A reader from Dubuque, Iowa, recently wrote her local paper complaining about what she called my "spare the rod, spoil the child" philosophy. I know that this perception of me -- that I advocate spanking -- is not uncommon, so I'm going to try to clear this up, once and for all.
I do not advocate spanking. I never have, and never will. The misunderstanding grows out of the unfortunate tendency on the part of many people to think that if you are not specifically against something, then you must be in favor of it. The more controversial the topic, as is the case with spanking, the more likely a misunderstanding of this sort becomes.
I do not "believe" in spanking. However, I do not find, upon examining the research, compelling reason to believe that spankings, occasionally delivered by a parent who is obviously loving and whom the child trusts, are harmful. Some researchers (e.g., Murray Straus at the Family Research Institute, University of New Hampshire) claim to have found harm. There is good reason to believe that those research studies are tainted by ideological bias. When research into spanking is done by persons without such bias (e.g., Robert Larzelere, Director of Research, Boys' Town, Nebraska; Professor Diana Baumrind, University of California), no harm is found.
Most spankings, unfortunately, qualify as "stupid" in that even though not necessarily harmful, they accomplish absolutely nothing. This is attested to by the significant number of parents who report that they spank over and over again for the same misbehaviors. They obviously don't get it.
There is no compelling evidence to suggest that spankings cause children to believe that hitting is an acceptable way of dealing with frustration or conflict. The most aggressive children, researchers have found, tend to be those who are never spanked (which does not, in and of itself, justify spanking).
I do not believe the government should step any further into the area of parent discipline than it already has. A government ban on spanking will open the door to further government interference in the parent-child relationship, and I view this as potentially harmful to our democracy.
Furthermore, Robert Larzelere's follow-up study of the effect of the Swedish ban on parental spanking found an increase in child abuse after ten years. I believe our child abuse laws are sufficient to address parents who go "overboard" when spanking. I believe those laws should be enforced dispassionately, without regard for socioeconomic status, race, religious background, or personal background. Certain biblical fundamentalists believe that God commands parents to spank.
Although no expert, I am a student of Scripture. I have studied enough to come to the conclusion that the biblical term "the rod," as used in the context of the discipline of children, does not refer to spankings with tangible objects, or even spanking at all. It refers to discipline that is righteous, that steers a child toward virtue. That does not eliminate the option of spanking, but neither does it prescribe it.
I believe that spanking is a reasonable option in certain situations, with certain children. The research indicates that spanking is most effective between ages 2 and 6, and is most effective when paired with another consequence, such as removal of privilege. It should go without saying that the more a parent spanks his or her child, the less effective any given spanking will be.
It is my intention to educate parents to the fact that effective discipline is not conveyed by methods, whether spanking or otherwise, but through effective communication of instructions and expectations. Unfortunately, most parents who spank have failed to do just that.
The opinions expressed solely are those of the writer. John Rosemond is a family psychologist. Questions of general interest may be sent to him at Affirmative Parenting, 1020 E. 86th St., Suite 26B, Indianapolis, IN 46240, and at his Web site www.rosemond.com.