Research and policy do not meet

Do a YouTube.com search for “South Park cure for ADHD.” Watch closely for nuances.

Quynh Nguyen

Is spanking evil? Some parents do without, some swear by it, and others feel that it’s a choice best left to parents. For many non-parents who are sick of seeing crying babies in airplanes or restaurants, they wish they could give those darn kids a swat themselves.

The cartoon “South Park” parodies this situation in a clip called “Cure for ADHD” on YouTube.com. A kindly, Mr. Rogers-looking doctor advertises his “drug-free” treatment for children suffering from ADHD. He presents three students who are bouncing in their seats. He pops the first two across the face, effectively silencing the room and making them behave.

For many of us old-school folks, our earliest memory of parental authority was a “whupping.” Across many cultures, spanking kids is an immemorial way of teaching discipline.

After child-abuse legislation was passed in the United States, many parents became fearful of using the rod and landing in prison. But the legislation did not teach parents other discipline tools that work as well as spanking.

So now we have this gap where parents need these discipline tools but are unsure of what works. Some still use spanking because it’s most accessible to them and gains immediate compliance.

In California, parents are facing legislation that will not permit them to spank their children if their children are under four years old. Naturally, these parents are angry.

Some good news for those parents: earlier precedent has failed in the past. In 1999, child welfare activist Jordan Riak proposed to create a “no-spank zone” in Oakland, Calif., but the proposal was voted down by the city council. In reaction, some states such as Nevada and Oklahoma passed bills that delineated and decriminalized spanking from child abuse.

I, honestly, expect the spanking ban in California to fail. We don’t have a victim motivating this legislature, and it’s not well-defined. We don’t have a clear definition of spanking versus child abuse, and we don’t have compelling science that supports or debunks spanking.

Some studies even show a benefit (i.e. immediate compliance). Spanking is used as a final straw when mild, noncorporal punishments don’t work. Run a PubMed.gov search for “Larzelere RE” or “Baumrind D” to read more. That research suggests that we’re tossing the baby out with the bathwater by banning spanking.

Recent research suggests a darker side to spanking, within parents themselves. Some parents feel that they have less power than their children. How does this affect their punishment style if they have difficult kids? Gabriel Martorell and Daphne Bugental report in the Journal of Family Psychology (2006, 20:4), “Children’s apparent unresponsiveness serves to confirm parents’ fears that they have little influence as caregivers – which in turn fuel their feelings of powerlessness – and ultimately lead to escalation of their harsh tactics.”

A study published in the July 2006 issue of Pediatrics found that moms with active depressive symptoms were more likely to use harsh punishment, spank with an object or slap the child across the face.

Powerlessness, depression, fear, anxiety – having these feelings would undermine any parent’s sense of dominance over their child, and could make for an unhealthy parenting situation. Spanking could be a symptom of a larger problem and societal attention to these issues would help greatly. There is research that supports this. A 2004 experimental study found a program that reduced parental feelings of powerlessness to be effective (Developmental Psychology, 40, 234-243).

Society perceives parents who cannot discipline their children as failures. If the issue lies at the very core of the parents’ being, then the child shouldn’t have to suffer for it with harsher punishments, just because the parents can’t get a sense of power or control. The children wouldn’t be able to defend themselves, especially if they are less than fours years old. In these situations, it is necessary that the society intervene and give a hand up to these parents struggling with parental insecurity.

I’m not saying that society should be “all eyes” and peer into the houses of every American family, but imagine if our society was a nurturing environment for families and community such that parents could get parenting help without criticism or a sense of failure. To me, that sounds more like the “good ol’ days” than spanking.

Quynh Nguyen can be reached at [email protected]