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Published: Sunday, 7/11/2004

To spank, or not to spank?

BY ANN WEBER
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Corporal punishment for school children is banned in 28 states. Corporal punishment for school children is banned in 28 states.
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Rare is the workplace where the boss could get away with smacking an employee who's out of line.

But when the boss is a parent and it's their young child who acts up, a swat to the backside is perfectly legal. Some would say it's advisable.

Times are changing, though. In Sweden, Germany, Israel, and 10 other nations, parents who spank their child could get slapped themselves - with assault charges. British lawmakers decided last week not to join those nations, voting down a ban on parents spanking their children but making it easier to prosecute those who abuse their children by spanking.

Nor is the United States among those nations that outlaw corporal punishment of children in the home as well as at school, but attitudes and laws have changed significantly since "Spare the rod and spoil the child" was a widely accepted view.

"In the 1960s and '70s when I was raising my children, over 90 percent of Americans thought that corporal punishment was appropriate. Now it usually averages around 50 percent or less of people who still support it," said Nadine Block, director of the Center for Effective Discipline, Inc., in Columbus, which is working to end spanking.

"The more you spank children, the more they will be harmed," Ms. Block said, adding that spanking has been associated with increased aggression in children and other types of negative behavior. Parents have nonphysical alternatives that work as well or better, she asserted.

On the other side of the issue are some researchers and parenting authorities who say that "nonabusive" spanking has a role in disciplining children, especially when it's used along with reasoning and consequences such as timeouts and taking away privileges or toys.

And in between the people in the "never" and "sometimes" camps are loving parents who may believe spanking isn't right but find themselves doing it anyway, acting out of anger or frustration, or believing it is warranted for the most serious types of misbehavior.

Ohio state law "doesn't address the issue of spanking," said Dean Sparks, executive director of Lucas County Children Services. "The law says that you may not injure a child."

Mr. Sparks added that, "Child abuse is defined as any injury that is inflicted by other than accidental means, except that a child evidencing corporal punishment is not an abused child unless that injury results in serious bodily harm."

He said people who do choose to spank their children should never use an object - a belt, for example. Secondly, "don't spank kids when you're angry, because that's when abuse is more likely to occur."

On a personal level, Mr. Sparks - a father and grandfather - said he thinks it's never OK to spank a child. "Short-term, it will change an immediate behavior, but in terms of internalizing the controls that we're looking for people to have, spanking isn't effective," he explained.

"I think it also teaches children that violence is an answer to the problems that we face," Mr. Sparks said.

Corporal punishment of school children is banned in 28 states, including Michigan. Ohio has a partial ban: local school boards can approve it following a series of required procedures.

The Center for Effective Discipline reported this spring that 28 of Ohio's 612 school districts paddled a total of 481 students in the 2002-2003 school year, the most recent statistics available. Most of the districts listed in the center's report are in the southern and eastern part of the state; none were in northwest Ohio. The number of students who were paddled that year was up slightly from the previous three years, but down dramatically compared with more than 7,000 a decade earlier, and more than 68,000 paddled in Ohio public schools in 1983-84.

Spanking opponents say that while the rest of the world is becoming more enlightened about the practice, Ohio is heading in the opposite direction. They cite a bill approved in May by the House granting schools immunity from civil lawsuits for injuries to students caused by physical discipline. The measure now goes to the Ohio Senate for action.

Among those who conditionally support spanking is Robert E. Larzelere, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha. He has studied parenting for 20 years, doing both original research and reviews of other researchers' findings.

"Under some circumstances, spanking can be effective," he said in a telephone interview, emphasizing that he is not endorsing "what some parents might do in the name of discipline to abuse their children."

Mr. Larzelere said his research found that spanking gets results when it's used to back up milder disciplinary tactics that aren't working. He looked specifically at children ages 2 to 6 who didn't cooperate, or reacted defiantly, when parents initially tried to correct their behavior by reasoning with them or imposing less severe penalties - for example, a child who refuses to sit for a timeout.

The escalation approach - from reasoning to nonphysical discipline to nonabusive physical punishment - works better than reasoning or punishment alone, and makes it more likely that the child will cooperate the next time around without parents having to resort to spanking, according to Mr. Larzelere.

Michele Knox, Ph.D., disagrees, declaring that spanking is never acceptable. "Physical punishment of children is probably the most frequent precursor to the abuse of children. When we talk to abusers, usually they tell us it started with spanking or physical punishment of some kind, where they really went into it to teach their child some kind of lesson." They end up hitting more, and harder, than they intended, she said.

The clinical child psychologist and assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the Medical College of Ohio is on the front lines of the spanking issue: as the mother of two young children, community coordinator for ACT (Adults and Children Together) Against Violence, and author of a free pamphlet for parents titled "They're Driving Me Crazy!"

"Part of the reason why I got into this topic professionally is because I became a parent and I realized, these kids are very frustrating. I love them dearly; it's a very rewarding thing to be a parent, but to be a parent of young children is a very hard thing to do. It takes an immense amount of frustration tolerance that I think most of us don't have," she said. "Parents are allowing themselves to vent on little people, and I think that's why spanking continues."

Children need discipline, structure, and consequences, she went on. "But they don't need to be hit. We do not have to be violent to make our point."

People need to question and change their belief that spanking is effective, said Seattle-based parent educator and author Elizabeth Crary. "It's actually never more effective than other tools," she asserted.

Among more than 30 books she has written for parents and children is Without Spanking or Spoiling: A Practical Approach to Toddler and Preschool Guidance (Parenting Press, 1979). It has sold more than 160,000 copies.

Not every child who is spanked will suffer long-term psychological or emotional damage, just as not every smoker will get lung cancer, Ms. Crary said. But the child who is raised without being physically punished develops what she called "a fuller toolbox" for dealing with problems.

That requires effort on the parents' part.

"It's much easier to hit than to be thoughtful. But it's much more effective in the long run to be thoughtful," she said.

Contact Ann Weber at: aweber@theblade.com or 419-724-6126.



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