They taught that parents ought to consider their children as friends and treat them as they would their spouse.

These influential opinions, together with several significant social changes in the United States such as increases in violence, child abuse, and divorce, led to a reexamination of the use of physical punishment in schools and in homes during the last quarter of the twentieth century. Some experts have repeatedly claimed that the research on spanking clearly shows that even mild corporal punishment leads to a number of negative outcomes in those who have been spanked. As a result of their efforts, corporal punishment has been banned in virtually all schools, and some states have even considered legislation banning parents from hitting their children in the home. Many other countries around the world seem to be following trends similar to those in the United States. In addition, many other countries have been experiencing some change in views about physical punishment of children.

Since the 1970s, the academic community generally has interpreted the research as saying that corporal punishment in schools or homes is detrimental and should be abolished. Murray A. Straus, author of Beating the Devil Out of Them (2000), and Irwin A. Hyman, author of The Case Against Spanking (1997), are two of the key proponents in the movement to abolish spanking in schools and homes in the United States. They believe that corporal punishment is a significant psychological and social problem. Straus claims that there are over eighty different studies dating to the 1950s which link corporal punishment in children to later behavioral problems such as increased violence, aggression, noncompliance, delinquency, antisocial behavior, sexual hang-ups, and depression. He also claims that the research shows that alternative discipline strategies work just as well as corporal punishment and therefore corporal punishment serves no real purpose. Hyman spends much of his time speaking with state legislators and policy-makers as he attempts to persuade people that other types of discipline are as effective as spanking and therefore hitting children is never right.

In examining the causal link between corporal punishment and negative outcomes, Straus recognizes that earlier studies did have a serious limitation—they were correlational in nature and therefore did not show which is the cause and which is the effect. Accordingly, one could argue that children are spanked because of behavior problems or that they have behavior problems because they were spanked. However, Straus believes that five studies done between 1997 and 1999 have overcome the flaws of the previous studies and confirmed the findings of the previous eighty studies: that corporal punishment has long-term negative effects on children. Because these studies were based on large and nationally representative samples of U.S. children and were longitudinal in nature, he believes they allow for causal conclusions regarding the link between physical punishment and the negative behavior of children. All of this evidence leads Straus to conclude that all corporal punishment ought to be considered abuse and ought to be against the law.

In contrast to Straus and Hyman, Diana Baumrind (1994, 1996a) believes that the evidence seems to indicate that mild, nonabusive, physical punishment is not harmful when used occasionally, in a loving relationship, and in conjunction with other methods of discipline, most notably with reasoning. She claims that the critical issue is the relationship between the parent and the child. If the child feels as if he or she is in a loving, trusting relationship with his or her parents, then the child usually understands that discipline, and even spanking, is for the good of the child. When this occurs, Baumrind and others claim, there are no long-term negative effects.

Robert Larzelere, along with some of his colleagues (1998), also suggests that spanking is not all bad. In fact, they found that spanking used in conjunction with reasoning was the most effective type of discipline in some situations. Larzelere, like most experts who believe spanking is not always detrimental, believes certain guidelines must be kept in mind if parents choose to use corporal punishment. First, physical discipline should be limited to a couple of slaps applied by the open hand to the buttocks or legs. Second, it should only be used on children between the ages of two and six when other disciplinary methods may not be as effective. Third, it should only be used to back up less aversive disciplinary techniques and as a supplement to positive parenting. Finally, spanking should not be done while the parent is angry because it could escalate to abuse.

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Marriage and Family EncyclopediaPregnancy & ParenthoodSpanking - Prevalence Of Physical Discipline, Controversy About The Use Of Physical Discipline, Alternatives To Physical Discipline