The Great Spanking Debate | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

The Great Spanking Debate

Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson brought the spanking debate into the spotlight when he was charged with child abuse for using a “switch” on his 4-year-old and leaving welts. He also admitted hitting him in the testicles.

Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson brought the spanking debate into the spotlight when he was charged with child abuse for using a “switch” on his 4-year-old and leaving welts. He also admitted hitting him in the testicles.

Kelli Leo grew up in the South. Diane Braman did not. Both are therapists with the Solomon Counseling Center of Catholic Charities in Jackson, but only one condones corporal punishment.

One Easter Sunday when Leo was a child, she kicked her father in the shin. As a response, he spanked her. Over the course of her childhood, Leo was spanked occasionally for misbehaving.

"I think I turned out more than fine. I think it helped me determine right from wrong. I think I grew up with a respect toward authority and adults," Leo said.

"It's hard to explain. It's just that, for me, corporal punishment helped me develop a moral compass."

Braman, on the other hand, is against corporate punishment, including on her 12-year-old son. "When I think about the word 'discipline,' it comes from the word disciple—to teach—that's very different than punishment," Braman said. "So the question I think I need to ask myself, and that I ask parents, is: 'What are you trying to teach with that behavior?'"

Leo does spank her child, but only in circumstances of "blatant disrespect" and only on his bottom with her open hand. She has what she calls a "vague understanding" of scientific evidence that suggests spanking can be damaging, but said: "I don't know research regarding spanking. I'm not concerned with that. I don't spank often enough for it to make a difference."

The great spanking debate has evolved, especially over the last 20 years, due to evidenced-based research that suggests spanking is harmful and because of shifting attitudes toward child rearing. Ideas about physical punishment in the South, however, appear more stagnant.

Many southerners believe as Leo does—that spanking has not been harmful to her, her parents, her husband or her child, who were all spanked and who she calls "happy, well adjusted" people. It is from her personal experiences that she has developed her positive opinion on corporal punishment.

Likewise, most who approve of physical discipline call upon their childhood experiences—their memories of being spanked or "whooped" and the love they had for their parent—to determine what kind of punishment they will rely on for their own children.

But scientific evidence suggests spanking doesn't really work. Not only that; it can be extremely detrimental to a child's development. While corporal punishment, including open-handed spanking, is illegal in 38 countries, the evidence has not yet convinced Americans.

Suddenly, A National Debate

The man who recently prompted the spanking national conversation, NFL running back Adrian Peterson, released a statement amid child-abuse charges that said, "I am not a perfect parent, but I am, without a doubt, not a child abuser." He also said he was disciplining his child the same way he had been disciplined.

The Minnesota Vikings deactivated Peterson, and the NFL has forbidden him to participate in team activities since news surfaced that the running back hit his child with a "switch." Using a switch—a thin part of a tree branch—like a whip to discipline children is a tradition in southern communities. Often, a child is told to "pick their switch" from a tree as part of the punishment.

No one is a perfect parent, but pictures gathered into evidence show Peterson's 4-year-old son with reddish welts that appear to be the result of a whipping. Peterson also texted the boy's mother admitting that he had hit the toddler in his testicles.

Still, Peterson doesn't consider "whooping" his son to be abuse. "I never imagined being in a position where the world is judging my parenting skills or calling me a child abuser because of the discipline I administered to my son," Peterson said in the statement.

The Mississippi State Department of Health defines child abuse as "anything said or done that is hurtful or threatening to a child, such as name calling, belittling a child or making threats of harm," "any type of contact that results in bodily harm or bruising or physically restraining a child improperly," and "not meeting the basic needs of a child, including not giving essential medicines or food, leaving a child unsupervised, providing inadequate protection from the weather."

The Mississippi Department of Human Services defines physical abuse as contact that results in "bruising, abrasions, broken bones, internal injuries, burning, missing teeth and skeletal injuries." Also included is "yanking a child by the arm."

Regardless of how the 220-pound football player characterizes the punishment he inflicted upon his toddler, a grand jury in Texas believed it was abuse and indicted Peterson on the felony charge. Montgomery County (Texas) Assistant District Attorney Phil Grant said a person faced with child-abuse charges often argues that his or her action was a form of "reasonable discipline," CNN reported.

"Obviously, parents are entitled to discipline their children as they see fit, except for when that discipline exceeds what the community would say is reasonable," Grant said.

Apparently, Peterson's Texas community did not think the extent of the punishment was reasonable.

But what if it did?

It is the sentiment of many that physical discipline—similar to the whooping Peterson's son received—is the community standard in the South. Beating your children to behave, however harsh, is the responsible thing to do.

Is it?

'It's About Love'

Bonita Jackson, Peterson's mother, stood up for her son, saying that whipping children is beneficial for them, shows them love and shows them how to behave, even when it goes a little too far.

"I don't care what anybody says; most of us disciplined our kids a little more than we meant to sometimes," Jackson told The Houston Chronicle.

"But we were only trying to prepare them for the real world. When you whip those you love, it's not about abuse. It's about love. You want to make them understand that they did wrong."

Jackson may be showing a little denial and blinded a bit by loyalty to her son. But she is not the only one unwilling to view the spanking as abuse. Other sports personalities, including 11-time NBA All-Star Charles Barkley, defended Peterson. NFL running back Reggie Bush, conservative talking head Sean Hannity and countless fans did, too.

Even Leo of Catholic Charities, a trained family therapist, declined to definitively address what constitutes "crossing the line" from spanking to child abuse. Although she believes a parent has gone too far when he or she uses a hard object or leaves a mark on a child, she is adamant in saying that definition is for "just me, personally."

"When you bust out objects, like extension cords or shoes ... to me, that's being abusive," Leo said. "I am just personally not fond of that."

She acknowledges that parents have different opinions on the matter, but, as she said, "If I think it's OK to rob a store, it's not OK to rob a store."

This is what makes defining a "line"—and leaving the determination of what is "appropriate" corporal punishment up to each individual parent—so difficult and dangerous for children.

The Ten Negative Effects

Many believe a parent's form of discipline is their own business.

The fact that the therapists of Solomon Counseling Center can't, as Leo said, "tell a parent not to spank their child," demonstrates the attitude that no one has any business telling a parent how to rear their child.

Many child advocates, however, say that the negative effects associated with corporal punishment elevate spanking from one parent's business to a public-safety issue, especially in circumstances where the punishment has escalated to abuse.

A 2002 study by Elizabeth Gershoff, a developmental psychologist with the National Center for Children in Poverty at Columbia University, found that spanking creates 11 outcomes—only one of which could be considered beneficial.

The 10 negative effects strongly associated with being spanked as a child include: poor internal moralization, strained relationship with parent, risk of enduring abuse from parents, mental-health problems, increased aggression, criminal or anti-social behavior and risk of becoming an abusive parent later.

The one desirable benefit of spanking may be obvious: immediate compliance. Laboratory research has shown that physical punishment will likely change a child's short-term behavior. But, as Gershoff found, that benefit doesn't last.

When it comes to parenting, "promoting the development of children's internal controls is more important to long-term socialization than immediate compliance," Gershoff wrote.

Although Leo said that her spanking helped her develop a moral code, Gershoff found instead that spanking promotes external attributions for behavior—rather, it teaches children that appropriate behavior is motivated by external consequences and not an understanding of right and wrong.

"Corporal punishment may not facilitate moral internalization because it does not teach children the reasons for behaving correctly, does not involve communication of the effects of children's behaviors on others, and may teach children the desirability of not getting caught," Gershoff wrote.


Diane Braman, Solomon Counseling Center therapist, is mindful about her temper when developing parenting techniques with her 12-year-old son, whom she does not physically discipline.

Researchers also find that corporate punishment of all kinds is likely to increase a child's aggression. Because, as Braman said, to discipline means to teach—spanking teaches children that physical violence is the way to deal with frustration.

"Early experiences with corporal punishment may model and legitimize many types of violence throughout an individual's life, particularly violence in romantic relationships," Gershoff writes in her report.

This aggression may carry into adulthood, increasing the likelihood that the spanked child will use physical aggression toward his or her family members or others, thus perpetuating a "cycle of abuse," warns Thomas Meyers, associate executive director for child abuse prevention at The Child Center of New York.

"If parental corporal punishment leads individuals to view aggression or violence as legitimate, make external attributions for their behavior, and attribute hostile intent to the behaviors of others, they may be more likely to resort to aggression and violence during conflicts with their children and spouses," Gershoff found in her study, "Corporal Punishment by Parents and Associated Child Behaviors and Experiences."

Stunting Brain Development

The science of spanking goes beyond behavioral studies, finding more harmful results. Evidence has shown that physical punishment can do neurological damage, altering the architecture of a developing child's brain—especially in girls. These findings can explain why a person who was physically disciplined may be at risk of not only physically abusing his or her family, but entering into unhealthy relationships.

Child advocate Stacey Patton, who holds a doctoral degree in African American history from Rutgers University, cites research that explains how constant hollering, threatening and physical punishment "sets off biochemical responses to stress" that can lead to unhealthy sexual patterns, in addition to the negative effects outlined in Gershoff's study.

Leslie Seltzer, an anthropologist at the University of Wisconsin's Child Emotion Lab, found that spanking of all kinds triggers the release of cortisol, a hormone the body uses in response to danger to prepare for a fight or flight. Since children have no option to fight back or flee from the situation, they are forced to submit to pain when their parents use physical discipline.

This release of cortisol, if repeated, can make a child "sensitized to fear, making it easier for them to experience danger and pain and normalize abnormal behavior." The chemical reaction can damage a young brain.

In one study, Seltzer tested saliva from girls in a stressful situation and found that instead of cortisol, girls who had a history of harsh physical discipline had a spike in oxytocin, a hormone that causes people to bond.

Normally, this "fuzzy-feeling" hormone would not be associated with physical pain, but when a girl is subjected to and learns to accept physical punishment regularly, her brain essentially rewires. This can lead to unhealthy sexual development and cause a girl to choose poor partners.

"All children need discipline, but not the kind that rewires their physical and mental hard drives for at-risk behaviors or damages their ability to function in healthy ways," Patton said.

A study conducted by Tulane University School of Public Health found that even minor forms of corporal punishment increase the risk of aggressive behavior in children. "There are ways to discipline children effectively that do not involve hitting them and that can actually lower the risk for being more aggressive," Tulane community health researcher Catherine Taylor said.

Braman's simple explanation—that discipline is a way parents teach their children how to behave, thus spanking teaches that hitting is a solution—has been scientifically proven.

A study cited by the American Psychological Association found that children who were more likely to fight or bully their peers reported that their parents used corporal punishment to discipline them. The researchers concluded that children who are physically punished are more likely to "use violence to resolve conflicts of their own."

Does It Even Work?

Gershoff has received criticism from those who say that her study did not accurately characterize what they deem appropriate corporal punishment—infrequent spankings that are not considered traumatic.

Researcher Diana Baumrind and her team at the University of California Berkeley, found that because Gershoff's study "included episodes of extreme and excessive physical punishment," she exaggerated the evidence to suggest that spanking can have long-term negative effects.

"The fact that some parents punish excessively and unwisely is not an argument, however, for counseling all parents not to punish at all," Baumrind and her team conclude.

Leo believes her use of spanking—which is extremely infrequent—is effective.

"Just in my personal experience, it works, as long as you are respecting the line between spanking and abuse," Leo said.

"If you have respect for spanking and do it correctly, it works."

But to program director McClellan there is no correct way to spank, because while spanking may have immediate effects, it does not help change behavior long-term, and it can cause emotional, if not physical, damage.

"We teach parents that spanking doesn't work, because it doesn't. Research shows that," McClellan said.

Instead, therapists at Solomon Counseling Center teach parents the "1, 2, 3 Magic" strategy. Parents count to three when they want a child to stop their behavior. If the parent reaches three and the child has yet to change his or her behavior, the parent enforces a predetermined punishment. This could be taking away a toy or putting the child in time-out.

This, paired with other tactics such as praise parenting, in which a parent praises a child's good behavior, and emotional coaching, in which a parent helps the child communicate his or her feelings, can help a child's healthy development.

McClellan said she cannot ethically advocate for spanking in any way, considering what the research shows.

"Spanking may work immediately. You may see an immediate change of behavior because the child is fearful," McClellan said. "It does not work long-term, or we wouldn't have to continue to spank our children to get them to do what we think they need to do."

Respect or 'A Godly Fear'?

There is one thing that makes spanking effective, at least in the short term: fear.

The damage that physical punishment causes to a parent-child relationship is, Gershoff said, thought to be one of the strongest arguments against its use.

This is because spanking causes a child to fear his or her parent and creates an atmosphere of distrust.

"The painful nature of corporal punishment can evoke feelings of fear, anxiety and anger in children. If these emotions are generalized to the parent, they can interfere with a positive parent-child relationship by inciting children to be fearful of and to avoid the parent," Gershoff wrote.

Leo, and many who adhere to literal biblical standards of not sparing the rod, disagree.

"Spanking done correctly does not make you afraid of adults. It gives you a godly fear. And what I mean by godly fear is it gives you a healthy fear and makes you think about your decisions: Is this going to be a decision that's good, that's going to benefit me, or is this going to be a decision that might lead me to corporal punishment?" Leo said.

The feelings of a parent when using physical punishment matters, too. When a spanking is calculated and calm, it seems a parent is less likely to let their emotions take over, therefore less likely to turn the punishment into what most people could consider abuse, such as in Peterson's case.

When spanking her child, Leo said, "I'm regretful. ... I don't want to have to do it."

Defending the Rod

Baumrind, a psychologist who does not advocate spanking, and her research team argues that studies do not prove that a swat, in good child-rearing circumstances, causes any damage.

"The scientific case against the use of normative physical punishment is a leaky dike, not a solid edifice," Dr. Baumrind said to The New York Times.

Gershoff and other researchers, Baumrind suggests, do not distinguish between spanking and abuse when determining the effects on children. Baumrind also cites flaws in studies in which other factors are not taken into account, such as the fact that aggressive children may be more likely to be spanked in the first place.

The 2010 Tulane University study, however, accounted for other influencing factors and found the same correlation between spanking and aggressive behavior.

"We found this to be true even after taking into account other factors that might have explained this association such as the parents' level of stress, depression, use of drugs or alcohol and the presence of other aggression within the family," Taylor, the Tulane researcher, said.

The suspicions of Baumrind and her colleagues are consistent with attitudes of people like Leo, who reject the idea that mild to moderate spanking is detrimental. However, Leo's belief that spanking helps children develop morally has not been proven in any scientific capacity and seems more of an anecdotal belief passed down through the generations.

Others, like Marjorie Gunnoe, professor of psychology at Calvin College, said anti-corporal punishment studies lacked sufficient evidence to force parents not to use physical discipline on their children.

"I think of spanking as a dangerous tool, but there are times when there is a job big enough for a dangerous tool. You just don't use it for all your jobs," Gunnoe told FOX News in 2010.

The only argument in favor of corporal punishment in these cases, Gershoff points out, is that the evidence that spanking has damaging effects is not strong enough to convince people to refrain from doing it.

But that is not good enough for her. To spank is to risk exposure of children to the 10 negative childhood experiences—that can become serious adult problems—found in Gershoff's study—and for a parenting method with no evidence that it works beyond the immediate moment.

This is why psychologists can't recommend spanking: The risk of adverse effects outweighs the known benefits.

Spanking While Black

Whether or not a parent thinks spanking promotes positive child development may not be as important as the traditions that keep the practice of physical punishment alive—and the response to the Peterson case seems to indicate rifts in beliefs between many blacks and whites.

"I'm from the South. Whooping—we do that all the time. Every black parent in the South is going to be in jail under those circumstances," Charles Barkley said on television after Peterson was charged.

The basketball great's caution against criminalizing the common practice of whooping in black communities criminal is understandable. Blacks are, after all, disproportionately charged with child abuse in comparison with their white counterparts.

McClellan is familiar with this trend in Hinds County. She is a member of a multidisciplinary team that meets each week to review all child-abuse cases in the area. The group is comprised of DHS representatives, mental health professionals, doctors and other community stakeholders.

From the cases she reviews, McClellan said there does "appear that there's a much higher percentage of African American families that use physical punishment and end up with abuse cases against them."

Blacks are not only more likely to be charged with child abuse, they are also more likely to use physical punishment, research shows. While the majority of parents in all U.S. ethnic groups have spanked their children—more than 70 percent in each group—black parents have the highest percentage with 89 percent of them saying they have spanked their child, according to a 2002 Gershoff study of 20,000 kindergartener parents.

Dr. Alvin Poussaint, a black Harvard Medical School psychiatrist, studies mental-health issues and parenting in black communities. Spanking, he told CNN, is "culturally embedded" in African American communities as an acceptable form of discipline.

"We have such damage in the black community," Poussaint said. "When you add to that parents beating their kids, it's sending the message that violence is an OK way to solve problems."

An unusual solution came out of Wisconsin when Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne launched a program to give "deferred prosecution agreements" to parents charged with child abuse if the parent was raised in a community—like Peterson's—where corporal punishment is used to discipline. This was in response to the disproportionate percentage of minorities accused of child abuse in Dane County.

"Recognizing corporal punishment as a culturally acceptable form of discipline and attempt to influence change utilizing culturally sensitive interventions" is the goal of the program, Ozanne wrote. He has dealt with abuse cases where a parent took literally the biblical passages about physically punishing children, and his program is for parents who abused their children as a result of traditional corporal punishment, who have no criminal background and who show remorse.

Other Wisconsin officials—including a bordering county's district attorney and a state representative—rejected the idea, saying that those who punish their children to the extent of abuse should be held accountable. Each state has guidelines for what constitutes abuse in their laws.

'My Mom Was Wrong'

Corporal-punishment critics say that to suggest that a crime is more acceptable because the crime is common among the perpetrator's community, as Barkley did, only perpetuates the cycle of violence, all the while proving that a child who is spanked is at risk of becoming an abusive adult. Peterson, after all, used the fact that he was using the same discipline practices used on him as a child as an excuse to switch his toddler.

Cris Carter, the former Minnesota Vikings wide receiver, decries "whooping" and applauds the NFL for taking Peterson off the field. Carter's mom physically disciplined him, but "it's the 21st century," Carter said on ESPN in September, and there is no excuse for continuing the violence based on the way he was raised.

"My mom did the best job she could do ... but there are thousands of things that I have learned since then that my mom was wrong," Carter said. "I promise my kids that I won't teach that mess to them."

Patton, whose doctorate is in African American studies, has studied the history of abuse that black Americans have endured and how that history has influenced black parents' decision to use corporal punishment. But, Patton said, few parents "view spanking through this lens."

Instead of using spanking as a way to ensure black children obey to protect them from being abused elsewhere, black parents today spank as "a badge of cultural superiority and morality in black communities," Patton argues.

Many black parents identify the refusal to spank—or the use of methods like "1, 2, 3 Magic"—as "white," and view "white parents as too permissive and not in proper control of their children," Patton said.

Even though African Americans are subjected to institutionalized abuse in their everyday lives, Patton calls for every parent to denounce violence as a means to discipline and punish. "You can't fight oppression with more oppression," Patton told MSNBC.

Community standards can vary not only among racial groups but between regional areas. Leo, who is white, believes spanking is more socially acceptable in the South because of the South's strong religious ties. "The South tends to have deeper roots in biblical teaching—spare the rod, spoil the child," she said.


Vallerie McClellan, Solomon Counseling Center program director, believes scientific research proves that spanking is not an effective form of discipline.

McClellan thinks the popular attitude that values tradition over scientific evidence is just an example of a stagnant culture. To show that there are, in fact, regional differences when it comes to spanking, McClellan referred to school districts in Mississippi that still allow corporal punishment.

Thirty-one states have banned corporal punishment in public schools. The remaining 19 that allow physical discipline include all of the southern states.

"I think the South is slower to progress, because people do tend to stick to the 'tried and true,'" McClellan said.

Where Is 'The Line'?

One of the difficulties of determining the difference between acceptable physical discipline and abuse is that experts remain stuck when trying to determine where "the line" should be drawn.

This crucial question in the corporal-punishment debate—what distinguishes spanking from abuse—thus goes unanswered. While Gershoff adversaries said that studies do not show that infrequent and non-traumatic spankings increase the risk of abuse, no studies prove that spanking is beneficial.

"Until researchers, clinicians and parents can definitively demonstrate the presence of positive effects of corporal punishment, including effectiveness in halting future misbehavior, not just the absence of negative effects, we as psychologists cannot responsibly recommend its use," Gershoff wrote.

For some, the cultural and biblical tradition of physical discipline supersedes evidence-based research. Child advocates like McClellan wants to remind those individuals that "we're all human." That means we can take mild physical discipline too far and it become abuse.

"We all get angry and get too angry before we know what's going on. If you're going to spank your child, there's always the chance that you get too angry," McClellan said.

"Of course, you don't leave marks on your child on purpose, but it's going to happen. And even if it does not happen, we still have the same negative effects. ... You can liken it to exposing your child to a toxin any time they get a spanking."

Spare the Rod, Spoil the Child?

Many people point to the Bible as justification for corporal punishment, but what does it really say on the topic?

The popular phrase spanking advocates like to repeat was not actually written in the Bible—Samuel Butler wrote it in a poem in 1664. But while "spare the rod, spoil the child" does not appear in the Bible, it is paraphrased from Proverbs 13:24, which reads:

"Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him."

Others verses encourage parents to discipline their children, including other Proverbs and Hebrew 12:6-7, which reads: "... the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son. Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father?"

But that's not all the Bible says on the matter. In fact, it specifically commands parents not to "discourage" and "embitter" their children—which the science of today shows that spanking does. Colossians 3:21 warns, "Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged."

Ephesians 6:4 has a similar message: "Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord."

These experiences of bitterness and anger are found in studies about spanking. Like Elizabeth Gershoff and many corporal-punishment researchers have concluded, spanking does not actually help children learn right from wrong. Not only that, it puts a strain on a parent-child relationship, creating distrust and feelings of resentment.

The Bible clearly preaches against that.

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