Why you should care
Because parenting is complicated.
OZY’s electrifying prime-time TV show, Third Rail With OZY, is continuing to serve up provocative questions each week, and we want you to weigh in with your thoughts. This week: Should parents spank their children? Email email@example.com with your thoughts, and we might feature your answer next week. Missed the debates from last season? Catch up here.
So much for 15 minutes of fame. It was the late ’90s, and my dad was a father of three young children at the time. We were living in Atlanta, and a family friend, a producer at CNN International, was doing a segment on spanking. The studio was serious about representing all sides of the argument, they said. Would my parents be interested in going on television as pro-spankers?
My mom and dad agreed, and so, on a weekday, we woke to television cameras and fuzzy boom mics and the sound of my Greek father shouting in his baritone, “Kiiids, pancaaakes!” His Oscar-worthy attempt at the all-American family complete, he later told the camera that no parent ever wants to spank their child, but that “if they are about to touch a stove, or there isn’t enough time to reason with them, a quick rap on the butt does the trick.”
There is no reason being spanked at age 4 should cause you to have a heart attack at 64.
Christopher Ferguson, psychologist, Stetson University
For many today, spanking remains a Rorschach test born of personal experience — like the famed ink blots, our take on corporal punishment is open to interpretation. Some believe it is never an option, others think it should be used sparingly. The only certainty: a heated debate. “Like a lot of issues, it’s a lot more complicated than what you hear,” says Christopher Ferguson, a psychologist at Stetson University in DeLand, Florida.
Ferguson did not spank his son, now a teenager. But he also doesn’t believe the facts are clear about whether mild spanking is harmful for children in the long run. Too often, statistics around spanking are clouded, mistakenly wrapped into other, more violent behavior, or deriving causation out of what could be mere correlations, Ferguson says.
“There is no reason being spanked at age 4 should cause you to have a heart attack at 64,” he adds, and yet he has seen studies claiming that spanking led to an increased risk for heart disease. “That is bad data,” he says, debunking the research. Bob Larzelere, a research methodologist at Oklahoma State University, says that his 2005 review of spanking studies showed that, when compared to alternative disciplinary methods such as timeouts or removing privileges, spanking was no worse for children from 2 to 6 years old — and, in some cases, was actually more effective as a secondary tactic when reasoning failed.
But there are also no studies that prove spanking is effective in helping children’s behavior in the long term, says Andrew Grogan-Kaylor, a researcher at the University of Michigan. “Additionally, spanking is associated with increased child anxiety and child aggression in the short term,” he says. There are 53 countries that have banned the practice outright, including Spain, Greece, Paraguay and Mongolia.
As for my family? The CNN segment didn’t show the pancakes, nor my dad’s attempts at model fatherhood. No, the camera began with him extolling the merits of spanking. Then it showed my little sister, her back pressed against the metallic refrigerator, bawling like all hell had broken loose — she cried like this every time my dad left for work. But to the rest of the world, it appeared as if they had just witnessed the heartbreaking cries of American child abuse.
So what do you think — does spanking get a bum rap? Should parents spank their children?