Article on Spanking: Several Errors from ABC News

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In “Parents Caught Spanking Children on Audiotape Real Time,” what should have been a straightforward report on the somewhat surprising (to the researchers) results of placing audio recorders in families’ homes to study “Real Life Mother-Child Interaction in the Home” was somehow transformed into a piece against corporal punishment chock full of misinformation. Susan Donaldson James didn’t do her homework, and ABC News should be embarrassed at the end results. Just a few highlights:

James includes the following loaded non-sequitur:

Spanking is universally condemned among most child development and parenting experts …

Huh? “Universally condemned among most” means exactly nothing. “Universally” and “most” are incompatible terms. Either “most child development and parenting experts condemn spanking” or “spanking is universally condemned among child development and parenting experts” could work, but you can’t have both at the same time. This kind of nonsense wording does serve to make it sound much worse, however, simply because of the use of “universally condemned.” But if that weren’t bad enough by itself, James finishes the sentence with this doozie:

… although some fundamentalist Christian groups disagree, citing the Biblical passage, “Spare the rod and spoil the child.”

Amazing. Maybe if James had read the recent CNN piece, “Actually, That’s Not in the Bible,” she might have been spared quoting a phantom passage that never occurs in the Bible (actually coming from Hudibras). Granted, we could be especially gracious and concede that many Christians may indeed cite that quotation as though it were in the Bible, but one would think it would still be the reporter’s job to note that such a passage doesn’t exist.

So, if you’re keeping score at home, that’s two major errors in one paragraph. How about we go for three? The use of the phrase, “although some fundamentalist Christian groups disagree,” implies that only fundamentalist Christians disagree with what is “universally condemned among most.” First of all, I can guarantee that fundamentalist Christians aren’t the only group that disagrees (nor are they the only group that points to the Bible as backing for corporal punishment). Secondly, this kind of pejorative use of “fundamentalist” is often used as a weapon, effectively serving as a code-word for “backwoods, uneducated, and ignorant.”Alvin Plantinga has memorably summarized this function of “fundamentalist”:

On the most common contemporary academic use of the term, it is a term of abuse or disapprobation, rather like ‘son of a bitch’, more exactly ‘sonovabitch’, or perhaps still more exactly (at least according to those authorities who look to the Old West as normative on matters of pronunciation) ‘sumbitch’. When the term is used in this way, no definition of it is ordinarily given. (If you called someone a sumbitch, would you feel obliged first to define the term?) Still, there is a bit more to the meaning of ‘fundamentalist’ (in this widely current use): it isn’t simply a term of abuse. In addition to its emotive force, it does have some cognitive content, and ordinarily denotes relatively conservative theological views. That makes it more like ‘stupid sumbitch’ (or maybe ‘fascist sumbitch’?) than ‘sumbitch’ simpliciter. It isn’t exactly like that term either, however, because its cognitive content can expand and contract on demand; its content seems to depend on who is using it. In the mouths of certain liberal theologians, for example, it tends to denote any who accept traditional Christianity, including Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and Barth; in the mouths of devout secularists like Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett, it tends to denote anyone who believes there is such a person as God. The explanation is that the term has a certain indexical element: its cognitive content is given by the phrase ‘considerably to the right, theologically speaking, of me and my enlightened friends.’ The full meaning of the term, therefore (in this use), can be given by something like ‘stupid sumbitch whose theological opinions are considerably to the right of mine’. (Warranted Christian Belief [Oxford: OUP, 2000], 245; as cited in the delightfully playful and incisive, “A Lexical Analysis of ‘Fundamentalist’ in Bart Ehrman’s HoPo Piece“)

This appears to be exactly the function “fundamentalist” serves in this case, serving only as a foil to pejoratively label as ignorant anyone who would argue against the “universal” conclusion by “most” reasonable people that corporal punishment is bad. By lumping any Christians who might spank their children under the “fundamentalist” label, James has effectively marginalized all who disagree with her perspective, ignoring the fact that many “conservative” Christians are not fundamentalists.

Amazingly, after such strong (and misleading) rhetoric, the very researchers discussed in the article immediately contradict James’ assertion:

[Study author George] Holden agrees that an “occasional spank” might not have a long-term negative effect on a child, “unless it was so hard it resulted in child abuse or injury. The problem is when parents rely on physical punishment, they are more likely to escalate when the kids misbehave if they do not stop,” he said. “They come back and they hit harder and are indeed more at risk to abuse them.”

And again:

Robert Larzelere, a psychologist in the department of human development and family science at Oklahoma State University, argues that “conditional spanking” — two swats with an open hand on the bottom — is not detrimental to a child.

One of the most vocal opponents of spanking bans, Larzelere said non-abusive spanking is more effective on 2- to 6-year-olds than a dozen other tactics, including reasoning, verbal threats, privilege removal, ignoring, bribes, restraint and diversionary tactics.

“When you look at all the studies, conditional spanking led to less disobedience and less aggression,” he said.

art of child disciplineWow, I had no idea fundamentalist Christians were so prevalent within the field of child development and family science. I mean, if these guys are going against what “most” have “universally condemned,” they must be fundamentalist Christians thumping their Bibles and quoting a verse that’s not even in the book, right?

After all this, James manages to finish her article with yet more rhetoric advocating raising “kids without physical punishment,” ensuring to give extra space to the researcher who muses about the continuing practice of corporal punishment,

The belief in American society is hard to shake. But parents believe in their heart of hearts that spanking works when others things don’t.

Perhaps that’s because the research (as was acknowledged by all the experts in the article) suggests that this may in fact be true.

I should add that I do agree that what was recorded on the audio was inappropriate. But I actually have at least as big of a problem with the recorded verbal abuse as I do with the physical contact on the recordings. Verbal scars can last a whole lot longer than the sting of a spanking, and that’s something that gets too little attention in this discussion. A distinction should also be made between a slap and “spanking,” which are not necessarily the same thing (for example, the first soundbite on the ABC sample is likely a hand getting smacked, and a child getting slapped across the face is pretty different from getting spanked on the bottom).

(Go here for more discussion on the data linking spanking to bullying and aggression—and the correlation/causation problems overlooked by many who uncritically cite this research. As for myself, I don’t think spanking—provided it is not overdone or performed while angry—is inherently worse than any other form of punishment, though, as with many other punishments, it is prone to abuse. Punishment itself is about the exercise of authority and power and necessarily involves a violation of the so-called “right of physical inviolability,” whether via direct application to the body or preventing the body from going wherever the person wills. I would have thought Foucault’s Discipline and Punish made that clear enough. Much like the recent academic discussions of the humaneness of flogging versus imprisonment, I would rather have been spanked as a child than put into “timeout” for hours on end.)

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7 Comments. Leave new

  • In all the more conservative Christian settings I have been in, from various churches to small groups to Christian parenting books, there has been a clear bias towards spanking being a Biblical mandate. We ended up pulling our daughter’s kindergarten application from a classical Christian school b/c of corporal punishment. I felt belittled and judged for not spanking. In contrast, when I left the conservative mold and attended mainline churches or read secular parenting books, I felt normal again. None of my non-Christian, nominal Christian, catholic Christian or mainline Christian friends spank, and I have friends in conservative churches that don’t spank but have felt similarly judged.

    I have no idea, objectively, what the consensus is among childhood experts, or whether spanking is limited to “fundamentalists”, but my experience is exactly as this article describes, so I don’t find it erroneous. That said, I agree that nominal spanking is likely not going to have long term ramifications whereas verbal abuse can be much more lasting.

    • I agree that conservative Christians are far more likely to be biased towards spanking. However, not all conservative Christians are “fundamentalists,” as the author suggests. The AP Stylebook actually has warnings against just this sort of sloppy use of “fundamentalist,” largely because it is often used as a “clobber” term, akin to calling someone “ignorant” in press. And even without that error, the other mistakes (such as “universally condemned by most” non sequitur and quoting a Bible verse that doesn’t exist) were bad enough for this article to have been pulled.

  • I see spanking as an effective way of curbing undesirable behavior. I would rather inflict temporary, small pain to my child than have him live with a lifetime of negative consequences. It has go be done appropriately of course, not in anger or to relieve frustration, etc. It also depends on the age of the child and their mental development. I also believe spanking is only effective or recommended for a certain amount of time. Once my child reaches an age closer to puberty, I do not see corporal punishment as an appropriate or effective way of correcting behavior.
    Although I have not have done extensive research on the child development “experts”, I am weary of their research conclusions. Past behavorists such as Dr. Watson whose advice was to “never hug or kiss your child…” are seen as nonsense now, but others such as Dr. Spock are still pretty popular today. It is scary that our common sense as parents gets trampled by these so called experts, and it is very rare to find one that promotes teaching your child to respect you and how to help him/her learn self-control, among other things. Disciplinary action is a result of having a loving parent, and it is something children need. However a parent goes about setting boundaries and teaching their children how to manage themselves is of course up to that parent, but I do believe the cornerstone of establishing respect for the parent and others authorities in general is the start of a well balanced and productive individual in the future.
    Inflicting a certain amount of pain is not bad. God blessed us with pain receptors to protect us from dangers in the world and a reasonable spanking to correct blatant disobedience can have the same effectiveness as touching a hot stove, although the pain will be gone, the memory associated with the pain will have a lasting effect, and inhibit the misbehavior.

  • Its a misconception to believe only conservative Christians spank their children. Perhaps, they are the ones who use it the most or who endorse applications of it that I would not. For example, I’d never spank a child with an object or anything, but my hand. Nor, would I spank a child’s unclothed bottom. Underwear counted as “clothed” to me though. My kids are grown up now, but when they were younger I occasionally dealt with very worrysome behavior. I dealt with situations with both of my sons that involved putting themselves in danger. When that occurred, I felt it called for serious consequences and those often included a spanking. The punishment was pretty effective. Neither of my sons has held it against us either. I’m not saying there aren’t other ways to parent, but let’s stop labeling and stereotyping.

  • Hal (not my real name)
    July 24, 2017 12:31 pm

    Parents need to be aware that for many people spanking is a sexual act. Evidence of this abounds on line – just look up the word. That doesn’t mean it has to be sexualized, but people who are “into” if will attest that they recognized the sexuality of spanking at a very early age.

  • I’m 69, so I grew up at a time when child spanking was practically commonplace. Corporal punishment was practiced in my public school, and in fact, my only direct experience with it came in Grade 7. I was strapped on my hands at the front of the class for playing at my desk when I should’ve been working. My eyes watered as my palms were scorched, and as I ashamedly took my seat, I knew I’d learned my lesson.

    After all, that was the whole point of physical discipline; to teach the miscreant a short, sharp lesson in the risk of misbehaving. In the case of spanking children’s bottoms, it has always seemed a perfectly natural form of educative correction to me. Unfortunately, my home life saw me deprived of any such positive influence on my appreciation of Actions & Consequences. My mum and my oldest sister were my nominal disciplinarians, but they only ever threatened to spank me. I was invariably punished by the withdrawal of their affection.

    As a matter of fact, I can’t recall a single incident of misbehaviour that was met with any kind of serious, meaningful punishment; scolding and talk of a possible spanking, perhaps, but never anything more. For stealing, lying, being rude and playing with matches, I was simply made to feel bad about myself personally. Shame on me.

    Whereas a sound spanking (as in over-the-knee on my bare bottom) would’ve no doubt functioned like the strapping at school, answering my naughtiness with a distinctly attention-getting consequence and basically closing the book on that episode, I was identified as a behavioural disappointment. When I was caught stealing the change from my sisters’ coat pockets, my oldest sister (in our mother’s absence at Teachers College) threateningly asked me if I wanted her to pull down my pants and paddle my bare bottom. I would’ve been about eight years old, making her 16. Even if I presumably declined to be spanked, it was certainly what I deserved. In any case, it also wasn’t the last time I ever stole something.

    To her credit, my mum did say in her later years that she would spank me if she had it to do over again. She may well have seen the developmental problems that never being properly punished (spanked) had caused me.

  • My parents would have spanked me if I used the language in this article. Then they would have probably talked about what God’s will is by studying Eph 4:29 and Eph 5:4 — and maybe a Proverb or two. The spanking isn’t very effective without the talk pointing us back to the Father.


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