Local photos by Breann Kline
Ventura County is brimming with families; grocery stores, parks and shopping malls are swarming with kids and their parents. While they all share the bond of parenthood, the difference in parenting styles is vast and varied. Experts will tell you there is no “one size fits all” model for effective parenting. Still, the one thing almost all parents, and in particular mothers, have in common is the insatiable desire to judge others and compare the methods of their peers to their own.
Hot-button issues like breastfeeding, co-sleeping and circumcision send Internet chat rooms on parenting websites into a frenzy. Women will declare all-out war on their fellow mothers for a simple difference in opinion. Our real lives aren’t quite as exciting because society expects at least a small amount of decorum. Conversations between parents are fraught with the same topics, but perhaps expressed with a little less passion, conviction and honesty. It’s not as easy to attack someone’s decisions as a parent when you are face to face.
Of all the topics related to parenthood, whether or not to use spankings as a disciplinary tool may well be one of the most controversial and emotional. With new research and a movement toward attachment or child-led parenting, a society that was once very pro-spanking is steadily moving toward the anti-spank way of thought. Like all grand debates, however, authorities are split and studies are inconclusive, so the argument often gives way to a difference in interpretation and, therefore, contrasting beliefs and opinions.
What is a “spank” and how common is it?
Perhaps the most critical issue underlying this debate is the definition of spanking itself. The most commonly adopted definition and the one used by authorities on the matter specifies spanking as being open-handed, on the bottom or extremities without leaving a mark or causing physical harm. The definition is important because it helps differentiate spanking from physical abuse, which is harsh, excessive, includes the use of inanimate objects (like a belt or wooden spoon) and is inflicted upon the whole body and causes or has the potential to cause bodily harm.
In the United States, approval of physical punishment has been on a gradual and steady decline over the last 40 years. Whereas in the 1960s, roughly 94 percent of adults were in favor of a good swat on the rear, today that number has decreased to 71 percent. By the time kids reach high school, 85 percent of teenagers say they have been physically punished, with the numbers usually higher in certain ethnicities, religions and regions in the country.
There are commonalities among parents who spank. Research has found that parents are more likely to use spanking as a form of punishment when:
The age of their child is between 2 and 5 years old
They are 30 years old or younger
They were physically punished as children
The discipline is a result of the child putting him- or herself in danger or hurting someone else
They have a cultural, religious or regional background that endorses it
They are socially or economically disadvantaged
They are experiencing stress in their lives, such as financial hardship or marital problems
Even with these similarities, it is important to avoid lumping all people in these categories together. Within every group, you will find people who are in favor of or reject the idea of spanking and parents who use only mild forms as well as those who misinterpret the punishment and use it in abusive ways.
Spanking works around here
“I feel that spanking can be an effective tool for discipline if used correctly in the proper setting,” said Sarah C. Ellison of Camarillo, who reserves the punishment for behaviors that can lead to danger, such as running out into the street or taking off in crowded public place.
Ellison, whose son is 2, defines a spank as a swat on the bottom with an open hand, “I would never strike my child in the face or with a foreign object. I feel both of those are way over the acceptable line.”
Physical punishment in the Ellison household is minimal; she often uses time outs or situational removal to nip bad behaviors in the bud, but has also experienced compliance in situations where a spanking was the consequence. When asked about the trend against spanking, Ellison said she thinks it is partly sparked out of fear, “People are afraid to be seen as abusing their children, when in my opinion, it can be more abusive to allow a child to misbehave than to correct those behaviors.”
Ellison admitted she doesn’t really tell people that she spanks because of the judgment she fears she will face from her peers. “Some people seem to think that if you touch your child in any way that isn’t loving (in their own estimation), it is abuse. What they don’t understand is that when done correctly, discipline is loving.”
Ellison was spanked as a child and, contrary to current beliefs that spanking has negative effects, she said that this form of discipline actually positively affected her relationship with her mother. “I can remember being upset that I had disappointed my mom so much that she had to resort to spanking, but not being mad at her for it.”
Rosemary McCarthy, Newbury Park mother of four, is confident in her decision to spank her children as well: “I think it’s an effective way to control bad behavior in certain kids …. It establishes boundaries and limits which, in turn, shows your child what is acceptable behavior and what is not.”
McCarthy thinks the movement toward less discipline is a disservice to society: “I think that if we look at the kids today, they are mostly whining, spoiled brats that feel the world owes them. They are coddled and never taught to take responsibility for their own actions.”
She said spanking was a form of punishment used in her household growing up, but she quickly learned from her misbehaviors and rarely received one. “It actually taught me respect for my parents and their rules, which were in no way too strict; it was simply a necessity for keeping control of 10 kids in one household.”
Aged 17 to 34, her sons and daughter show no negative effects from being spanked as kids. “In some instances, I feel that maybe I should have doled out a little more discipline,” McCarthy said.
McCarthy’s 20-year-old daughter, Colleen, said that despite being occasionally spanked as a child, she was never really afraid of her parents and has no psychological problems related to it. “Sometimes, I kind of thought it was funny,” she admitted. “Being spanked did hurt sometimes, and I was only afraid of my dad when I knew one was coming.”
Colleen believes the occasional swats she and her brothers received were a successful tool of punishment and usually eliminated bad behaviors. “I know my brothers and I aren’t perfect, but we sure behave a lot better than some people out there,” Colleen said.
The no-spank zone
Being the mother of a spirited, 4-year-old little girl is no easy feat; Marielle Bowers knows that firsthand. “My goal as a mom is that my daughter grows up to be a well-adjusted adult who knows when she is doing something wrong and, hopefully, one that will think about her actions before doing that something wrong.”
The Thousand Oaks mom said she tried spanking once or twice and it didn’t work. “She totally freaked out and would hit me back,” Bowers said. “For us, positive discipline, like commending her for being good, coupled with consequences and follow-through, has been working for us.”
“I think that disciplining a child, and even raising one, is very hard today. We do have more resources, like books, the Internet, etc., but I feel that as moms we are also judged more,” Bowers remarked, adding that she believes all parents should do whatever works best for their children.
Sarah Epstein of Oak Park does not use spanking as a form of punishment in her home either. “The idea of myself or my husband causing physical pain or discomfort for any reason on our child hurts me enough to never want to do it,” she said.
Epstein remembers being spanked only once or twice in her childhood and thinks that dictates her feeling toward physical punishment, “I believe that every parent is different, and based off of how they were raised, makes a difference in their way of parenting.”
“As of now, my husband and I use the ‘one-two-three, then time out’ method as well as a stern voice,” Epstein explained. “We do our best to follow through with all of our threats.”
She said that she doesn’t look down upon parents who choose to spank their children, but admitted she still has reservations. “I would say that it concerns me sometimes as it can unfortunately become overboard, and the line between abuses of parenting power and simple punishment can become gray.”
Epstein believes there is truth to current research that indicates children who are spanked are more likely to be physically aggressive as adolescents and adults. “I feel that they will learn in life that hitting is OK, and because parents are the best teachers, we must lead by example,” she concluded.
Moderation and balance are key
“I always want people to think what their goal is in spanking, what are they hoping to accomplish and is there a better way of getting there,” said CSUCI professor and clinical psychologist Dr. Michelle Moon.
Moon created a parenting course at the university and teaches parenting workshops in Los Angeles, where she runs her private practice. She explained that the optimal time to begin disciplining your child is between the ages of 3 and 6.
“Parenting is the hardest job because people are tired and they’re depleted, and this idea that they are supposed to be consistent and they are supposed to be anticipating all of these needs is very difficult,” she said.
It is her philosophy that spanking as a tool of discipline is not effective, but also she said that not all adults who were spanked as children grow up suffering long-lasting effects. “We can see people who are spanked and see them grow up and be great students and adults, but sometimes we do see correlation between aggression and children who were spanked,” she said.
Having studied children and adolescents for years, Moon thinks the most successful parents start early, are consistent and use whatever tools their children best respond to. “What is cute at 3 is going to be a problem at 9 that you can’t control at 14,” she explained. “Parents need to be clear about expected behavior and consequences for behavior that are age appropriate.”
Moon advocates for redirection, positive reinforcement and the correct use of time outs. “The child needs to be removed from the situation as soon as it happens, put in a designated spot and remain there for a specified amount of time, usually one minute per year of age.” She also suggests giving yourself a time out to take care of your own needs if you feel your fuse is about to blow.
“It is very difficult to get that balance between nurturance and warmth and limit-setting and boundaries,” Moon said.
“It’s usually one extreme or the other. The goal is to find that moderation.”
Marilyn Greene, a licensed marriage and family therapist, suggests taking pieces of advice from several different resources like books, friends and your own parents and reading up on childhood development. “Sometimes, we run into trouble with parents not knowing what appropriate expectations are,” she noted.
When it comes to spanking, Greene said that she will never recommend it as a means of discipline. “I really think it doesn’t create anything positive for the child or the parent,” she said. “My experience is that if you are going to show aggression in the household, then don’t be surprised if your 3 or 4-year-old goes into preschool and uses his hands or body as his first line of defense.”
Greene also strongly encourages parents to praise the positives as a way to encourage good behavior, coupled with time outs and removal of privileges. “Little children don’t wake up in the morning and want to make our lives miserable,” she said. “It is our challenge to anticipate times that are going to be challenging and be prepared,” adding that when it comes to disciplining your child, “You have to start early the way you mean to continue.”
Greene also expressed concern for the trend of permissive parenting, saying, “I don’t think a child should ever rule the roost. Parents have to be in charge of the household. Setting appropriate boundaries makes children feel safe and secure.”
And the verdict is …
You can’t be too hands-on, and you can’t be too hands-off, and finding that balance is the missing piece of the puzzle, say the experts. Mild, occasional spanking hasn’t proved to cause any long-term effects; and while a quick rap on the rear or hand will most certainly get your child’s attention, there are many other tools at parents’ disposal as well. The solution lies in education about what is age-appropriate discipline and the preparation of an arsenal of disciplinary options, keeping tabs on which ones work best.
Parenting courses, workshops and support groups are important local resources for guidance. Family physicians and pediatricians are a wealth of knowledge, and there are also parent support and crisis hotlines where callers can speak with a trained volunteer who can provide parenting information and referrals to other resources.
Lastly, keep in mind that parenting is the single hardest job in a lifetime; the key to making it run smoothly is finding what works best within each family.