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If spanking taught me anything, it’s that spanking doesn’t work

In the Washington Post’s parenting section yesterday, psychotherapist Katie Hurley provided some tips for parents of tantrumming kids, both to handle the situation and to handle their own emotions in lieu of spankings. Hurley comes down against spanking for a very clear reason.

A study published in the Journal of Family Psychology in April looked at five decades of research on spanking and found that the more children are spanked, the more likely they are to defy their parents and engage in antisocial behavior and aggression. These kids are also more likely to have mental health problems and cognitive difficulties. The results are clear: Spanking is all harm and no good.

But as you’ll see in any online story about spanking, parents often have strong opinions on the subject, and Hurley picks up an interesting thread, which may explain why so many parents say things like, “I was spanked and I turned out fine!” Hurley says, “Parents feel that taking a hard line against spanking feels like a betrayal of their own parents. They feel like doing things differently sends the message that they weren’t happy as kids.”

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That point rang true for me. I recall after my first son was born, my mother reacted a bit defensively when she learned how strongly medical experts advise against putting a baby to sleep on its stomach. “That’s how we did it and you turned out fine,” she said. Of course, I know my parents were doing the best they could with the information they had. But I got different information than they did — from sources I trust — and I was going to proceed accordingly.

The same goes for spanking. My parents did practice corporal punishment on my brother and me. It’s not the kind of thing that I would need to see a therapist about, but I certainly don’t recall enjoying the deep pinches and the smacks. I never thought, “I’m learning a great lesson.”

My husband I decided we would not use physical pain when disciplining our children. A lot of that has to do with the April study Hurley mentioned — the evidence seems to indicate that there is nothing good about spankings and so on, so why practice it? Meanwhile, I think by instituting this policy, it will just be easier to have a hard-line rule against hitting and hurting in our house. I’m positive my sons will brawl when they get a bit older and we’ll have to deal with that, but at least there will be no confusion about why Mommy and Daddy can hit and pinch and slap but the boys cannot. (My parents certainly couldn’t use that reasoning when my younger brother and I would physically fight.)

We are no soft-touch angel parents, believe me. Just the other night we went without a bedtime routine because our older son was tantrumming so hard I gave up and told him he could put himself to bed. Sometimes I don’t use a very gentle touch (especially when the toddler is trying to spin around or stand up on the changing table.) We have found timeouts, per the 1-2-3 Magic approach, to be effective with our older son, although I recently interviewed parenting expert Alfie Kohn, who said that timeouts are not a gentle approach because it’s a withdrawal of love. “Even to the extent it’s temporarily effective, it gets its kick from that threatened withdrawal, which in the long run does immense harm.” I wanted to tell him that timeouts are as much for the parents (at least in our case) as for the children — we all need a cooling-off period — but perhaps I’m just getting a taste of what it’s like to have a complete stranger tell you your method of parenting is wrong and bad.

I know my parents and probably many others think of timeouts as ineffective discipline, the lame tactic reserved for parents who are too weak to spank. I can assure you, though, my older son does not feel that way, and probably would come down on the side of Kohn in that discussion.

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There are many family traditions and parenting techniques that are excellent for passing on. My mother did a wonderful job making holidays feel special and giving us occasional surprises and treats just because — she made being a kid fun, and I think of her often when I’m trying to decide if I should buy something fun for my kid that I know he’d like even though it’s not his birthday or a holiday. My father let us travel more than most little kids get the opportunity to, and I hope we can do the same for our sons. But when it comes to physical punishment, that is one tradition I won’t be passing on. I’m am quite sure that by the time I am a grandmother, of course, my older son will say things like, “A study published in the April 2036 Journal of Family Psychology proves that timeouts are ineffective, Mom, which is why we’re letting the robot nanny intervene instead,” and I will be a little annoyed, but that’s just the way things go.

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