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Washington Post Features

July 12, 2012

When is it OK to spank?

Last week, on Facebook, a friend of mine linked to a Yahoo blog post whose title caught my eye: "Spanking Linked to Mental Illness, Says Study." My husband and I have a 14-month-old boy, whom we've never planned to spank. Still, we have years of discipline ahead of us, and I was curious about the findings.

So I read the story. Then I read the study it was based on. Then I got mad.

Despite the Yahoo headline, and many others like it, the study, published in Pediatrics in early July, does not actually link spanking to mental illness. In fact, the study has nothing to do with spanking at all. Canadian researchers asked 34,000 adults how often they had been pushed, grabbed, shoved, slapped, or hit by their parents or other adults when they were children. The authors explain that they were trying to assess the long-term effects of regular harsh physical punishment, which, they write, "some may consider more severe than 'customary' physical punishment (i.e., spanking)." Ultimately, the researchers reported that adults who have mental problems are more likely to say they were pushed, grabbed, shoved, slapped, or hit by their parents than healthy adults are.

Yes, OK. Abuse is bad. But now I wanted to know: What about spanking? According to a 2011 study, more than half of all American parents spank their toddlers; some studies have put the number closer to 60 percent. But the American Academy of Pediatrics opposes it, and the practice is illegal in 32 countries, including Spain, Israel, and all of Scandinavia. So what's the deal -- are slaps on the tush OK if your children deserve it, or will it screw them up for life?

After digging into the literature on the topic and talking to a handful of experts, my best shot at a conclusion is this: It depends. If you spank your kids frequently, harshly, or after you've lost your temper, then your kids may end up worse off because of it. If, on the other hand (no pun intended), you rely primarily on nonphysical disciplinary tools like time-outs, but you (lightly) spank your kids with the palm of your hand several times when they don't comply with these tactics, reasoning calmly but firmly with them as you do -- then spanking might make your children better behaved, and it probably won't do them any harm.

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