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What if spanking works?

Studies show that most parents don’t want to hit their kids — and that some 90 percent do it anyway. Why even the most modern moms and dads can’t stop asking themselves the most controversial question in parenting.

Henrik Sorensen/getty images

IT DIDN’T TAKE LONG for me to realize that asking a man why he spanks his children is like asking him when he stopped beating his wife.

I’d been trying to interview parents about spanking for weeks when I finally got the name of one mother who, as a friend we shared put it, had more opinions on the matter than Jimmy Durante had jokes. I gave the woman a call one day and began to explain what I was working on — that’s when she slammed down the phone.

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A few moments later, she called back to apologize. “I’m at work — that is not a conversation to have around other people,” she hoarsely whispered. “I know you say a mutual friend told you to call me. But for all I know, you could be Social Services or something.” She insisted that I not call her again.

Things continued more or less like that with more than a dozen other people — uncomfortable silences, hang-ups, an astounding number of variations on “Thanks, but no, thanks” — until I reached Kevin Cargill, a 35-year-old real estate professional in Boston.

“I can’t lie, my wife and I do spank our daughters, and I’m not ashamed of it,” Cargill tells me with a nervous chuckle. He says spanking has sometimes been the only way to get through to his girls, who are now 12 and 13. “But at the same time, I can’t say that around everyone. It’s a serious thing, man. And there are people out there who’ll think you’re a beast if you admit to spanking.”

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Countless debates at the edges of playgrounds may roil over how much screen time is too much and the right age to stop breast-feeding, but there’s no more radioactive topic in parenting today than corporal punishment. This despite the fact that it was almost universally accepted just a generation ago. These days, a mother in a mall parking lot who merely raises a hand above her youngster’s backside — the disciplinary equivalent of a poker player’s bluff — is sure to generate dirty looks and tsk-tsking from complete strangers. And if she dares follow through on the threat, she stands to lose friends and the respect of her colleagues and may even find herself the target of a state investigation.

Spanking your kids isn’t illegal in Massachusetts, or anywhere else in the United States, but that mother’s worry that I was an investigator was no idle concern. This was a lesson Don Cobble, former pastor of a Woburn church, learned the hard way.

In 1997, Cobble was investigated by the Massachusetts Department of Social Services over allegations that his discipline of his 9-year-old son had veered into abuse — a fine line made finer by the fact that Cobble used the strap of his leather belt. Two years later, the state’s highest court cleared Cobble’s name, but the damage to his reputation was long done. “Ours was not a huge community, so news spreads and friends quickly became former friends,” he says. “I guess what bothered me most was how many people turned on me, as though I was less than human after they found out.”

But during the time Cobble was under investigation, something curious happened — other parents came to him privately to offer their support and confess that they were also spankers. Cobble was surprised by their numbers; he sometimes felt as if he were the only parent who still used corporal punishment. “In a lot of cases, people who had been extremely close to my family told us secretly they agreed that reasonable spanking is OK,” he recalls, “but they couldn’t afford to say so publicly.”

Cobble had stumbled upon the great secret of modern parenting, a paradox that is just as true today as it was back when DSS first knocked on his door. Even as the percentage of Americans who approve of spanking has fallen dramatically in the last half century, the actual incidence of it has barely budged.

In the past generation, the population of parents who think spanking is “necessary” has dropped from 94 percent to about 70 percent. Despite that change in attitudes, research by University of New Hampshire sociologist Murray Straus has shown, the population of parents who still spank their toddlers is more than 90 percent. This is the striking truth about spanking today: It hasn’t stopped, it’s just gone into hiding.

And sometimes parents even hide it from themselves. A few years ago, a Southern Methodist University psychology professor named George Holden installed audio recorders in 33 homes in the Dallas area. His plan was only to measure how often the participants yelled at their kids, Holden says, “but we inadvertently captured more than we expected.” In half the homes, the recorders caught the sounds of parents slapping and spanking. What his research shows, Holden says, is that “parents may be behaving at odds with what they say, and certainly at odds with what they think good parents would do.”

Today’s do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do attitude toward spanking is nothing short of disingenuous, says the Rev. Eugene Rivers, a Boston-based activist who admits his own views on corporal punishment have evolved. “Spanking is yet another serious issue for which we’ve allowed ourselves to set different standards for what we claim we believe,” he says. “People are saying: ‘We’re modern now. We’re smarter now. We don’t believe in this.’ But behind closed doors, they still do it.”

“We are,” Rivers adds, a nation of “spanking hypocrites.”

***

“In a lot of cases, people who had been extremely close to my family told us secretly they agreed that reasonable spanking is OK,” says Don Cobble.

John Bohn/Gobe file/1998

“In a lot of cases, people who had been extremely close to my family told us secretly they agreed that reasonable spanking is OK,” says Don Cobble.

PICK ANYLittle Rascals episode from the 1950s, and it seems likely to feature at least one scene where a cute but mischievous character gets spanked. Later, TV hits like Good Times would feature parents threatening to smack their kids while laugh tracks cackled in the background. These were not examples of television’s penchant for exaggeration — they were art imitating life. In the late 1960s, a government-commissioned survey found almost all American parents believed spanking was required for raising good children.

It had been that way for decades, here and abroad. Murray Straus, who is co-director of UNH’s Family Research Laboratory, is today one of the country’s leading researchers on corporal punishment as well as one of its most vocal critics. And yet, when he was studying Sri Lankan families for his 1954 dissertation, he collected plenty of information on spanking but chose to ignore it — the practice was so well accepted that no scientists were debating it. Indeed, he later found that, on average, only one article a year on corporal punishment appeared in scientific literature between 1930 and 1970.

But then attitudes — if not actions — began to change. President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, murders during the civil rights movement, and thousands of deaths in Vietnam brought a new focus on violence to America. When Straus was teaching a course on the family in 1968, the year the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Senator Robert F. Kennedy were killed, he learned during a class discussion that almost all of his students had been spanked. Surprised, he checked with students in other classes and found the same results.  

Straus, who began to wonder whether there were lasting effects to spanking, immersed himself in the research, as limited as it was. There, he found the practice associated with problems such as an underdeveloped conscience and aggressive behavior. In the years to come, Straus and other researchers would study the subject more thoroughly, eventually accumulating a mountain of similar evidence.

In 2002, University of Texas at Austin professor Elizabeth Gershoff decided to look at several decades of past research. She surveyed 88 studies that included 117 tests of the hypothesis that spanking is associated with harmful side effects. Of those tests, 110 showed such effects. Straus calls the 94 percent agreement rate “an almost unprecedented degree of consistency” for scientific research.

Murray Straus has studied discipline for decades.

Mark Wilson/Globe Staff/file

Murray Straus has studied discipline for decades.

But just as in the debate over, say, vaccinations, there are always studies that find evidence contradicting the majority view — enough, it seems, to leave even the most anti-spanking parent with doubts. A couple of years ago, psychologist Marjorie Gunnoe, a professor at Michigan’s Calvin College, looked at surveys of close to 200 teenagers and found that those who were spanked between ages 2 and 6 performed slightly better academically and got along better with peers than those children who were not. Although Gunnoe does not advocate spanking, she believes the research shows that lawmakers shouldn’t seek to ban it. (Gunnoe’s findings have been oft-cited in the press but haven’t been published — Gershoff claims that’s because the work isn’t scientifically rigorous; Gunnoe says it’s just too controversial.)

As Straus sees it, studies like Gunnoe’s are outliers. If you’re a parent who spanks today, he says, the vast majority of studies show that “over the long term, there are greater odds that your child could become everything you don’t want your child to become — an abuser, a depressed person, a person with temper-control issues. There is even evidence that children who are spanked end up with lower IQs.”

Even with only early inklings of such findings, many public schools were quick to respond. Spankings and paddlings were commonplace around the country up to the 1970s; in Boston, the standard practice was to strike students across the knuckles with a switch or rattan cane. But in 1971, Massachusetts became the first state in the 20th century to ban corporal punishment in its public schools (a law against the practice had been on the books in New Jersey since 1867). And although corporal punishment remains legal in public schools in 19 states, mainly in the South, studies suggest its use is on the decline.

Behavior in the privacy of US homes, however, has proved more difficult to change. Sweden banned spanking by parents in 1979 and was followed over the years by more than two dozen other countries, including Germany, Spain, and Venezuela. But efforts to ban the practice in the United States have always failed. In 2007, an Arlington nurse named Kathleen Wolf authored a bill that would have made Massachusetts the first state to ban spanking at home. It drew fire from around the country — what’s next, critics wondered, will they make it illegal for parents to raise their voices?— and soon died in the Legislature. Straus believes the United States will never pass an anti-spanking law; we’re too resistant to the idea that kids have the same rights as adults and to what we see as government meddling in our personal lives.

Sheila Bennett has been raising children throughout the era of changing disciplinary attitudes. The 58-year-old, who lives in Cambridge, says she spanked her sons, and they turned out well — one is in college, one’s a truck driver, and one’s an engineer. But now raising two of her grandchildren, she’s become more reluctant to use corporal punishment. “I have softened my opinion a little, in that I guess spanking isn’t always necessary,” Bennett says. Instead, she chooses “to talk to them first to straighten them out.” Still, she’s unwilling to take spanking completely out of her disciplinary repertoire. “It’s a parent’s right, as far as I’m concerned, and a parent’s responsibility if a child crosses a certain line. It’s just a responsibility that needs to be used carefully and sparingly.”

Don Cobble, the former Woburn minister, also believes it was his parental responsibility to spank. Even more than that, though, he saw it as his Christian duty — not to spank would have done his son a grave spiritual disservice.

That’s why when DSS claimed he abused his son in 1997 — a teacher had reported that the son was worried he’d be punished if a note on his misbehavior was sent home — Cobble decided to go to court. When a Superior Court judge sided with DSS, he appealed to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, arguing that there was no evidence of abuse and that the state was interfering with his religious freedom and parental rights.

Today, Cobble, who is a minister and missionary based in Tennessee, credits the public outcry about his defense of spanking to the inevitable conflict between scientific findings and religious teachings. “Massachusetts is a very educated place. It’s a place where people’s lives are shaped, some might say disproportionately, by academia,” he says. “In other parts of the country, maybe people’s lives are shaped more by religion or philosophy. And if you’re engaging in a practice that you say has spiritual roots, your friends and neighbors who may be more about academia than religion might not get you.”

For a time while he was under investigation, Cobble became a folk hero of sorts to conservative and religious commentators. The Wall Street Journal described him as a good, traditional father who did nothing wrong by applying biblical principles to his parenting style. And as socio-political dogfights go, Cobble ultimately won. The Supreme Judicial Court found no evidence of abuse, and Cobble remained free to discipline his son as he saw fit.

But he didn’t leave the fray unscathed, citing his damaged reputation, as well as several thousand dollars in attorney’s fees. “It’s ironic, but in order to be a spanker today, you have to have a thick skin, a devil-may-care attitude. You have to be willing to be spanked,” he says. “I mean, you have to be willing to get knocked around in the court of public opinion.”

***

Kathleen Wolf tried, unsuccessfully, to get spanking banned in Massachusetts in 2007.

Michael Dwyer/AP/file

Kathleen Wolf tried, unsuccessfully, to get spanking banned in Massachusetts in 2007.

IN SOME LARGELY African-American communities, the topic of spanking is still discussed openly. Recently, I stopped by a hair salon in Cambridge where customers gather for their appointments, but also to chat, gossip, and argue. Discipline is a favorite topic, which says a lot, given the crowd’s propensity for debating politics, race relations, and cheating spouses.  

The day I dropped in, a 30-year-old named Malik, who asked that his last name not be used and who jokingly calls himself the “king of spanking in Boston,” was braiding a woman’s hair. “I’d say [spanking is] a black thing, but it’s only a black thing in the sense that black people culturally are more accepting of spanking than other races and cultures,” he says. “I’m not a professor, but that’s the way I see it.”

Gershoff is a professor, and her research tends to support Malik’s view. Earlier this year, she released a paper that examined data on some 11,000 families with children in kindergarten around the country: 89 percent of the parents who were black spanked their children, more than any other racial category. (Black parents also spanked more frequently.)

To find out why that might be, I called Alvin Poussaint, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and an expert on African-American family life. Although Poussaint says there is no excuse for spanking, he speculates that the practice’s acceptance in black culture may be a legacy of slavery. “It is ingrained in so many black people to believe that without physical force, their children will not turn out right,” he tells me.

But I suspect that precise fear — without spanking, kids won’t turn out right — helps explain the persistence of spanking regardless of the parents’ race. After all, although Gershoff’s study showed 89 percent of black parents had spanked their children, so had 80 percent of Hispanics, 79 percent of whites, and 73 percent of Asian-Americans.

Every mother and father, whatever their skin color or background, shares the same anxiety: that mistakes they make in child-rearing will return to haunt their kids. Some worry that letting children watch too many Saturday morning cartoons will leave them with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder; others that too much McDonald’s will lead to early-onset diabetes. When it comes to discipline, perhaps most parents who choose to spank — going against academic research, public opinion, even their own beliefs — do it because the stakes feel too high not to.

By now, generations of parents have been taught that there are other ways to discipline besides corporal punishment, according to Dr. Peter Greenspan, the medical director of MassGeneral Hospital for Children, who at age 67 has spent more than three decades working with parents and their children. But while attitudes about discipline have changed, the core anxieties of parenting haven’t. “The worries, the fears, the concerns we have for everyday life are still there to stress parents out,” Greenspan says. So when things like timeouts fail, even some of the most modern parents resort to spanking and hope it works.

Part of the reason Kevin Cargill and his wife spank is because talking to their daughters sometimes seems an insufficient way to correct a problem. “I’m telling you, all that talk does is make my girls more clever in how they try to fool their mother and me when it comes to getting away with wrong,” he says.

And 23-year-old Danielle Evans spanks, she tells me, because she has to. Not long ago, she told her 4-year-old son not to wander away from her in a convenience store in West Roxbury — he did it anyway. She spanked him on the spot to communicate, once and for all, that he was putting himself in danger. “He gets spanked, and he learns from it,” Evans says. “And I really believe that each time he gets it, he gets it just a little better.”

This belief that spanking is a fail-safe option — a kind of nuclear button for parents — is not true, argues Straus. Although it undoubtedly works at stopping a particular misbehavior in the short term, it can only hurt in the long term. Yet it’s easy to put faith in spanking, because as research shows (and most parents already know), almost no disciplinary method really works for toddlers.

But if the power of spanking is a myth, it’s one that many parents sincerely believe. “I can tell you that many parents I’ve encountered — personally and through my research — are simply not convinced that spanking doesn’t work,” Straus says. “While most agree that hitting their kids is wrong, they all tell me that there is a line a child can cross where nothing else works to get that child to stop [misbehaving].”

Maybe that’s why some parents who don’t want to spank can’t help but wonder what might happen if they did. “Most parents I’ve encountered admit they dream about it,” says Greenspan. “Kids can be frustrating — they can pluck our nerves and push our buttons. And most parents, even those who say, as a rule, they don’t spank or don’t believe in spanking, dream about it on occasions when they feel they’re at their wits’ end and can’t cope with their child’s behavior.”

And those parents who dream about spanking but don’t believe in it? If the research tells us anything, it’s that when they’re in the privacy of their own homes, and that day comes when their children have pushed them to the edge, those parents will become spankers, too.

James H. Burnett III is a Boston Globe staff writer. E-mail him at james.burnett@globe.com and follow him on Twitter @jamesburnett.
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