Children's Voice July/August 2007

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The Down to Earth Dad

Physical Punishment...And Why Kids Are Better Off Without It

By Patrick Mitchell

"In my opinion, the best kept secret of American child psychology is that children who are not spanked are, on average, the best behaved and have the fewest psychological and social problems." That's what Murray A. Strauss, professor of sociology and codirector of the Family Research Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire told me recently.

His 30 years of family research convince him the phrase Spare the rod, spoil the child is backward. "It's really, 'Use the rod and spoil the child,'" he says. "It's using the rod that causes problems for the child."

Most people think of spanking when they hear the phrase corporal punishment, but Strauss has a broader definition: "Corporal punishment is an act carried out by the parent with the intention of causing the child physical pain, but not injury, for the purposes of correction or controlOeSo, washing a child's mouth out with soap fits the definition exactly." So does pinching a toddler's arm to make the child sit in the car seat, paddling with objects, shaking a child, and slapping.

"The mom or dad intentionally squeezes the child's arm while putting them in the car--that's a form of corporal punishment," he says. "The kid says, 'Mommy, that hurts.' Well, mommy might not reason it out that way, that she wants to hurt the child, but that's what she wants to do. It's using more force than is necessary to get the child into the car. You're kind of doing two things at once--getting the child in the car and inflicting corporal punishment."

Here's the rub: Corporal punishment may succeed in temporarily controlling a child's behaviors. The trouble is, the children may suffer from low self-esteem and depression, become overly aggressive, and exhibit antisocial behavior later as a result.

"Corporal punishment, while it does stop the behavior in an immediate situation, occurs at the cost of creating problems down the line, including undermining the bond between the child and the parent and increasing the probability of delinquent behaviors," Strauss says.

"Corporal punishment weakens the bond between child and chips away at the bond, particularly if it's repeated a number of times. This is a problem for parents who want to be close to their kids and who want their kids to be close to them."

My parents were cleaning my vocabulary when they washed my mouth out with soap. I wasn't alone. Strauss and his colleague, clinical psychologist AngEele Fauchier, recently gleaned data from a questionnaire completed by about 500 university students on questions about the discipline methods used by their parents when they were 10 and 13 years old. Among the findings, about 25% of the respondents said a parent washed their mouth out with soap as a child. That's corporal punishment, according to Strauss and Fauchier, and it therefore holds the possibility for more negative outcomes than positive ones.

"Study after study shows the more corporal punishment, the greater the chance the child is going to be higher than normal in physical aggressiveness," Strauss notes, adding that physical punishment sets the stage for "a higher probability of antisocial, delinquent behavior, such as getting in trouble in school, vandalism, theft, and things like that." He says children whose parents regularly use corporal punishment are more likely to be depressed than are children whose parents don't.

"The research shows corporal punishment doesn't work any better than just saying no," Strauss says, adding that if you can avoid corporal punishment, you avoid its negative effects.

"Saying no will stop a 2-year-old for a minute or two. It's the same for slapping a 2-year-old's hand. "The recidivism rate for misbehavior by a 2-year-old is about 50% within two hours. It's 80% within the same day. And that applies to whether it's just saying no, removing the child, or spanking a child.

" doesn't take a whole new parent to avoid corporal punishment. Parents are doing dozens and dozens of things besides spanking, even parents who are doing some spanking. If they just left out the spanking, they'd be doing the alternatives, and their child would be better off."

San Francisco Bay-area Assemblywoman Sally Lieber dropped her widely ridiculed campaign this winter to make spanking a crime in California. Perhaps we're not ready for such a law, but as child- and family-serving advocates and programs, perhaps we can do more to educate parents on the topic.

A regular contributor to Children's Voice, Patrick Mitchell publishes a monthly newsletter, The Down to Earth Dad, from Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, and facilitates the Dads Matter! Project™ for early childhood programs, schools, and child- and family-serving organizations. He conducts keynote addresses, workshops, and inservice and preservice trainings. To reserve Patrick Mitchell for speaking engagements, or to implement the Dads Matter! ProjectTM for your families and community partners, call him toll-free at 877/282-DADS, or e-mail him at Website:

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