When spanking is at the heart of controversy, so are the myths. Ron Prinz weighs into the debate in a South Carolina newspaper

Spanking and corporal punishment can set off a firestorm of debate under any circumstances.

Add a high-profile NFL case, and we have a recipe for a vigorous public dialogue about parenting, child abuse and best practices.

Public debate is healthy. Unfortunately, this one tends to be marked by myths and distracting generalities.

Myth No. 1: All spanking is child abuse and therefore should be banned. Fact: Most spanking episodes in fact do not rise to child abuse.

Myth No. 2: Parents who spank are bad parents, and spanked children will suffer poor outcomes. Fact: Parents who spank represent a very broad spectrum, ranging from effective to abusive. Generally speaking, children fare well if their families provide a warm, structured and safe environment with appropriate encouragement as well as discipline and limit-setting — whether parents spank or not.

Myth No. 3: Parents who do not spank are effective parents. Fact: Not necessarily. There are many other elements that go into what makes parents more or less effective.

We have all seen an out-of-control child running amok in the grocery store. And we have heard bystanders comment, “What that child needs is a good lickin.”

However, we also have observed parent-child struggles where the young child acts up in the market, is yelled at, continues to act up, gets slapped or spanked and a few minutes later acts up again.

In such common scenarios, the fundamental question is not whether to spank. Instead, it is how parents get into such predicaments and how they can extricate themselves or, better yet, prevent such events.

Shared values

So, instead of talking about whether parents should spank or not, it might be more constructive to look at our shared values.

South Carolina parents, like parents everywhere, want their children to learn how to get along well with adults and other children, to behave appropriately at home, in the car, in public places, in school and elsewhere, and to treat others respectfully and kindly.

We also want our children to become self-reliant, which includes learning to regulate their own emotions and behaviors. If we rely primarily on spanking to achieve these goals, we face certain disadvantages:

  •   Spanking communicates what not to do but does not tell a child what to do or how to do it.
  •   Frequent spanking can produce emotional responses and episodes of retaliation, or in some instances excessive fearfulness.
  •   Abuse can start as spanking that unintentionally escalates as parents’ emotions intensify.
  •   Some children get the wrong idea that they should hit other children who do not do what they say.
  •   Spanking can interfere with children acquiring self-control because the emphasis is on adults controlling the behaviors.

What can parents do instead? Plenty

  •  Establish clear, simple, age-appropriate and readily enforceable rules.
  • Pay close attention to the times when our children are behaving appropriately, which can be upwards of 95 percent of the time even for children with serious behavior problems, and respond positively to things you want them to do more often.
  • Anticipate potential problem situations such as shopping, mealtime, bedtime, morning routine, et cetera, and set clear ground rules with both positive and negative consequences.
  • Figure out what the rewards are that children have learned to expect for certain misbehavior — such as a candy bar when they throw a tantrum in the checkout line or simply the opportunity to perform before an audience — and find ways to block or prevent these.
  •  When necessary, stand firm and impose pre-specified consequences not requiring spanking. For example, having a 10-year-old rake leaves in the yard for 30 minutes (instead of watching TV or doing some fun activity) can be more effective and instructive than a few swats on the rear end.

Parents and children sometimes get into coercive cycles of interaction. Recognizing when this is happening and short-circuiting it as early as possible is a critical goal. When children’s behaviors are more challenging than usual, parents might consider professional assistance. Our center offers at no charge the Child and Family Program to parents in the Midlands whose 3- to 7-year-olds are experiencing pronounced behavior problems ( childfamily.sc.edu).

Dr Prinz directs the University of South Carolina’s Parenting & Family Research Center. This article first appeared in South Carolina newspaper The State.