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Is There a 'Right' Way to Spank a Child?

Taking the New York City subway everyday, I have witnessed a lot of eyebrow raising behavior over the years. Watching someone relieve himself on the platform – typical. A woman catching the 3 train without pants on – I don't even bat and eye. As strange as those incidents may seem, they didn't faze me nearly as much as seeing a mom spank her little boy during a ride uptown. He started pushing her buttons before they even boarded. When she finally reached a boiling point, she gave him about five whacks across his backside before dragging him into the seat next to her. She then looked up at me hoping for an empathetic smile or nod. Her exasperated face seemed to say, "These kids can really drive us crazy, right?" I just turned my head. I was appalled and went into judgmental mommy mode. That's not to say the kid wasn't misbehaving, but did his behavior really merit a public spanking?

At the time, I couldn't imagine ever doing that to my own son. My husband and have always been on the same page about spanking – we will not do it. Though as our son has pushed the limits of my patience and put me on the receiving end of what my grandmother used to call "sassy back-talk," I have thought about that mom more. Just to be clear, we are still anti-spanking when it comes to our own children, but I wonder if there are some merits to corporal punishment. Who can forget the Bible verse, "Spare the rod, spoil the child." Though the American Academy of Pediatrics takes a clear side: "Corporal punishment is of limited effectiveness and has potentially deleterious side effects" and recommends "that parents be encouraged and assisted in their development of methods other than spanking for managing undesired behavior." Yet half of parents in the United States admit to spanking, according to an ABC News poll

My husband and I were discussing the issue with another couple who is waffling on their no-spanking stance. "Kids today just aren't afraid of their parents," said the dad. "They shrug off punishments as though it was nothing. But when we were little, we knew what was coming if we were really bad. That kept us in line." As more and more parents complain about their entitled, misbehaving brood, they are wondering if there is a way to spank that would effectively discipline their children. While the majority of experts on the issue that I've encountered say, "No," there are some outspoken advocates.

According to Dr. Laurie Zelinger, a board certified school psychologist, there is one and only one time spanking is appropriate. "That in an immediately dangerous situation- such as running into the street or touching a lit BBQ fire, or walking off with a stranger," she advises. "When spankings are used this infrequently, they hold greater value and represent that the situation is different from all others, they have more impact. The memory of the event will likely last a lifetime, and will serve to reduce the chances of the behavior from happening again." Even skeptics may admit there is truth to that. One father shared that the one spanking he ever received was after he had run away from home after not getting his way. When they realized the then 7-year-old was nowhere to be found, his parents were frantic, of course. The police were called and neighbors started to search. When he bored of the little adventure, he headed back home. The family was relieved, but felt this merited a serious punishment. He never dreamed of doing it again. However, that doesn't mean physical punishment is always necessary. "There is no need to spank a child even in those situations if the child has significant fear already from the event, like falling into deep water or hearing a car's screeching brakes," adds Dr. Zelinger, author of "Please Explain Anxiety to Me." "The natural consequence of the child's action will have already has created the change in their behavior."

Dr. David Elkind, author or "Parenting on the Go," has a different slightly philosophy. "There really is no sound psychological reason for spanking after the age of six or seven," he explains. "By that age children can understand cause and effect, and deprivation of privileges is a more effective way of inhibiting future unacceptable behavior." Instead, he believes corporal punishment is most effective on at an early age. "For younger children a slap on the bottom, usually well padded, can help children to learn 'healthy' fears, such as not to run in street, eat food off the floor," adds the former President of the National Association for the Education of Young Children. In these situations the slap is associated with our own fears and anxieties and that accentuates the power of the message and helps associate, in the young child's psyche, a negative emotion with the action."

If you do choose to spank, it should never be done in anger cautions Zelinger. "In cultures where it is used as an acceptable form of parental consequence, it is almost always used without anger, and rather, part of the natural system of punishment," she says." Recalling the few spankings he received as a child, my husband said that his father would sometimes wait hours before delivering the whooping. That way, there was plenty of time to think about what he had done wrong and consequently fret about what was about to happen. Talk about psychological warfare. That must have been torture – which shouldn't be the goal. "Consequences are intended to be as soon as possible following the event in order to have the desired effect," says Dr. Zelinger. "But before you decide to spank, consider the unique needs of your child. There may be better methods of accomplishing the same goal without the pain and humiliation of spanking."

Those negative feelings are the primary reason so many people are against it. "In my opinion, the greatest risk associated with spanking is creating an ambivalent attachment between yourself and your child especially when the child is the most vulnerable in the first five years of life," says psychotherapist Robbyn Peters Bennett, founder of StopSpanking.org. "Instead of encouraging learning, spanking heightens a child's hyper-vigilance and interferes with his ability to self-regulate or cognitively understand consequences. And early toxic stress, including harsh punishment, can alter brain development and lead to problems in adolescence and adulthood such as anxiety, depression, anger problems, increased risk for smoking, and alcohol and substance abuse." Yet spanking proponents insist there is a difference between planned, controlled, consistent discipline and abuse. Opponents don't see a distinction. So the debate wages on with no sign of ending. Personally, I still feel spanking is not right for my child, but it's ultimately up to each parent to decide what's best for their family.

Where to do fall on the spanking debate?

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