George Holden envisions a world without spanking. No more paddling in the principal’s office. No more swats on little rear ends, not even — and here is where Holden knows he is staring up at a towering cliff of parental rights resistance — not even in the privacy of the home. When it comes to disciplining a child, Holden’s view is absolute: No hitting.
“We don’t like to call it spanking,” said Holden, a professor of psychology at Southern Methodist University and head of a newly formed organization aimed at eliminating corporal punishment in the United States. “Spanking is a euphemism that makes it sound like hitting is a normal part of parenting. If we re-label it hitting, which is what it is, people step back and ask themselves, ‘Should I be hitting my child?’ ”
For centuries, of course, the answer to that question has been yes for a huge majority of families. We’ve been unsparing of the rod, spanking our children just as we were spanked by our parents. And there’s precious little evidence to suggest we feel much differently today. While the percentage of parents who say it’s okay to occasionally spank a child has declined marginally in recent years, that “acceptability level” still hovers between 65 percent and 75 percent nationally.
And surveys that measure actual behavior reveal even higher rates of moms and dads willing to whack. Depending on how you ask the question, most surveys show that between 70 percent and 90 percent of parents in this country spank their kids at least once during childhood. In 2013 America, spanking a child is about as common as vaccinating one.
But Holden and a growing number of children’s advocates still believe the time is right for a serious effort to end corporal punishment. For some in the burgeoning stop-hitting movement, the goal is nothing less than a total legal ban on spanking in all settings, as has been passed by 33 nations in Europe, Latin America and Africa (soon to be 34 when Brazil becomes the largest country to outlaw spanking in final action expected this year).
So far in this country, even limited anti-spanking laws have gone nowhere. A 2008 proposal to make it illegal to spank a child younger than 3 was greeted with howls of nanny-state overreach in the California Assembly before being withdrawn. In 2011, a bill targeting some of the more extreme physical discipline measures that have been considered “reasonable corporal punishment” — hitting with dangerous objects, punching with closed fists, shaking toddlers younger than 3 — was hooted down in the Maryland Senate.
“I had legislators telling me that they had not been spared the rod when they were young and look at them now,” said State Sen. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Montgomery), the bill’s chief sponsor. “It’s really entrenched in the culture. I do think we need a social movement against violence in the home.”
And that is just what most of the new paddling prohibitionists have in mind. Knowing how Americans would recoil at the idea of Big Brother stepping between the parental palm and the child’s bottom, their goal is to drive spanking out of the culture. They want to tarnish spanking’s image as a normal part of American life with a sustained behavior change campaign along the lines of the ones that cut smoking rates in half and made drunken driving a national taboo.
“My orientation is educate, educate, educate,” said Holden, who helped found the U.S. Alliance to End the Hitting of Children after an international conference on eliminating corporal punishment held in Dallas in 2011. “It’s hard to know if we’re at a tipping point, but more and more people are coming to recognize the overwhelming empirical evidence that all lines up against corporal punishment.”
As in anti-tobacco efforts, anti-corporal punishment activists have started by squeezing spanking from the public sphere, shrinking the number of places where it is acceptable to swat a child. Spanking by day-care providers has been outlawed by every state but South Carolina and Idaho. More than 30 pediatric hospitals in recent months have posted their lobbies — the frequent scene of spanks by stressed parents — with signs declaring them No-Hitting Zones.
And in public schools, the biggest outside-the-home spanking venue of all, corporal punishment is well on track to go the way of the chalk blackboard. Thirty-one states, including Virginia and Maryland, and the District have banned corporal punishment outright, the latest being New Mexico in 2011. Of the 19 states that still allow it, Texas and North Carolina recently passed statewide laws allowing parents to put their kids on a no-paddle list. And most others have seen corporal punishment banned at the county level by school systems wary of lawsuits that have become increasingly inevitable when a teacher hits a child.
According to U.S. Department of Education data, the number of students paddled has drifted down in recent decades, falling from 1.5 million spanked in schools in 1976 to 223,000 in 2006, the last year for which stats have been published.
“It’s really almost gone from the schools, and that’s a huge change from just two decades ago,” said Deborah Sendek, program director of the Center for Effective Discipline, a national anti-corporal punishment group. “Parents are saying, ‘I don’t want someone hitting my child in school.’ That’s a step closer to their saying, ‘I don’t want someone hitting my child at home.’ ”
Even the Catholic Church, with its tradition of ruler-wielding nuns, has steadily eliminated physical punishment in parochial schools. “We can’t find a single diocese that still uses it,” Sendek said.
This summer, the Presbyterian Church (USA) went even further when its General Assembly narrowly approved a motion condemning corporal punishment in any setting, even the home. The Methodists passed a similar measure in 2004, noting that “it is difficult to imagine Jesus of Nazareth condoning any action that is intended to hurt children physically or psychologically.”
That spanking does hurt children, and not just for the five stinging minutes that follow, has become a matter of consensus among many social scientists. Most of the studies are observational (no one has dared to bring kids in for a few laboratory whacks). But hundreds of findings have suggested that spanking correlates with a range of problems. The most often cited link is between spanking and future aggressive behavior, but research has also found that spanked children are more likely to drop out of school, suffer psychological problems and abuse their own children.
“I would say that there is pretty reasonable consensus among researchers now that there are more harmful effects than good effects to physical punishment,” said Adam Zolotor, a pediatrician and professor of family medicine at the University of North Carolina. “It’s very consistent across numerous studies now. We can say that kids that are spanked more often or spanked harder are more subject to these negative outcomes.”
Robert Larzelere, a professor of human development at Oklahoma State University, doesn’t agree. He sees a classic chicken-egg paradox at work. Did the spankings lead to more aggressive kids, or are aggressive kids the ones most likely to be spanked?
His own research suggests it may be the latter. Larzelere was able to tease out similar correlations between agressive behavior and being put in “time out,” being sent for counseling and other measures a frustrated parent would take with a troublesome child.
“It’s like showing a link between spending the night in a hospital and poor health,” said Larzelere. “They’re over-interpreting the correlational evidence.”
Larzelere advocates the kind of spanking he used with his own children: mild, rare and as a backup to gentler methods. “If it’s used in the ideal way, it works early and isn’t needed anymore.”
That’s the kind of sanitized corporal punishment that Zolotor read about in medical school textbooks: moderate blows, with no belts or other objects, leaving no bruises and done after the anger of the moment has passed. But it’s not the kind he sees in his practice.
“Most spanking happens when our blood is boiling and we react,” he said. “Once you calm down, most reasonable people don’t want to resolve a problem by striking someone.”
Steve Hendrix is a Washington Post staff writer.