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Social Issues: Violence


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 truly a matter of life or death. However, contrary to present opinion, he was convinced that death was a major risk for those whose parents 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. (Although there is evidence that Solomon was more a theoretician than a practitioner.)

As the pundits like to say, "Voters have a real choice here." What is the truth? Have we progressed far beyond the primitive ideas of a man three thousand years closer to a barbaric past? Or has the human race deteriorated to the point that wisdom of the ages is no longer intelligible?

Was Solomon advocating child abuse? Do present day analysts misunderstand the concept? Is there any way to resolve the question?

Anti-spanking 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, Adolph Hitler, Mao Tse Tung and Pol Pot come immediately to mind.

Am I saying that "child advocates" are monsters in disguise? No, not really. But I am saying that 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, ICISH) found that of 132 articles published in the 1980's, 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% lumped milder forms of spanking together with severe forms of physical abuse. Thus the results were automatically prejudiced. It is like saying house-cats and lions kill many people each year throughout the world.

The professional organizations taking a policy position on the topic, NIHR found, had not published any studies in their journals over the past decade, so that their decisions were evidently "formed without the benefit of data." It then becomes a matter of science by peer pressure or majority vote.

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: 1) disciplining autistic children. 2) employing mild spanking as a back-up for children ages 2 to 6. 3) coupling reasoning with a spanking to better reduce misbehavior in toddlers.

The kind of spanking being looked at was controlled and purposeful, not an angry outburst. The autistic children were in an intensive program. Aggressive or non-compliant behavior was dealt with by a sharp "no!" and occasional slap on the thigh. The children in this treatment group were able to mainstream 47% of the time compared with only 2% of those using alternative methods without corporal punishment.

The 2 to 6 year olds were given time out as a primary punishment, but received 2 slaps on the buttocks if they left the time out area too early. The toddlers were given explanations of their misbehavior, spanking or both. Those who had both components of the intervention delayed the time to the next misbehavior longer than those in either other group.

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 US. D. Baumrind, 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."

It appears, as is so often true in science, that results are contrary to preconceived notions. Until Louis Pasteur, it was assumed that bacteria, insects and rodents were spontaneously generated in garbage. Contrary data ought to send the mistaken individuals back to the drawing board, looking for the place they went wrong, but human nature is rarely that compliant. (Maybe they were not disciplined properly as children.)

A study of Pediatricians indicated that 70% 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% of parents practiced spanking, 75% of parents of toddlers in the past year (Star Tribune April 12, 1994 1B.) This is taken by elite anti-spanking theoreticians as evidence that they have a big selling job to do, rather than considering that the troops in the trenches may know something they do not.

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 careful followed."

It would be more reasonable to study the boundaries of good outcome in corporal punishment than jumping to complete rooting out of the practice. But testimonials and unscientific statements are often used as the basis for the anti-spanking 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% effective with one application to be useful. Has anybody ever gotten more than one ticket for speeding? Does this mean that fines and increased insurance are not a deterrent?

It may also be possible to correlate the American societal upsurge of violence with a decrease in the use of corporal punishment. Thus the Utopian thinkers need to consider the potential harm with their agenda. The most violent young people in our society are not those who were spanked but those who were ignored or given no direction.

Why are the proper questions ignored? It is generally because of the philosophical assumptions that everyone has but seldom recognizes. If human beings are basically good and only need freedom to blossom into their fullness, then it may make sense to leave them alone. But if "folly is bound up in the heart of a child," as the wise man wrote, 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 my 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. Yet, even the concept of boundaries and consequences is being lost on our society as "personal choice" takes the leadership role.

So let us not defend mindless caricatures of Solomon's advice, such as the misguided mother who spanks her children nightly regardless of behavior. But let us also stop blurring the issue by detailing, as evidence for the prosecution, accounts of a teacher who paddled a 6 year old girl for underlining her answers instead of circling them. (AMA News March 9, 1992) That was a mistake that hardly seems worthy of response, much less punishment.

In standing up to political pressure, the truth needs to be spoken clearly and repeatedly in the face of certain distortion by the other side. Calls for fairness need to ask for open minded research. It is no virtue to remain silent for fear of being painted with the smears of political incorrectness. It is also no virtue to justify wrong behavior with pious cover ups. The alcoholic father who beats his children and insults them as worthless is not following the guidelines.

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 MD

[A shortened version of this article appeared in the Star Tribune.]

For more information and documentation, visit the American College of Pediatricians website and click on the link for "spanking". Or you may go directly to the ACP's Policy, Guidelines and Policy by clicking HERE.

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