Spare the Rod *

David A. Gershaw, Ph.D.

Most of us can remember being spanked as young children. Since we turned out all right, spanking still seems to be an adequate method for disciplining our children. However, we should be aware that severe physical punishment or abuse is bad for children. Even so, little research has been done to compare the effect of spanking to other methods of discipline. The research that has been done suggests that if children are punished by physical aggression these children learn to control other children by physical means.

If disciplined harshly,
children are likely to use similar methods
in dealing with their peers.

Last year, a group of researchers at Vanderbilt University, headed by psychologist Zvi Strassberg, ran a study involving the families of 273 kindergarten children. The children were from several schools in Tennessee and Indiana, and their proportions by sex and race were representative of these areas.

In questionnaires and oral interviews, parents told how they had disciplined their children during the previous year. After gaining that information, the children were observed interacting with others on the playground. The trained observers did not know how the children had been disciplined. Those children who were spanked showed higher levels of physical aggression toward their peers. The highest levels of aggression were observed with children whose parents used more violent forms of punishment.

Strassberg and his associates analyzed the families in terms of socioeconomic status, one vs. two-parent families and other factors. In two-parent families, the aggressive discipline of one parent may be balanced by the discipline methods of the other. When both parents have hostile punishing methods, the child tends to be the most aggressive.

According to Strassberg's researchers, the actual spanking and the anger expressed seemed to be the most critical factors. The child's later aggression seems to be an imitation of parental anger.

Even if we want to stop or reduce spanking, most parents are at a loss to what to do in place of spanking. Here are some suggestions.

If you still need more advice, there is a 24-hour-a-day source of information through the Parents Anonymous Family Hotline at 1-800-352-0528.

* Adapted from "Spanking may foster aggression toward peers in young children" and "What else can you do beside spanking?" The Menninger Letter, March, 1995, pages 1-2.

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