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Psychologist says 'spanking debate is over,' so why does it seem to persist?

Brandon Paykamian • Jun 23, 2018 at 6:18 PM

Most sociologists and psychologists today appear to have reached a consensus that “spanking” children is harmful to psychological and social development, yet the majority of people I’ve discussed the subject with insist that doing so is the only true way to “discipline” a child.

Though the social sciences are taking a different approach to the matter compared to previous years, the majority of Americans still believe hitting kids is ethical and effective. This view is out of line with most modern psychological research on the matter.

Some studies even suggest that spanking children nurtures aggression and can create an adversarial relationship between the guardian and child, but those who do “spank” their children often respond to such arguments in a visceral and indignant way.

Every year, Dr. Noam Shpancer, a professor of psychology at Otterbein University, says he takes a “spanking poll” in his classroom, and the results have remained largely the same – most of his students seem to approve of corporal punishment. 

“I have taken that same ‘spanking poll’ ever since then in every developmental class I’ve taught,” he wrote in a February Psychology Today article titled “The Spanking Debate is Over,” where he argues the “empirical, theoretical and moral arguments against spanking are compelling.”

“The results, by my eyeball test, have not changed much,” he continued. “And official data back up this conclusion: Most American parents hit their little children. And most believe that they are doing something both effective and right.

“But they are wrong.”

Aside from psychological motivations, some have to wonder why so many people vehemently defend “spanking” — a practice that, if used on adults, would result in assault or even sexual assault charges.

As Shpancer points out, virtually all categories of people – including most inmates housed in some of the nation’s toughest prisons – have a fundamental right to protection from physical assault. The same can’t be said for children, who are the most vulnerable members of our society.

“Pain is as punishing a consequence to the 16-year-old as it is to the 6-year-old. And a 16-year-old is still a child requiring parental supervision. Rather, most parents stop hitting their adolescent child because he’s big and strong enough to hit back or to run away, or is mature enough to be reasoned with,” he writes.

“In essence then, the underlying reason parents spank their kids is because they can; because young kids are physically weak and lacking in emotional and cognitive maturity.”

Considering the weak foundation on which the ethical and scientific arguments for corporal punishment stand, the popularity of this antiquated practice likely has to do with a number of explanations:

• The idea that parenting should be viewed through the lenses of power dynamics in the first place.

• The observation that spanking serves as a short-term deterrent against bad behavior (It often does, but this discounts concerns over long-term development).

• The idea that children are basically parents’ property.

• One of Shpancer’s explanations I found most interesting — “the American cultural ethos.”

Shpancer was shocked to find that the practice was so prevalent here after moving from Israel to the United States. Growing up with a father who is also not from the States, I have noticed this cultural difference as well, and I think part of his analysis of why corporal punishment remains so popular in the United States hits the nail on the head:

“With spanking as with guns, football, the military, and comic book superheroes: America, born in war, has an ongoing romance with violence.

“The trenchant Christian dogma viewing children as wild sinful creatures whose will must be broken into obedience through instilling fear is likely another culprit,” he writes.

“The practice is a relic of the past and best left there,” he eventually concludes.

Tennessee, along with 29 other states, still allows school officials to strike children as a form of discipline.

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