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Spanking toddlers: Poverty, punishment and preparation for life?

September 15, 2009 |  1:51 pm

There's no topic more incendiary than spanking. Add to that the spanking of very young children by  mothers in minority, low-income households and you have a minefield.

A group of Duke University researchers has not only ventured into that minefield; it has also set off a few bombs in the process. Published in this month's issue of the journal Child Development, their study of 2,573 toddlers enrolled in Head Start found that for poor children, early and frequent spanking -- by the age of 1 -- is not only very common, but it also makes their behavior at age 2 more aggressive and by age 3 appears to have slowed their socio-emotional development.

They also found that a low-income mother is most likely to start spanking a very fussy, irritable baby by the age of 1, and more likely still if the mother is depressed. Boys were spanked and yelled at more often than girls, and the poorer the family the greater the likelihood the kids would be physically and verbally punished at an early age.

The collective results suggest that the causes and effects of spanking are tightly bound together, making it difficult to tease out the influence of poverty, genetics, gender differences and cultural expectations when discussing the controversial practice.

The American Academy of Pediatrics in 1998 issued a recommendation that parents find means to correct children's behavior other than corporal punishment. A large body of evidence suggests the practice is seldom effective and may have negative effects. But some in the African American community have defended the practice, citing research showing that while spanking may make white children more aggressive, the practice makes African American children less so.

How common is it for low-income mothers to have spanked their children by the age of 1? One in three mothers told researchers that they or someone in their household had spanked their 1-year-old in the preceding week, on average doling out 2 1/2 spankings per week. By the time their children were 2 and 3, 49% of the moms in the study said they had spanked the child in the last week -- on average between 2 1/2 and three times.

Verbal punishment was less frequent than spanking: 17% of the mothers surveyed said they had yelled at a 1-year-old; 24% yelled at their 2-year-old, and 16% at their 3-year-old.

After stripping out the influence of income, African American children at all three ages were most likely to be spanked and to be verbally punished; low-income white mothers and Mexican American mothers who were more Americanized were about equally likely to spank their young children, and generally about equally likely to yell at the toddlers. Recently arrived Mexican American moms were least likely to spank a toddler, and less likely to verbally punish a 2-year-old than were other low-income moms.

The study's findings generally "paint a picture of spanking and verbal punishments as products of parental challenges (e.g., the many difficulties associated with being a young parent and/or living in poverty), and may also reflect a goal of preparing a child for a life characterized by these and other challenges," the authors write.

-- Melissa Healy

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Comments (5)

Spanking is not a good idea. I've learned that spanking does not help my own children, they do not respond, they cry even more and the physical pain may even get out of hand with louder crying. So I don't spank. What's better for me is to prevent stressful situations from occurring. For me, that means not being angry, tired, or hungry. For my kids, it means that I make sure their needs are met i.e, not hungry, tired, or bored. Once I see my own children not listening nor attentive, it's time for me to take them to their nap or take care of their needs. The Nanny show taught me the time-out practice of speaking to my children at their level, and letting them "sit out" 1 minute for every year they are old. This is more effective for our family. My husband said he was spanked with a belt. To this day, he won't forget how his parents made him feel during the punishments.

The TRUTH is that school children are treated differently in our great nation based on where they live. A middle school student in Texas DIED by having his chest crushed when his teacher sat on him to restrain him, a Texas high school student suffered deep bruising and welts to his lower back, buttocks and back of his legs when he received 21 “licks” with a wooden canoe paddle, which broke during the beating and had to be taped to continue the beating, a 9-year-old Georgia 3rd grader suffered deep bruising injuries when he was PADDLED WITH A WOODEN PADDLE 3 TIMES IN ONE DAY and a Publicly Funded Charter School in Memphis, Tennessee physically punishes middle/high school boys and GIRLS weekly during a ceremony called “Chapel” by hitting them with wooden paddles and/or whipping their hands with leather straps IN FRONT OF ALL THE OTHER STUDENTS AS A DETERRENT to publicly induce shame, humiliation and fear! The school employees in the above actions have LEGAL IMMUNITY and are STILL paid by our tax-dollars to be ENTRUSTED with the care and education of our children!

“Children are the most vulnerable members of our society. Adults have constitutional and legal protection from physical violence. Why are children still waiting?”

Physical punishment of schoolchildren is NOT education’s “Best Practice” if it is ILLEGAL in 30 states. U.S. Congress is currently holding hearings on Abusive and DEADLY practices in SCHOOLS and MUST ABOLISH Physical/Corporal Punishment Nationwide of ALL Children in ALL Schools, The Cost is $0. Doesn’t it just make sense for all of us to keep our hands off of other people’s children?

Pushing for anything less than an outright ban on all forms of classroom abuse reveals a gap in the administration’s professed commitment to making schools better, safer, and stronger

Corporal punishment can lead to child abuse and it teaches children that hitting is the way to solve problems. Using belts, paddles, extension cords is all child abuse.
Unfortunately 20 states still allow corporal punishment in the schools with wooden paddles which is legalized child abuse. It must stop as children deserve "equal protection under the law in our constitution."

It all depends on how you define 'spanking'. When I was a child I got the living tar beat out of me. Looking back, it's obvious my parents were taking out ALL of their frustrations on my body, with their hands or whatever tool they could grab at the time. In today's age, they'd probably be in jail. Beating someone with a canoe paddle is not spanking --- it, like what my parents did to me, is abuse.

That said, I define "spanking" as no more than three swats on the rump, and NEVER in anger. I never spanked my daughter when she was under the age of three. If she touched pots on the stove or did other things that would cause herself danger, she got "flicked" on the hand with my finger, much like a child "flicks" a fly or a paper football. There is little to no "reasoning" with a toddler.

The first time I spanked my daughter was a swat on the rump while she was over my knee. She ran off to where I could not see her AFTER she had been told to stay in sight. I explained to her before and after the swat that I loved her too much to let her get taken by bad men or women, and that at her age she needed to stay in sight so I could protect her.

Afterwards she stood in disbelief for a few minutes. Ten minutes later she crawled into my lap and thanked me for being such a good dad -- for loving her so much.

Kids want to know their boundaries. They will push and test them, some kids more than others. The key for me, as I said, is to never ever touch my daughter while I'm angry. Any adult that spanks a child in anger, or continues spanking beyond two or three swats, is abusing the child, NOT spanking the child.

Child buttock-battering vs. DISCIPLINE:

Child buttock-battering for the purpose of gaining compliance is nothing more than an inherited bad habit.

Its a good idea for people to take a look at what they are doing, and learn how to DISCIPLINE instead of hit.

I think the reason why television shows like "Supernanny" and "Dr. Phil" are so popular is because that is precisely what many (not all) people are trying to do.

There are several reasons why child bottom-slapping isn't a good idea. Here are some good, quick reads recommended by professionals:

Plain Talk About Spanking
by Jordan Riak,

The Sexual Dangers of Spanking Children
by Tom Johnson,

NO VITAL ORGANS THERE, So They Say
by Lesli Taylor M.D. and Adah Maurer Ph.D.

Most compelling of all reasons to abandon this worst of all bad habits is the fact that buttock-battering can be unintentional sexual abuse for some children. There is an abundance of educational resources, testimony, documentation, etc available on the subject that can easily be found by doing a little research with the recommended reads-visit www.nospank.net.

Just a handful of those helping to raise awareness of why child bottom-slapping isn't a good idea:

American Academy of Pediatrics,
American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry,
Center For Effective Discipline,
PsycHealth Ltd Behavioral Health Professionals,
Churches' Network For Non-Violence,
Nobel Peace Prize recipient Archbishop Desmond Tutu,
Parenting In Jesus' Footsteps,
Global Initiative To End All Corporal Punishment of Children,
United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

In 26 countries, child corporal punishment is prohibited by law (with more in process). In fact, the US was the only UN member that did not ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child.



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