When Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson was indicted for injuring a child earlier this month, a lot of journalists explained that the lesson we should take away was not that it’s wrong to leave welts and bruises or use a switch on a child. It’s that the physical punishment of children is always wrong – and should perhaps be outlawed.
Joseph Stromberg said in Vox that “it’s never okay to hit a child” and argued that spanking children doesn’t discipline them effectively – he claimed that research has “consistently” reached this conclusion – and can cause them long-term mental problems. Hostility to spanking kids has become something of a cause at Slate.
But spanking isn’t going to be banned anytime soon, because a large majority of Americans believe it’s sometimes appropriate. They’re right.
Robert Larzelere, a professor at Oklahoma State University who researches human development and family science, tells me that the studies on which the anti-spanking journalists rely have two great flaws.
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The first is that many of them don’t account for the possibility that it’s the kids who act out the most who draw the most frequent punishments. They observe that kids who receive corporal punishment have more behavioral problems than kids who don’t and conclude that the punishment caused the difference.
The second is that they lump together very different kinds of parental behavior. Some parents spank their kids rarely and as a “back-up” if other forms of discipline aren’t working. Other parents rely on it as the default punishment – or even, as in Peterson’s case, use more extreme physical tactics. Just as you’d expect, these practices have different effects.
Reviewing the literature and correcting for the two flaws he describes, Larzelere finds that “back-up” spanking doesn’t have adverse effects on children and is a more effective disciplinary tool than most alternatives. Larzelere thinks that parents should try isolation first, but consider spanking in the event that isolation fails to change behavior.
We shouldn’t ban spanking because it would criminalize many parents who are a) trying to advance their children’s interests and b) doing so reasonably. Most people can distinguish between reasonable discipline and abuse, even if not all journalists can.