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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Spare the Rod Redux

Would you teach your child that it is okay to use violence against another in order to change their behavior, particularly if they are bigger and stronger than that person is? Not many parents would agree with that educational policy, but that is exactly what parents are teaching their kids when they “spank” them for misbehavior. I put the word “spank” in quotation marks, because that is a word that adults use to obfuscate what they are really doing-hitting their kids.

In the last issue of the Mass Media before finals (12/10/07), there was an opinion piece written by Kai Beasley titled “Spare the Rod?” Beasley’s article decried the bill before the Massachusetts State Legislature to ban the use of “spanking” by parents. Unfortunately, this article was filled with misinformation and logical errors. Hitting kids should be banned, and there is extensive psychological research that supports this conclusion.

Let me say at the outset, however, that I am not suggesting that parents should ignore or tolerate children’s misbehavior. Children need guidance as they grow, but hitting them is not what parents should be doing, for many reasons. I will discuss some alternatives to physical punishment below.

What is the evidence against using physical punishment? Psychologist Elizabeth Gershoff identified 88 studies on the effects of childhood punishment and conducted a “meta-analysis”, a way of statistically combining the results of many different research studies. She found that physically punishing kids had many different reliable effects, all but one of them bad. These included increased aggression, criminal and anti-social behavior, poorer mental health, and greater risk of abusing one’s own child or spouse.

Other studies found increased depression, increased withdrawal, anxiety, and tension among children who are physically punished, and increased substance abuse, interference with schoolwork, and precocious sexual behavior among older children. The only “good” response is that of increased obedience. While this is the desired reaction, the overwhelming number of undesired effects should encourage parents to seek other ways to discipline their kids.

If you go back and read the Beasley article, you will see his arguments that physical punishment has for centuries “helped to keep children from crossing the street without looking, engaging in violent behavior,” and “helping to keep the child out of prison.” In fact, a study by the American Automobile Association’s Pedestrian Safety Task Force found that for a number of children, being punished for running the street increased their subsequent running in the street; additionally, psychologists Glueck and Glueck found receiving corporal punishment to be a significant factor predicting criminal and antisocial behavioral, predicting arrest rates at ages 17 through 45.

So, what do you do instead of hitting your kid? Time-outs for misbehavior and rewards for desired behaviors work well with younger kids. When using this technique, keep in mind that the most powerful reinforcement for kids is time spent with their parents: going on picnics, going to the zoo, watching TV or just playing together. With older children, negotiation to resolve conflict has many benefits for the overall family relationship. While these non-violent methods of discipline take more time, they are well worth the effort. See the National Mental Health Association’s website: www1.nmha.org/children/discipline.pdf or www.christian-parent.com/spanking-alternatives.shtml.

For centuries, parents have been told that if they love their kids they need to hit them. Research on the effects of physical punishment shows that this belief is wrong. It is time to stop hitting kids. This will benefit kids and families, and it will help us to create a less violent society.

Michael Milburn is Professor of Psychology at UMass/Boston.