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The Bare Truth About Spanking: It Affects Mental Health

This mom discovers how spanking and slapping can make kids sick

I drove my children home from naked. Once.

Allow me to explain. They were taking swimming lessons that summer. Every morning, I packed their beach bags with dry clothes and a fresh towel and set the bags by the garage door. They wore their suits to the lesson, then changed into dry clothes for the ride home. Despite being reminded, they continually forgot their bags so I made sure the bags made it to the car along with the kids.

One day, I decided I had too much on my plate and made the kids responsible for getting their bags to the car. The first day, they forgot. I refused to let them ride home with wet suits and wet towels. Luckily, I had a blanket and a ratty old towel in the trunk. They went home wrapped in those. The second day, they forgot their bags again. This time, I had no blanket and no ratty old towel, which were now at home. The kids went to get in the car, wet suits and all. “No way!” I said. They refused to believe I would drive them home nude until I drove them home nude. They never forgot their beach bags again.

Some call this style of parenting “logical consequences.” You forget your beach bag? You go home naked. I call it “guerilla parenting” because it takes creativity and a willingness to use extreme methods to drive a lesson home.

One parenting method I’ve never used is spanking. My parents were spankers. I had my bottom bruised and my face slapped. Not frequently, but often enough. That was a long time ago, but there are still families where spanking and slapping occur regularly.

In fact, nearly half of American parents use physical discipline. And it may be making children sick. According to a study published last week in the journal Pediatrics, harsh physical discipline may lead to adult mental illness in children spanked, slapped, shoved and otherwise physically disciplined.

The study of a nationally representative sample found adults who were physically punished as children are 2 percent to 7 pecent more likely than others to suffer some mental illness. Among the disorders more prevalent in those who were spanked as children are depression, mania, anxiety, drug and alcohol dependence, and personality disorders.

I’ve heard others defend those who strike their children, noting it is an accepted practice among many cultures. But I’ve also heard from children who say their parents spank or slap them; many teachers have heard such stories. Though their cultures may accept spanking, I’ve yet to meet a child who does.

How we discipline our children makes a real difference. The American Academy of Pediatricians already strongly opposes using any form of physical discipline. Apparently, not enough of us are listening if half of our families still use it.  Physical discipline doesn’t just leave spank marks on a tender bottom; it has permanent effects as well. In this light, driving my kids home naked hardly seems extreme at all.

Mary Rayis July 11, 2012 at 04:25 AM
I'm not sure the evidence in your article proves that spanking causes mental health problems. It could be that children with symptoms of mental illness have more behavior problems that cause their parents to resort to spanking more often. That being said, I don't understand why we would do to children something we would not accept adults doing to each other. Yes, I realize there are differences and that we have a responsibility to guide our children, but spanking is just plain mean. All we teach children is that we are more powerful than they are, so we get to hit them.
Ashley Austrew July 11, 2012 at 08:48 PM
Like you, I was spanked and slapped occasionally as a child. My mom (rarely, but often enough) smacked me in the mouth for talking back. It was always jarring and...I don't know...scary? Now that I have a baby of my own, I can't really imagine spanking her. I'm sure there will be times when she will absolutely test my limits beyond anything I'm prepared to deal with, but I refuse to believe that I can't communicate her boundaries to her without hitting her. That is just ridiculous. I want her to look to me for guidance and direction and know her limitations, but I also want her to respect me. I think a lot of parents forget that fear is not the same thing as respect.
Janice Lindegard July 11, 2012 at 08:59 PM
Mary, the research was done by interviewing adults who recalled being "harshly disciplined," which included a range of physical disciplines such as slapping, spanking and shoving. They, obviously, couldn't use that method to determine if challenging behavior leads to parents using more aggressive methods. But yours is an interesting point. I agree that it's hypocritical to do something to children that we wouldn't accept in adults, but it's also hypocritical to do something to children that we would punish them for if they did to another child. How would it be to spank a child for hitting another?
Janice Lindegard July 11, 2012 at 09:00 PM
Ashley, I think a lot of people, not just parents, forget the difference between fear and respect. Best of luck to you in raising your daughter!
Mary Rayis July 11, 2012 at 09:11 PM
Janice, I agree. It is the height of irony to hit a child in order to teach them not to hit. To Ashley's point, we all lose it sometimes, and I'm less disturbed by a parent who occasionally swats a kid out of sheer frustration than I am a methodical and cold-blooded spanking or beating as a form of discipline. To me that's a lot scarier.

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