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To Spank Or Not To Spank?

In today’s society, that seems to be the hot button issue. It’s a topic that’s discussed privately in the home between couples, questioned while sitting at dinner during girls’ night out, and fiercely debated amongst politicians for all the world to see. So how do you determine what disciplinary actions are best when your child willfully disobeys, looks into your eyes and lies, and/or purposefully goes left when you’ve said right? What exactly constitutes discipline versus child abuse?

Spanking is fairly common in the U.S. One study showed that 90% of parents had spanked their children at least once, and 61% of mothers of three to five year olds had spanked their child in the previous week. Spanking your child is perfectly legal in the United States, and in general, corporal punishment that is considered necessary and reasonable is allowed. Technicalities vary by state, and there have been several states such as California and Massachusetts that have had spanking bans proposed, but none have ever passed state legislatures.

In Rhode Island, child abuse, often referred to as “Brendan’s Law” is a criminal offense. Brendan’s Law began as a statute in 1996 that carries a hefty prison sentence for anyone found guilty of first- or second-degree child abuse. In July of 2001, Brendan’s Law incorporated Shaken Baby Syndrome as a form of child abuse in the first degree, which carries a prison sentence of ten years for a first offense and 20 years for each subsequent offense.

Which means, Rhode Island is not a state where spanking is illegal until the act itself becomes harmful and abusive. You are within your parental rights to spank your child. However, studies have shown that there may be harmful repercussions to spanking that could make your child misbehave more in the long run.

In one study, results showed that of 2,500 children, those who were spanked more frequently at age three were far more likely to be aggressive by age five. Repeated physical punishment inhibits the child’s moral development, which causes more defiance and less empathy for others the more they are hit. It also teaches the child fear of the parent rather than why their behavior was wrong and what they should do instead.

Despite these facts, parents still scratch their heads trying to determine where that fine line runs between discipline and abuse. There are three important factors that can help determine if a child will become aggressive as a result of spankings. These are:

1. Frequency of spanking over a long period of time

2. Severity of spanking – spanking should never leave a mark or bruise

3. Context of spanking – What is the parent trying to gain from spanking? Will it teach the child a lesson? Were there non-physical ways of discipline attempted first?

Timeouts and talking with the child about their behavior are positive ways to approach discipline without physical punishment. Often, in a loving relationship between a parent and child, the disappointment of a parent can be more hurtful than the spanking itself.

So, to spank or not to spank? The bottom line is, spanking is legal. However, there are other forms of disciplinary actions to try instead. So before you raise your hand, consider lowering your voice and opt for an action that is not going to generate a negative reaction.