Q: It seems that whenever I go to the mall I see parents spanking children. Do you think children should be spanked in public?
A: We, like many pediatricians, feel children should not be spanked at all. We believe there are better and more successful ways to discipline children. As your experience points out, however, spanking is an issue about which many parents disagree with pediatricians. In fact, an article in the January issue of Pediatrics reported that about three-quarters of a sample of mothers surveyed feel there are times when it is appropriate to spank toddlers.
Why do parents spank children? Most of the time they do it because the child has been "bad" or "naughty." They think spanking will "teach the child a lesson" and prevent bad behavior in the future. In other words, they think children will learn from being spanked.
Unfortunately, spanking doesn't really teach what parents want it to teach. A child who is spanked is hurt and angry. What the child has learned is that people who are big and strong can exert their will over people who are small and weak. That is not a message that makes for healthy adult interaction.
In fact, there is no clear evidence that violence -- including spanking -- improves human behavior long-term. Worst of all, spankings may have to get more and more violent to have even a short-term impact on behavior. Since spanking often comes when a parent is frustrated over a series of bad behaviors and is triggered by something a child has done many times before without being spanked for it, the child may not even have a clear sense of what the parent is spanking them for.
Instead of spankings, we recommend consistent, immediate short timeouts for undesirable behaviors. We think discipline, including time outs, should be confined to behaviors that really matter and should not be visited on a child for trivial things a parent finds mildly irritating. Those things are better ignored till they go away.
We think spanking does more harm than good at any age.
So what about spanking in a shopping center? It probably occurs because both parent and child are tired, frustrated and over-stimulated. On top of that, the parent is embarrassed by the child's behavior and feels the child is making them look like a bad person. They spank to show they are in charge. No one feels good about the spanking -- parent, child and onlookers leave chagrined and angry.
Our advice to parents when important behavior rules are broken in a shopping mall? Try a brief timeout on a bench or in the car. If that doesn't work, go home.
Dr. Wilson is director of general pediatrics at Johns Hopkins Children's Center; Dr. Joffe is director of adolescent medicine.