So, the thing is... maybe I'm allergic to spanking.


Last week, I woke up and was suddenly allergic to my deodorant.


Seriously! I had a classic allergic reaction -a big, itchy rash requiring Benedryl. Just out of the blue -boom, I'm allergic. Do you know, I realized that I have used the SAME kind of deodorant since I first started wearing it in the first place? I was fourteen, I think. I just never thought about it. If I ran out, I bought more and other than that, I just put it on every day, after I showered.


Wow, suddenly I understand why advertisers are so enamored of brand loyalty! Twenty-three years of the same deodorant --gosh, I hope it WORKED all those years.


I began to realize how many other things to do I do because... because... well, because that's the way I do them! I use the same kind of laundry detergent that my mother always used. Same shampoo, same lotion, same make-up, same toothpaste that I've always used -I even go through the same exact routine in the shower every day. I just haven't thought about it much.


I bet you know where I'm going with this, don't you? Yep. I started thinking about how many things I do as a mother simply because either MY mother did it that way, or I did it with Ana and assume it will work with Jane, too, or because I formed some opinion at one point in my life and just never thought about it again. I'm starting to realize that everyone does this to some extent.


Recently, I got into a debate on a moms' message board about spanking as a form of discipline. I was the only mom who posted under this particular thread who has never spanked my children. There were a few mothers who had done it once or twice and felt so horrible that they vowed not to do it again. And there were a surprising number of moms, a MAJORITY of them, who incorporated spanking as a routine part of their parenting.


I was SHOCKED! I had no idea that it was still so widespread! The research I did said that fully 49% of parents spank their children regularly. Some studies put that number much higher.


I can certainly understand how parents get pushed to the point of THINKING about spanking. Children are big-time manipulators and they know exactly what buttons to push. I always say that no one makes me as mad as my three-year-old, and she's an EASY child in a lot of ways. But that's her whole job-testing and observing my reactions. So, I understand, I swear I do, why parents get to that point.


Having said that, I don't spank my kids. I made a decision to eliminate that as an option because I don't think it works. In my opinion, people who routinely spank their children are taking a shortcut. Because it is HARDER to negotiate and explain and reason 800 million times in a row than it is to simply spank your child into submission--and this is why children who are routinely spanked score lower on verbal tests than their unspanked counterparts. I'm not making that up. In 1997, psychologist Murray Straus, director of the Family Research Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire, followed 800 children between the ages of two and four and found that kids who were spanked scored lower on tests that measured their ability to learn. Straus theorized that parents who don't spank their children spend more time talking and reasoning with them. I can certainly attest to that in MY family -some of my exchanges with Ana border on Supreme Court legal battles.


On my moms' board, the number one reason given for spanking children was that the moms themselves had been spanked and THEY turned out okay, right? In fact, 82 percent of us were spanked as children and we're not mass murderers or anything. What's so wrong with a little swat here and there?


Well, you know, there weren't any car seats around when I was a kid either but we now know that the use of car seats saves the lives of thousands of children each year. We used to put babies to sleep on their stomachs, too, but now we know that the incidence of SIDS have been dramatically reduced by putting infants to sleep on their backs. I don't think it's a good enough reason to say that we survived our childhoods and therefore we should recreate them exactly for our kids. We know more and we should act on that knowledge. I was spanked as a child, too, but I asked my mother recently if she would do it again given the available data today. After assuring me that I was never really spanked hard or often ("Look how verbal YOU are," she said.) my mother said she wouldn't spank if she had young children today. (My mother also said she thought that words can sometimes hurt a lot more than a casual swat, with which I agree, but that's another column.)


We know far more about the negative effects of spanking than we did. Today, the American Academy of Pediatrics and other child health organizations strongly oppose physical punishment for children. Studies by psychologist Irwin Hyman and colleagues at Temple University have shown that regardless of how nurturing a family is, spanking always lowers self-esteem. I believe that spanking usually happens when a parent is angry and out of patience, which makes it more a REACTION than a logical choice. It is rare for a parent to calmly and coldly think "I'm going to hit my child now." It instills fear in children --fear of the people a child loves and trusts best. It shows a child a parent out of control in most cases. It denies a fundamental respect to these tiny people. And it opens the doors for other, more insidious disrespect -if, because I am an adult, I am free to do what I want to my children's bodies, than is it so big a leap in a child's mind when some other authority figure (teacher, coach) touches them inappropriately?


I DO realize that it's also easier for me to take a stand on this, given the personality of Ana. She's just not a high voltage kind of kid. But Jane sure is and I have no idea how to make Jane hear me when she's in the middle of tearing around on a rampage. I do know that spanking her won't help and I won't consider it as an option.


Yesterday, I was sitting in my OB/GYN's office, waiting to have my annual exam and there was a father sitting with his little boy, who was very concerned about where his mother was and wanted very much to be with her. This little boy was maybe two-years-old and he was the sweetest little thing --he was just so CONCERNED and I think he felt his father wasn't expressing near enough alarm at the disappearance of Mom. So he kept asking and kept asking and the father was trying to read a magazine and finally the father lost his temper and took the boy outside and spanked him. They came back in, the little boy's eyes red from weeping and he sat watching the door anxiously until mother came through the door. With a shout of joy, he rushed to her and she, of course, bent down and smacked his behind for running away from his father. I almost cried. Those parents were so busy trying to control and punish their boy that they couldn't hear his very sweet and genuine worry. And he got the message that expressing such concern was wrong.


If you are a regular reader of this column, you know that I believe that we parents need to practice less judgment of other parents and more helping each other along on this grand and arduous journey called parenthood. But this is such an important issue that I can't just keep quiet for fear of offending someone. I'm not an expert on anything except my own kids and I'm not telling you what to do. But I'm asking you to examine your own motivations if you hit your kids --is it really a conscious decision made in the best interest of your children?


Or is it something you do mindlessly, just like using deodorant?


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(c) Barbara Cooper 2002

Barbara Cooper is the mother of Ana (almost 4) and Jane (16 months). She lives in Austin, Texas and sometimes spanks her DOG. (It doesn't work on the dog, either.)