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Mourning Common Sense
Every Friday my syndicated column goes out all over southeastern Ontario. Here's today's:

If I were to pick one hundred random passers-by and asked them what they thought about spanking a 4-year-old who was swearing at his mother and refusing to obey, I’m pretty sure a healthy majority would say it’s a-okay. On the other hand, ask those same hundred people whether spanking a 12-year-old in the same circumstances would be acceptable, and I’m pretty sure the vast majority would say no. That’s because people, in general, have common sense.

Marjorie Gunnoe, a professor of psychology at Calvin College has just published a study confirming what the vast majority of us already know: spanking young children to discipline them is not harmful, but spanking older children is. Of course hitting can be abusive, but most of us also know that spanking is not the same as abuse. And in her study, she found that those who were spanked before they were six actually ended up happier and more successful as adults than those who were not.

It’s perfectly logical, really. Those who were spanked likely had parents who believed in discipline, consequences, and enforcing boundaries. Thus, they grew up to be more obedient and respectful, more responsible, and better adjusted.

On the other hand, a good parent realizes once a child reaches a certain age that there are more appropriate discipline techniques than spanking, because the child can now reason better. Those parents who continue to spank, then, even as the children grow, likely aren’t as functional as others. Their kids will turn out worse, which is also exactly what Gunnoe found.

Sometimes we need research to remind us of the obvious, because in many instances legislators, media figures, and societal leaders have forgotten it. Here’s the hard truth: you can’t legislate common sense, and often when we try to pass laws to prevent something we know is harmful, we end up interfering too significantly in the lives of families who are just going about their business in a perfectly appropriate way.

Last week France waded into this dangerous territory, too, though this time it’s even more of a farce. From now on, in France, if you tell your husband in the middle of an argument, “You’re a lazy good-for-nothing!” you could be arrested. Psychological violence in marriage has been outlawed.

Research, you see, has shown that name-calling is just as psychologically harmful to people as physical abuse. I agree wholeheartedly. But here’s the rub: just because it’s harmful doesn’t mean that we should make a law about it. How do you identify what is “psychological violence” and what is just a couple getting into too heated an argument?

Nevertheless, make repeated rude remarks about a spouse’s expanding waistline, and you could be hauled before a judge. Accuse them unfairly of having an affair, and you could be prosecuted, too.

Unfortunately, modern society believes that things like bad behaviour, inequality, unfairness, and poverty can actually be defeated if only we enact the right laws. Legislators have forgotten that many problems, as bad as they are, just don’t have easy solutions because human beings are awfully messy creatures. And I would rather trust a society run by common sense—where people say, “I’ll know abuse when I see it”—than one run by people who think they can force us all to act properly. You can’t. Laws aren’t the answer; reaching out to our neighbours, and forming a closer community so we can help those in trouble, probably does infinitely more good than any number of pieces of paper outlawing criticisms of one’s spouse’s housekeeping skills. Life will never be easy, and will never be fair. The sooner we realize that, the better.
UPDATE: I'm getting a lot of grief on Twitter and in email about this one, so let me make a few things clear. I never spanked my kids. We used time outs, and I didn't think spanking was necessary. That being said, I know many good parents who have used it, and to call spanking abuse is, in my mind, ridiculous. I'm not trying to say that all parents should spank; after all, I didn't. What I am saying is that IT ISN'T WRONG. And the criminalizing spanking movement needs to give it up, because in the countries where it has been implemented, rates of juvenile delinquency have increased as has child abuse.

Don't spank your kids if you don't want to. I didn't! I'm just saying, "stop judging parents who do". I know abuse when I see it, as do you, I'm sure. But the anti-spanking movement is really an anti-authoritarian movement. It seeks to undermine parental authority and family sanctity. And when parents are told they can't discipline by spanking, they often stop disciplining altogether (which is also what has happened over the last few decades). Couple that with yesterday's post about self-esteem, and you have a disaster waiting to happen.

My husband is a pediatrician, and he routinely advises against spanking in his office because too many parents do it in anger. But if you are controlled, and if you are careful, I really don't think it does lasting harm; and, as this study shows, it can actually have lasting benefits. Personally, I preferred other ways, and there is research showing that spanking girls can backfire, while spanking boys can be necessary. We had girls, so spanking wasn't an issue for us.

But blanket condemnation against spanking, and calling it "violence" and "abuse" is the problem that I was trying to get at in this column. If you call spanking abuse, then abuse loses its horror. I would so much rather have a child in a loving family that is spanked than a child who is never disciplined. To me, the latter is far more "abusive" than spanking. That said, I still chose not to spank. But I refuse to judge those who do, and in fact, in many cases, I think those parents were right.

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At 8:18 AM , Blogger Mrs W said…

This is very good and encouraging. I can see the value of a few swats to the rear when one is a toddler, but I don't see much use for spanking after a kid starts school.

When they are in school is when you start time out, reality discipline and other punishments in earnest as the child now understands right and wrong, or at least the basic concept of it.

Sheila, could you write more about toddler discipline? I am struggling with this right now. I have two toddlers.


At 8:53 AM , Blogger Mrs W said…

Hi Sheila, just wanted to share with you a post that I wrote on compassion. You got a mention down the bottom of the article, although not by name. But the "sewing cloth pads for Africa lady" is you!


At 9:31 AM , Anonymous Kathy said…

wow- violence toward another human is wrong, period. I can't wait to look up the actual research study you're referencing.


At 9:32 AM , Blogger Shana said…

This is so true and I would be interested more in toddler discipline also.


At 9:38 AM , Blogger Sheila said…

Mrs. W. and Shana--Sure, I'd be happy to write something on toddler discipline! Look for it next week.

Kathy--I understand what you're saying about violence. But I don't believe spanking is violence, not if it's done humanely. We're not talking about something that leaves a permanent mark, or even hurts a few minutes later. It just stings at the time.

I've never actually spanked my kids. I didn't think they needed it, and other forms of discipline worked. But I don't think there's anything wrong with it if it's done in the context of a loving family.

Besides, all violence can't be wrong. What if you see someone attacking a child? If you fail to stop them, and you're capable of it, are you not then also responsible for that attack? If we fail to stop something bad, then it is as if we are doing it. Sometimes we need to use violence to do such things.

It's not nice, but that's the way the world works. And I personally am very grateful for our troops, some of whom are my personal friends, who are enduring such hardship just to protect the population and try to establish peace and good government in Iraq and Afghanistan.


At 9:42 AM , Blogger Sheri said…

ahhh the spanking debate. Funny, I doubt I have ever really "spanked" my kids. Sure, a swat on the tuukuss of a toddler, but not a real "just wait 'til your father gets home" spank.

I think there is a natural progression in parenting, as your child ages so does your discipline. You don't consciously choose to stop spanking, but you subconsciously give the child boundaries and won't cross them, so they can develop their own sense of respect and self-esteem.

I shudder to say self-esteem after yesterday's article, but I will just assume you know what I mean and leave it at that.


At 12:40 PM , Anonymous Kiesha @ Highly Favored said…

I'm so tired of this debate and I think spanking is necessary in certain circumstances, especially if a child is being disobedient about something that could cause harm, such as being defiant about going into the street (after a ball) or playing in the kitchen near a hot stove. I just hope people will remember what it says in the Bible in both of these scriptures:

Proverbs 23:13 - spare the rod spoil the child

Ephesians 6:4 - don't provoke your child to wrath

Apparently God has a balance in mind otherwise these two scriptures wouldn't coexist in the same book.


At 1:52 PM , Blogger Jules said…

This comment has been removed by the author.


At 1:55 PM , Blogger Jules said…

Well as a country with anti-spanking legislation we actually saw child abuse increase after it was introduced. Some cases so horrific that they seemed unbelievable (children put in clothes dryers that were then turned on, 6 week old twins dying from head injuries, etc). Coincidence? I don't think so.

The difference between spanking and child abuse is to my mind the same as between sex in marriage and rape. One is an act of love, the other an act of violence. Banning what is good doesn't make the bad go away.

(Deleted the above comment because a typo meant that it had a meaning I hadn't intended. Oops)


At 4:27 PM , Blogger Tessa said…

I actually wrote a post on toddler discipline too. Well, on the disipline of my toddler anyway.

I don't have a need to spank my toddler. But every child is different. I think that alot of times that spanking can become and "easy out" for parents. It's a quick way to discipline their child but it doesn't really solve any problems. The child still doesn't always understand why they are being spanked and just learn to avoid certain behaviors because "mama will hit me." Is that really the image that we wish to instill in our children?

That being said, every child is different and sometimes a child may need a swat on the tush to get their attention but it's not the end of the discipline. (I personally prefer to sit on the floor and make eye contact with my son to explain what the problem is. Or have a "time in" sit him in my lap until he apologizes or something.) If a spanking is done out of love it is also backed up with a loving explanation once you have the child's attention. I don't believe that spanking hard enough to hurt the child is right. But that's just my two cents.

I'm looking forward to your posts on toddler discipline as well.

Here's a link to my posts about discipline (I also talk about my opinion on "spare the rod" in the last post on the page):


At 4:36 PM , Blogger Sheila said…

Kiesha--I LOVE how you put those two verses together in balance. So true. There is a balance!

And Jules, I love that analogy between sex in marriage and rape. The two things are not the same thing; context matters (as does actual physical harm).

Tessa, I'm a lot like you. We didn't spank either, but I always say that had we had girls of a different temperament, or had we had high spirited boys, it may have been different.

I'm tired of this debate, too, and I wish we could stop having it!


At 5:56 PM , Blogger Sistahs After God's Heart said…

"Spare the rod, spoil the child." Point blank. Abuse is one thing but discipline, well... I see nothing wrong with spanking your child when they come up from under authority. I do not have children but I did receive quite a few spankings in my childhood and let me tell you, if I didn't, I'm not sure where I would be right now.

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Name: Sheila

Home: Belleville, Ontario, Canada

About Me: I'm a Christian author of a bunch of books, and a frequent speaker to women's groups and marriage conferences. Best of all, I love homeschooling my daughters, Rebecca and Katie. And I love to knit. Preferably simultaneously.

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