George Holden envisions a world without spanking. No more paddling in the principal’s office. No more swats on little rear ends, not even — and here is where Holden knows he is staring up at a towering cliff of parental rights resistance — not even in the privacy of the home.
When it comes to disciplining a child, Holden’s view is absolute: No hitting.
“We don’t like to call it spanking,” said Holden, a professor of psychology at Southern Methodist University and head of a newly formed organization aimed at eliminating corporal punishment in the United States. “If we re-label it hitting, which is what it is, people step back and ask themselves, ‘Should I be hitting my child?’ ”
For centuries we’ve been unsparing of the rod, spanking our children just as we were spanked by our parents. And there’s little evidence to suggest we feel much differently today. The “acceptability level” still hovers between 65 percent and 75 percent nationally.
But Holden and a growing number of children’s advocates believe it’s time for a serious effort to end corporal punishment. For some, the goal is nothing less than a total legal ban on spanking in all settings, as has been passed by 33 nations in Europe, Latin America and Africa.
So far in this country, even limited anti-spanking laws that reach into the home have gone nowhere. A 2008 proposal to make it illegal to spank a child younger than 3 was greeted with howls in the California Assembly before being withdrawn.
In 2011, a bill targeting more extreme physical discipline measures that have been considered “reasonable corporal punishment” — hitting with dangerous objects, punching with closed fists, shaking toddlers younger than 3 — was hooted down in the Maryland Senate.
“I had legislators telling me that they had not been spared the rod when they were young and look at them now,” said State Sen. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Montgomery), the bill’s chief sponsor. “It’s really entrenched in the culture.”
That rigidness is what paddling prohibitionists hope do undo. They want to tarnish spanking’s image as a normal part of American life with a sustained behavior change campaign along the lines of the ones that cut smoking rates and made drunken driving a national taboo.
“My orientation is educate, educate, educate,” said Holden. “It’s hard to know if we’re at a tipping point, but more and more people are coming to recognize the overwhelming empirical evidence that all lines up against corporal punishment.”
Activists have started by shrinking the number of places where it is acceptable to swat a child. It’s been outlawed at day care centers in every state but South Carolina and Idaho. More than 30 pediatric hospitals in recent months have posted their lobbies with signs declaring them No-Hitting Zones.
And in public schools 31 states have banned corporal punishment outright. Of the 19 states that still allow it, Texas and North Carolina recently passed statewide laws allowing parents to put their kids on a no-paddle list.
“Parents are saying, ‘I don’t want someone hitting my child in school,’ ” said said Deborah Sendek, program director of the Center for Effective Discipline “That’s a step closer to their saying, ‘I don’t want someone hitting my child at home.’ ”
That spanking does hurt children, and not just for the five stinging minutes that follow, is a matter of consensus among many social scientists. Most of the studies are observational (no one has dared to bring kids in for a few laboratory whacks).
But hundreds of findings have suggested that spanking correlates with a range of problems. The most often cited link is between spanking and future aggressive behavior, but research has also found that spanked children are more likely to drop out of school, suffer psychological problems and abuse their own children.
Robert Larzelere, a professor of human development at Oklahoma State University, doesn’t agree. He sees a classic chicken-egg paradox at work. Did the spankings lead to more aggressive kids, or are aggressive kids the ones most likely to be spanked?
His own research teases out similar correlations between agressive behavior and being put in “time out,” being sent for counseling and other measures a frustrated parent would take. He advocates the kind of spanking he used with his own children: mild, rare and as a backup to gentler methods. “If it’s used in the ideal way, it works early and isn’t needed anymore.”
That’s the kind of sanitized corporal punishment that Adam Zolotor, a pediatrician and professor of family medicine at the University of North Carolina, read about in medical school textbooks: moderate blows, with no belts or other objects, leaving no bruises and done after the anger of the moment has passed. But it’s not the kind he sees in his practice.
“Most spanking happens when our blood is boiling and we react,” he said. “Once you calm down, most reasonable people don’t want to resolve a problem by striking someone.”