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The Spanking Gap: Why Are Most Parents in Favor Despite the Research?

Photograph by Twenty20

When it comes to mommy wars, I tend to be pretty neutral. I feel confident in the choices I make in the raising of my daughter, while also understanding that all kids, homes and parents are different.

What works for me may not work for you. I get that, and I’m not here to judge.

This is precisely the attitude I have always extended toward spanking. I’ve known for a long time that spanking would never be my disciplinary method of choice; it just doesn’t feel right to me, and I can’t wrap my head around the idea of teaching my child not to hit while also using hitting as a form of punishment when she does something that displeases me.

But I have friends who spank, good parents who I know think through their decisions and are just as confident in their disciplinary methods as I am. And I grew up in a home where spanking was a disciplinary tool that was used infrequently, but always kind of stood there as a possibility, and I’ve never felt irreparably harmed for that fact.

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So if you are a parent who chooses to spank, I’m not judging. I figure you know you and your kid better than I do, and as long as you’re not spanking in a rage, or spanking in a manner that crosses over into abuse, I don’t see it as a choice I should have any say in at all. Your kid, your family, your decision.

Still, I recently found myself doing some research for a scientifically based article on spanking, and while I typically try to present all sides of an issue like this, I was having a nearly impossible time finding any substantial pro-spanking research. Every major study (consisting of large sample groups, and not commissioned by organizations with an obvious bias) from the last 20-plus years has shown, again and again, that spanking does more harm than good.

Why are we listening to the AAP when it comes to just about everything else we do with our children, but not this?

Most recently, research from the University of Texas in Austin analyzed over five decades of study data, making it one of the longest running studies of its kind. The results were startling. Researchers found that spanking causes similar emotional and developmental harm to children as abuse. And that “the more children are spanked, the more likely they are to defy their parents and to experience increased anti-social behavior, aggression, mental health problems and cognitive difficulties.”

So basically, science is saying that spanking accomplishes the exact opposite of what most parents hope it will.

That was when I stumbled upon a Harris Poll from 2013, which found that 81 percent of Americans believe spanking is an acceptable form of punishment.

And suddenly, I was more than just a little confused.

What is the disconnect here? The science is pretty damning, with virtually no valid studies presenting a positive contradictory view. So how is it possible that such a big group of us still believe against that science? Why the disparity between the research and parental opinion?

Don't get me wrong, I'm not judging. And in fact, I would count myself in that 81 percent, given that I have always supported parents in their right to spank, should they deem that the best method for their family. But we have science shoved down our throats in regards to so many other mommy wars (breastfeeding, vaccinations, parenting styles) and people are always quick to tout that science in support of their arguments—so why are so many just as quick to discount that same science here? Particularly when you consider the fact that the studies related to spanking aren’t contradicting each other, and every major medical organization, including the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), has stood behind that science and taken a strong stand against spanking.

Why are we listening to the AAP when it comes to just about everything else we do with our children, but not this?

It made me wonder how our views on spanking are shaped, if not by the scientific data that has been relentlessly compiled. So, I decided to turn to Facebook and ask—if you’re a parent who spanks, how does the research affect your thinking on this topic? And if you are still thoroughly in the pro-spanking camp, despite the wealth of research against it … why?

In absence of other tools, parents reach for the one they know: spanking.

Most of the answers I got came down to two things. For some, it’s just a matter of how they were raised.

I was spanked and my children were also spanked (though much less often than I was, to be completely honest). I feel, especially for my kids, sometimes it's the only way to get the point across that something they've done is absolutely NOT acceptable and/or dangerous to themselves or others. I do not feel harmed by the spankings I received; honestly my mother's yelling was much worse. My children have stated that they don't feel harmed when we've had conversations regarding it after news stories or such. I am sure that there are children that can be reasoned with but mine were not. As far as expert opinions, I hold almost zero stock in that, same as the experts the weigh in on vaccinations. I think every one of those experts has an agenda one way or another. Yes I am sure that there are people who've been psychologically scarred from a spanking but maybe those were technically beatings or an extremely sensitive child. But, honestly, is there any person who wasn't scarred in some way from something a parent did? Forcing them repeatedly to eat a food they hated? Forced to play or continue playing a sport or activity because the parent wanted it? Not that I put those things together in the same level, but, unfortunately, every choice we make is going to impact our children and sometimes to a negative end whether we planned it or not. My strongest fearful memory after a childhood filled with spankings? My father forcing me to try waterskiing, still have nightmares about it.” —Brooke G.

“I grew up in a home where spanking was OK, and to be completely honest, I do spank my kids, but less often than I was. And I grew up OK (I think). I don't feel abused by my parents at all. I am even very proud of them as overall parents to us. In our culture, in the place where I live, spanking is very common. I see different kinds of spanking and I believe some are really abusive. Maybe that's why I am OK with it, because the way my parents did it to us was never abusive. I only remember a few times I was spanked, and it stopped when we were older, before we even get to be teenagers. So with my kids, I see to it that they know the reason why they are spanked and they know also that they get spanked when they do certain things (not all misbehavior warrants a spanking). Spanking is not the only disciplinary action we do at home. But it is the highest punishment we do.” — Imadylle B.

For others, it seemed to be a distrust of science (and perhaps simply a larger trust in religion):

“Spanking, in the correct way ... not in a drunken anger fueled rage ... has been around for a long time, correct? But now in this generation there are conclusive studies showing that spanking has never been useful, never needed and has done nothing positive in the last 10,000 years of recorded history??? It has finally come to light in the year 2016 that every child that has ever been spanked was damaged in that moment and it would have been a better planet now if only we could go back and take away all of the spankings every parent has given. Maybe the significant rise in autism and diabetes could also very well be linked to the spankings as well. Clearly our downward spiral of children's emotional stability is due to the topic of spankings. I'm sure it has nothing to do with the collapse of our public education standards, diets filled with nothing but processed foods, sugar, caffeine, 900 television channels 24 hours a day, social media withdrawal, constantly being plugged into the Internet, lack of interest in sports, and when sports are played they are more violent than ever before, lack of respect for parents, teachers, and law enforcement. I'm glad that this year someone has finally connected all of the dots and made it obvious that we've all been misunderstanding the words of the Bible for thousands of years and now we can finally see that the downfall of the human race is due to the spankings of a foolish child. Thank you so much for opening my eyes to the truth that has been hidden from me all my life. I'll be sure to pass along the message and together we can change the world one lack of spankings at a time. Maybe we should gather up every Bible ever printed and rewrite it with our new understandings.

Science often changes with the times, ironically. I believe in spanking, but only under certain circumstances. I don't judge others whether they do it or not. I just know it seems to be a pretty great deterrent in our home.” — Kaylee S.

Of course, there were those who contested the religion connection:

It is my understanding that ‘spare the rod, spoil the child’ is misunderstood. I've read that it's actually a reference to shepherds, and they did not hit the sheep with the rod, but rather, used it to gently guide them in the direction they were supposed to go.” — Amanda N.

And the idea of spanking in general:

“People see children as less of a person than an adult. When an adult is acting badly, we would never consider violence to be the best option, and use it only when it prevents injury or death of another person. Why are children different? Are they learning anything other than to fear you and your consequences? If the goal is only to control outward behavior in the moment, spanking works, so does threatening and bribing. If the goal is to teach, guide or lead, then spanking will never achieve that purpose.” — Edith H.

RELATED: Half of All Moms Are Down With Spanking

With one woman pointing out that this disconnect may simply be a result of parents feeling as though they have no other tools at their disposal:

“My belief is that we haven't taught the majority of parents other methods of discipline. In absence of other tools, parents reach for the one they know: spanking. We need more support and education for parents.” — Jill S.

What do you think? Do you spank in your home? Do you think other parents should be able to make that choice for themselves?

And if you don’t trust the research on this, even though it has consistently shown the same results again and again … why?

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