National Post

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Monday, June 07, 1999

'Loving, sober' parents can spank, expert tells gathering
Other specialist likens the practice to assault

Donna Laframboise
National Post

BANFF, Alta - Is giving your child a swat when he or she misbehaves abuse or part of the journey to well-adjusted adolescence?

Both, according to experts at the second International Conference on the Changing Family held here over the weekend.

Robert Larzelere, a psychology professor at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, told delegates that two- to six-year-olds who are spanked by "loving, sober parents who are in control of their anger," and only after reasoning has failed, can grow up to be well-adjusted children.

But Murray Straus, the founder of the Family Research Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire and a domestic violence investigator, likened the practice to assault, and called for moves to ensure birth certificates advise parents that spanking a child is wrong.

Prof. Larzelere told delegates that experts should be advising parents how to use a variety of disciplinary approaches effectively rather than campaigning for zero-tolerance of spanking.

He said he found that 94% of parents found it necessary, on occasion, to spank children who are three and four years old and that, in his view, no scientific evidence exists that indicates "we ought to be against" spanking.

He told the conference, hosted by the Alberta-based National Foundation for Family Research and Education, that studies claiming to show that spanking increases anti-social behaviour have long suffered from the chicken-and-egg dilemma. Researchers have been unable to prove that some children behave worse as a result of being spanked since it may be that these children are spanked because they behave more badly than other kids to begin with.

Prof. Larzelere, speaking in the debate titled: "To spank or not to spank?" acknowledges that recent studies have associated "small detrimental child outcomes" with the spanking of children aged six to nine. But he says it's important to recognize that this "does not seem to be unique to spanking." Grounding, sending children to their rooms, removing privileges and taking away their allowance all produce similar negative outcomes for a small segment of children -- perhaps reflecting households in which parents resort to disciplinary measures too frequently.

In fact, suggests Prof. Larzelere, by using corporal punishment to reinforce milder disciplinary measures, "parents can work themselves out of the need to use spanking" as children learn to respond to the milder measures alone.

However Prof. Straus, countered that terms such as "spanking" and "swatting" are euphemisms for assault.

Admitting that the scientific evidence of spanking-induced harm is less than definitive, Prof. Straus believes corporal punishment should be discouraged in favour of other options.

"I come [to this research] as a secular humanist who believes that people should not be hit. Children need guidance, direction, discipline -- but they don't need to be physically assaulted."

Prof. Straus said parents spank rather than communicate verbally with young children, and that such practices might negatively impact youngsters' mental development.

"When parents spank, it reduces the amount of cognitive direction of the child and that should, in principle, slow down the rate of neural development."

This weekend wasn't the first time the professors have sparred publicly. In 1996, at an American Academy of Pediatrics conference on spanking, they took part in a similar debate. On that occasion, after hearing both sides, the conference chairpersons wrote: "we must confess that we had a preconceived notion that corporal punishment, including spanking, was innately and always bad."

But after weighing the evidence, the paediatrics association concluded otherwise: "Given a healthy family life in a supportive environment, spanking in and of itself is not detrimental to a child or predictive of later problems."

In 1998, an Ontario children's rights organization sued the federal government in an attempt to have section 43 of the Criminal Code -- which permits the use of reasonable physical force by parents when chastising their children -- struck down.

Professors Larzelere and Straus are both expert witnesses in that matter, which is expected to go to trial in October.

Copyright Southam Inc.