By Edwin King, M.D., Pediatric Alliance — St. Clair



Yesterday we looked at the methodology of a recently published study which concluded convincingly that spanking is detrimental to physical and psychological health, beginning in childhood and running into adulthood.

Today, let’s discuss spanking as a form of parenting. Although I am a pediatrician, I am a parent also — and an imperfect one at that. No one has a crystal ball about exactly how our parenting will affect our children. So when I have to make a decision about how I parent I look for evidence that something is likely to work. To me, one of the most important aspects of evidence (for small incremental changes) is volume. This means that the outcome I’m looking for was tested many, many times and results were taken from many subjects. The opposite of this would be “anecdote”, which means I would base my decision after witnessing the outcome I wanted once, or very very few times. It would be like never wearing a seatbelt because there was a story of a single person who was trapped by their seatbelt and died. Therefore, regarding spanking, I definitely weigh a mathematical analysis that includes over 160,000 children over advice based on the singular/limited experiences of my parents, my siblings, my friends, acquaintances, or uncle Larry. I explain it to parents in the office like this: “I most often see these decisions as no different (relatively speaking) than making a bet on the unknown in Vegas. If a giant pile of research tells me that I’m more likely to have a winning outcome with a certain intervention, then that’s where my bet goes. Period.”

Many people continue to promote the acceptability of corporal punishment. The arguments are mostly emotional and, in my opinion, can be categorized into a few groups: 1.) not wanting the government or other parents telling them how they should parent; 2.) the nostalgia of their childhood and not wanting to think their upbringing was imperfect; 3.) lack of understanding of child development; 4.) oversimplification; desperately wanting to believe that “the carrot and the stick” are all that are needed to raise good children; 5.) justification, because they really just can’t help themselves from smacking their child at difficult moments; 6.) lack of appreciation for even a small risk of a bad long-term effect; 7.) laziness — parents who are totally unaware/unprepared for the depth of knowledge and effort required for parenting and don’t want to invest their time in learning a new way; 8.) the belief that most science is a biased conspiracy; and 9.) lack of understanding of any other model of programming the human cerebral cortex in a way that produces a self-actualized, fulfilled, resilient, happy, and good citizen. Each item above (and I’m sure there are more) is a blog article by itself. Suffice it to say, to me, these are personal characteristics of parents that need to be separated from the actual research.

There is no doubt one can get short term compliance and burn a message into a child’s brain by causing pain. There is also no doubt that life is full of hard knocks and our kids have to be prepared to work hard and weather harsh adversity. I am not arguing for raising children who never experience pain — life is full of it without actively promoting it. The human brain is so vastly complex, that only now are we really beginning to understand that there are some short-term and long-term undesirable outcomes that come from pain-in-parenting styles.

Even dog trainers understand the concept and have similar data for behavior modification another species of social animal. The Director of the SF/SPCA Academy for Dog Training states:

“Applied behaviorists, those with advanced degrees in behavior, and veterinary behaviorists, veterinarians who have completed residencies specializing in behavior …. and there is much more collaboration between these fields and trainers on the front lines. These two professions are quite unified on the point that the use of physical confrontation and pain is unnecessary, often detrimental and, importantly, unsafe.”


So should we believe that dogs do better without physical pain but humans still need it? I actually find it humorous that there is an almost 100% correlation with dog training and human behavior modification methods. (Conceptually speaking of behavior modification, that is. I’m not suggesting a clicker or kibble, or that kids should be raised like dogs. I know I’d be a better human parent if I “boned up” on these 10 behavior modification items. I see another, more humorous, blog article coming on this topic!)

The dog reference merely serves as a metaphor for all behavior modification in social animals, our children being the most intelligent form. Learning works best when the subject is calm and in a safe setting. Basically, teach them how to behave by words and example, rather than teach them to fear making mistakes while letting them guess on how to behave.

In summary, I’m not saying that the government or other people should tell us how to parent or that anyone who ever swatted their kid’s butt once is creating a serial killer and is despicable and ignorant. What I am saying is that I believe there is a massive amount of data that shows spanking is associated with detrimental outcomes or, in the least, a significant risk of them. We are capable of raising tough, hardworking, respectful, resilient children without physically causing pain.

(Oh, and I’m also not implying that people should gamble in Vegas and read dog training manuals for their parenting skills.)