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Black and white photo of woman spanking child outdoors
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"Hurts me more than it hurts you"

Source: Corbis

OZY encore

What If Spanking Your Child Was a Good Thing?

Why you should care

Because parenting is the hardest job you’ll ever love. 

Even before the Fifty Shades phenomenon, there was a vast literature growing up around spanking. No, not the pulp sadism that keeps your sister enthralled on the subway home from work, but the punishment that crosses the mind of every parent at some point.

It’s not easy being an effective parent — never has been — and parents are constantly looking for new tools to help them raise their children. Spanking has always been an essential tool for disciplining young children. And today about 90 percent of American families admit to having spanked their child, and two out of three approve of the practice (though there’s been a significant drop from 94 percent in 1968). No less than First Lady Michelle Obama says that she spanked Malia when she was little — but adds that it was “completely ineffective.”

But even if a majority of parents still spank their children, there is a mounting movement against the practice, backed by a sizable body of research, including studies finding that spanking leads not only to long-term aggression and violence against others but also to mood and personality disorders, anxiety, depression and substance abuse.

Dr. Barbara Greenberg

Dr. Barbara Greenberg

“Physical punishment instills a feeling of shame,” says Dr. Barbara Greenberg, a psychologist specializing in parenting issues, and the subsequent shame can lead to depression and anxiety. Little wonder then that in the last few decades, some 30 countries — including Germany, Kenya, Sweden, Uruguay, New Zealand and Tunisia — have outlawed parental spanking.

Many of us may argue that we were spanked, and we turned out just fine. But according to Greenberg, “I think those people saying they turned out OK are lucky. And second, they might have turned out more OK if they weren’t spanked.”

Despite the growing criticism, however, many parents and doctors continue to advocate (and practice) spanking. They point to growing levels of contempt for authority and to obnoxious children who don’t listen to polite requests to behave. In fact, in one study, 70 percent of family physicians approved of nonabusive spanking as a useful and appropriate discipline tool.

Is spanking an effective parenting tool? And even if it is, is it cruel and misguided? While setting firm boundaries with children is important and necessary, one must consider the consequences that enforcing those limits may have on a child’s development and well-being later in life.

Cover Image: Corbis

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