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Social Issues: Letters

Spanking can be a good tool in teaching boundaries

Solomon, called the wisest of the ancients, wrote, "Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline will drive it far from him," and, "Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you punish him with the rod, he will not die. Punish him with the rod and save his soul from death." (Proverbs 22:15 and 23:13-14.)

Like many thinkers of our day, he felt corporal punishment was a matter of life or death. He just identified major risk with those who did not use it. Today, Solomon would be hooted off the podium at the meetings of any major medical or psychological association. He might even find himself visited by Child Protection personnel if reports were received of bruises on any young royal posteriors.

Antispanking persons, like most Utopian thinkers, have wonderful motivations. They see a terrible problem with society and want to fix it. There may even be a shred or two of evidence for their view. But then, armed with faulty presuppositions and incomplete analysis, they proceed to inflict their policy on the masses. The annals of history are full of similar stories, many of them including terrifying final chapters. Karl Marx, Adolf Hitler, Mao Zedong and Pol Pot come immediately to mind.

Am I saying that "child advocates" are monsters in disguise? No, not really. But their ideas are likely to produce effects far different from what they anticipate.

In a systematic review of peer-reviewed professional articles on spanking, the National Institute for Healthcare Research (NIHR, 2111 Wilson Blvd. Suite 1130, Arlington VA 22201) found that of 132 articles published in the 1980s, only 24 were actual quantitative studies, including a specified method, data or results. The rest were reviews or commentary. In other words, lots of opinion, little science. Further, of the actual experimental studies, 90 percent lumped milder forms of spanking together with severe forms of physical abuse. Thus the results were automatically prejudiced. It is like saying housecats and lions kill many people each year throughout the world.

On the contrary, for the few studies actually looking at the question, there was data supporting corporal punishment. R.E Larzelere, in the Journal of Psychology and Theology Volume 21, Number 2, identified three contexts where spanking showed benefit: for autistic children, children ages 2 to 6 and toddlers. Further, Larzelere discovered that the year after elimination of mild spanking in Sweden, the rate of severe abuse was more than double that in the United States. D. Baum-rind, in Minnesota Symposia on Child Psychology, Number 7 (1973), found that permissive parents who opposed spanking admitted more often to "explosive attacks of rage in which they inflicted more pain or injury than they intended."

A study of pediatricians indicated that 70 percent believe spanking is acceptable in certain circumstances (Pediatric Management, September 1993.) A phone survey of two Minnesota counties by Murray Straus of the University of New Hampshire indicated that 90 percent of parents practiced spanking (Star Tribune April 12, 1994 1B.)

Pediatrician Den A. Trumbull, in the Pediatric Management article, clarified, "Proper spanking is distinct from a reflexive slap when the parent is simply angry and the child hasn't been forewarned. A child will not perceive spanking as hitting if a formal procedure is carefully followed."

Testimonials and unscientific statements are often used as the basis for the antispanking view. For instance, "It doesn't work. Most parents admit they have repeatedly spanked their children for the same offense." (see Strauss in Star Tribune, above.).

This assumes that an intervention needs to be 100 percent effective with one application to be useful. Has anybody ever gotten more than one ticket for speeding? Does this mean that fines are not a deterrent?

If human beings are basically good and only need freedom to blossom, then it may make sense to leave them alone. But if "folly is bound up in the heart of a child," then consequences for misbehavior need to be taught before it is too late.

Often, physical pain is the most effective method. As one delinquent teen said, "Jail's not so bad. I've been there. They have TV."

In this sort of case, "caning" as done in Singapore may have something to say for it. The scars of the physical damage inflicted after due process of law by a properly instituted governmental authority may be far less troublesome than the scars of a life out of control.

This is not to say that judicial "caning" by a parent is necessarily a good idea. But the application of a switch or hand, which would not leave more than temporary redness on a normal childish posterior, may save all sorts of trouble in the future as the recipient learns that loving boundaries help prevent serious consequences.

Proper unraveling of this issue is critically important for our children, and for our society. It touches on the conflicting notions of the source and solutions for our problems. Child rearing is never easy, but with the wrong assumptions, it may be doomed to disaster. As Solomon put it, this is a matter of life or death.

Ross S. Olson, Minneapolis. Physician.

Published in Star Tribune May 7, 1994

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