Spanking your kids and corporal punishment

Something recently stopped me in my tracks.

A study published in Pediatrics recently found that 65% of parents to 3 year-olds said they had spanked their child within the last month. Sixty five percent? The number surprised me. If you’d asked me to guess, I would have said 20-25%. Talk about way off. Another reminder of how much I have to learn.

The study evaluated risk factors, including domestic violence and intimate partner aggression & violence, on spanking and corporal punishment. The researchers are trying to understand/describe that while most child advocacy groups condemn spanking, in the US, the reality remains that nearly 2/3 of families continue to use spanking as a form of discipline. They found that parents who experienced aggression and violence between each other were twice as likely to be in the group that spanked their children. Having been spanked as a child increased the odds, too. Not surprising.

But the 65%; that was surprising.

I don’t talk about spanking in clinic (I can’t think of a time I did); no one asks my opinion about it. I talk about setting limits, behavior, tantrums, obedience, discipline, but no one asks me about spanking. I wonder, do parents feel it’s taboo? Do they feel I would judge them?

My position on spanking may be irrelevant, really. What I say as one mother or pediatrician doesn’t change the reality that more than half of the parents in this study are spanking children. I’ve always thought of spanking as illogical. If I’m trying to model behavior against aggression, why would I hit my child modeling just the opposite? But I’ll tell you this: I was spanked as a child and I certainly remember it. Clarity in fear. Further, there have been moments of desperation (think: major-tantrum-melt-down-disaster-ness) where I thought about it, too. So, I think the instinct to spank (particularly when you’ve seen it, or experienced it) in a moment of utter overwhelm may be the norm when raising kids. But 1/3 of us choose not to spank,and about 2/3 of us choose to spank our children. Why?

What pediatricians ultimately need to figure out for families is how to help parents improve their lives with their children. We need to support families in times of frustrations. Groups like the AAP discourage using spanking or corporal punishment of any kind. But their statement may not make much of a difference.

So I wonder, does 65% surprise you? Do you spank your children? Do you think it works? Do you feel spanking is corporal punishment? If you don’t spank your child, why not? So curious. Please share, even anonymously if need be.

Wendy Sue Swanson is a pediatrician who blogs at Seattle Mama Doc.

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