I'm a 'Sometimes Spanker' & I'll Never Talk to You About It

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I'm ashamed of it. I'll never talk to you about it. I'll never admit it and in fact, I've denied it. But occasionally, in the heat of the moment, both my husband and I spank our kids.

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It's mostly our older two, ages 7 and 6, but also the youngest once or twice. He just turned 4. Only on the butt. Only a light swat, or several. Only when we have exhausted every other parenting tool we can think of (though, inevitably, we postmortem it and realize we could have done this or that instead). For us, spanking isn't "teach you a lesson you'll never forget" territory; it's more "I'm at the end of my rope and so are you." Not that I spank because I'm angry. I spank my kids because I feel there is no other way to achieve compliance with something that must be complied with, like bedtime, or picking up. And I hate that I do it. It makes me sick to my stomach. I feel like a monster. But I do it.

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I've read all the research. I've reported on all the research. According to a report by Business Insider, spanking has been banned in 53 countries and states across the world. As they note, "The scientific evidence ... has consistently shown that spanking is related to harmful outcomes for children," including "physical abuse, delinquency, and antisocial behavior."

A 2016 meta-analysis by the University of Texas went even further, suggesting that spanking does nothing to improve behavior -- either in the short or long term -- and is associated with a host of negative outcomes. They found that the more adults were spanked as children, the more likely they were to have mental health problems later in life. They even claimed that spanking is "associated with the same detrimental child outcomes in the same direction and in nearly the same strength" as physical abuse. 

The Atlantic reports that the researchers found that 70 percent of Americans are okay with the practice of spanking, which, the study says, causes "low moral internalization, aggression, antisocial behavior, externalizing behavior problems, internalizing behavior problems, mental-health problems, negative parent–child relationships, impaired cognitive ability, low self-esteem, and risk of physical abuse from parents."

I know all this. I've read the research. And because I only spank occasionally, with an open hand, in the context of a loving, otherwise attachment-parenting household, in the presence of no other physical or emotional abuse or punishment -- we have time-ins instead of time-outs, and when we do ask the kids to leave the room to cool down, they are free to return whenever they want to -- I don't think any of this research applies to my kids. And I see none of the detrimental outcomes expressed in the studies in my own children. Of course, the author of the report in Business Insider also notes that "[t]hose who say spanking is safe for a child if done in a specific way are, it would seem, simply expressing opinions. And these opinions are not supported by scientific evidence." Except they seem to be.

According to Scientific American, the 2016 meta-analysis by the University of Texas actually has several problems. First, most parents who spank, research tells us, also use other forms of punishment. "So you're not really isolating spanking from overall abusiveness," says Christopher Ferguson, a psychologist at Stetson University in Florida.

The study also didn't account for what the magazine calls the "lumping problem": It considered hitting or slapping anywhere on the body to be the same as spanking on the buttocks with an open hand. But, as they note in Scientific American, "these actions might have distinct effects." Some research, they note, also suggests that "the effects of spanking differ depending on the reasons parents spank, how frequently they do so and how old children are at the time -- so the conclusion from the meta-analysis that spanking itself is dangerous may be overly simplistic."

I'd be the first to tell you that spanking is not ideal. It happens when I'm emotional and scrabbling at the bottom of my parenting tool kit. Always, afterwards, I think of what I might have done differently -- because I don't want to hit my kids. No one does, or no right-thinking person does, anyway. I can always imagine another way I might have acted: sung a silly song, attempted to de-escalate with a hug, helped my sons get started on their task. But sometimes they're overwrought, and so am I, and those good parenting thoughts don't come, because I need a solution right the hell now. Plus, I was spanked as a kid. You fall back on what you know.

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I'm not proud of spanking. I'm not arguing for its moral rightness or the destruction of a child's inherent dignity. But I don't think a swat on the butt now and then is going to lead to delinquency on their part and physical abuse on mine. I don't think it'll cause any mental health problems they weren't prone to anyway, and if they develop depression later in life, I won't collapse on my fainting couch lamenting, "If only we hadn't tapped them on the butt every few months when they were young!" I'll get my ass up and help them, because that's what mamas do.

You're going to judge me. You're going to savage me in the comments. This piece will follow me for years, popping up at random intervals as people use it to negate any and all arguments I make. But it's the truth. It's many parents' truth. And I think, in the end, that truth is more important than all the howling comments in the world. Maybe, together, we can figure out a way to stop those moments where we swat or tap or spank.

And maybe we can stop worrying our kids will become juvenile delinquents if we don't.

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