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‘The Right Way to Spank a Child’? WSJ Op-Ed Sparks Debate Over Corporal Punishment

By Mark Keierleber | February 8, 2019

One to three swats with a wooden spoon.

That’s the recommendation for acceptable discipline given by a pediatrician in a controversial Wall Street Journal op-ed this week, which challenges a new policy paper that says the use of corporal punishment to punish children is ineffective and can harm development.

In the op-ed titled “The Right Way to Spank a Child,” pediatrician Robert Hamilton accused the American Academy of Pediatrics of conflating discipline with child abuse when it released a policy position in November that says corporal punishment can lead to more misbehavior and increase aggression at school. The practice is also associated with an increased risk of mental health disorders and cognition problems, according to the academy.

“In my practice, I advise parents not to use corporal punishment until children are old enough to understand why they are being punished,” Hamilton, a practicing pediatrician in Santa Monica, California, wrote. “Spanking should be a last resort after other disciplining methods and verbal warnings are exhausted, and only to punish clearly and willfully disobedient acts.”

In an interview with The 74, the co-author of the policy position defended the academy’s stance and called Hamilton’s position on corporal punishment an outlier within the medical community. The position paper underwent a years-long comment and review process and ultimately represents the academy’s roughly 65,000 members, said Robert Sege, co-author of the paper and a pediatrician at the Floating Hospital for Children at Tufts Medical Center.

“In the past generation, we have come to understand that violence within the home is dangerous and unnecessary and it should be avoided,” Sege said. “I think that young parents have grown up understanding that violence has no place in intimate relationships and have similarly come to the conclusion that it has no place in relationships between parents and children.”

The use of corporal punishment in schools has also come under scrutiny in recent years. Laws in 18 states explicitly permit the practice in schools and another four states don’t address the issue, according to the National Association of State Boards of Education. A previous academy policy statement called for the abolition of corporal punishment in schools.

In the column, Hamilton notes that while child abuse is understandably a crime, he argues that existing literature on the efficacy of corporal punishment doesn’t adequately distinguish between violence and the “proper and loving way to spank a child.” He said child-development specialists could be susceptible to bias, noting that their personal opinions on spanking may cloud their conclusions on the practice. Data from existing studies, Hamilton wrote, do not distinguish between a “drunken father who beats his child” and a ”sober mother who swats her child’s bottom with a wooden spoon.” Hamilton declined to comment for this article.

As evidence of corporal punishment’s benefits, Hamilton wrote that he knows many people who were spanked as children who grew up to become loving and nonviolent adults. He expressed concern that the academy’s position could persuade policymakers to “intrude into intimate family affairs” and ban spanking.

Recent parent surveys suggest that a majority of Americans see value in corporal punishment, though support is declining. In a 2016 survey, 76 percent of men and 66 percent of women ages 18 to 65 said children should sometimes be spanked. That’s down from 1986, when 84 percent of men and 82 percent of women said the same. People with a college degree are less likely to support the practice.

“We were prepared, everything short of Kevlar vests, for a big pushback, and there really hasn’t been,” Sege said. There are a lot of people who spank their kids and there are a lot of grown-up pediatricians who were spanked as children.”

But there’s a lot to unpack in Hamilton’s argument, Sege said. He questioned what evidence Hamilton had to back his claim that three swats with a wooden spoon is acceptable. While existing research shows a correlation between corporal punishment and negative outcomes, Sege said the same goes for evidence on smoking cigarettes. Epidemiologic methods have found that smoking is associated with lung cancer, he said, “and our feeling is similar. There’s a risk for problems.”

“Everybody has a relative who is like 83 years old, smoked a pack a day since they were born, began smoking while they were still inside their mommy’s belly, and is doing fine,” he said. “That doesn’t mean cigarettes are safe.”

Sege dismissed Hamilton’s claims that there’s a difference between a “loving way to spank a child” and outright abuse because the harms of corporal punishment they’re focused on are psychological.

“The person who you’re supposed to trust and love is hurting you and causing fear,” he said. “That’s where the problem comes in; the problem doesn’t come in because a person is hitting you too hard.”

So what’s a parent to do?

Young people are most receptive to positive reinforcement, Sege said. When children misbehave, he said, parents should respond with age-appropriate discipline, like instituting time-outs or suspending privileges.

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