Responses to the American Academy of Pediatric's "The Short and Long term Consequences of Corporal Punishment," (Pediatrics Volume 98, No 4, October 1996-Supplement) and Dr. Diana Baumrind's statement quoted in the article
By Jordan Riak

These letters were originally sent to the Office for Studies for Moral Development and Character Formation, MORALCHR@LISTSERV.UIC.EDU on May 31, 2000 and June 3, 2000.

Response of May 31, 2000
Re: AAP's "The Short and Long term Consequences of Corporal Punishment."

Conference Chairman Stanford Friedman's remark that "...there is no agreement among the members of the American Academy of Pediatrics regarding the use of spanking..." is the kind of statement one gets from politicians who are trying to dodge an issue. It's deliberately misleading, but in the literal sense, it's true. All they need is one hold-out member, then "there is no agreement." If every social reform had to await the medical profession's unanimous endorsement, we'd still be debating slavery and suffrage. The AAP's reason for ducking this issue has nothing to do with well-being of children, but everything to do with the well-being of the organization. Here are a few of the reasons for their ongoing state of moral paralysis in this regard:

A) Pediatricians whose livelihoods depend on their good standing in the community could suffer economically if the word gets out that their profession disapproves of a behavior that most parents engage in. Spankers--particularly the many who leave marks on their children that would be easily diagnosed--would look elsewhere for medical services. This would be very bad for business.

b) Some pediatricians are themselves spankers, were raised and schooled by spankers, and their sympathies naturally lie with parents who are spankers. The AAP recognizes that best way to keep them happy, and everybody else happy, is to remain non-committal on this issue. The first obligation of an organization that wants to perpetuate its existence is to keep relative peace within the ranks. They are well aware that this issue can destroy more friendships, and do it faster, than virtually any other issue.

c) Doctors, like everyone else, are reluctant to embrace a position that others will find odd, inexplicable or offensive, particularly when such a stance is sure to compromise them socially. Alienation of friends, colleagues and family members is just too high a price for most people to pay for the sake of a moral principle.

As I read Dr. Diana Baumrind's spanking apologia, it occurred to me that if one substitutes "physical chastisement of wives by their husbands," in all the appropriate places, it remains equally valid. Let's try.

"Scientific data do not support a blanket injunction against the use of physical chastisement of wives by their husbands. The short- and long-term consequences of physical chastisement of wives by their husbands, or any other disciplinary practice within the normative range, depend for their effects on the cultural and marital contexts in which the practice is embedded. Chastisement of wives is but one means that can be used by a husband in a disciplinary encounter, the disciplinary encounter is but one socialization strategy; and socialization is but one dimension of the relationship between husbands and wives. The disciplinary encounter is intended to control the wife’s short-term behavior. . . [blah, blah, blah]."

Perfect fit, though slightly out of date.

Dr. Baumrind concludes, "spanking is not a generative cause of aggression or pathology in children or adults when used appropriately." Note the slippery language: "...when used appropriately." Without that qualifier, the statement would be blatantly false. And she intentionally omits any description her version of a correct spanking, though I am sure she has a mental picture it. Were she to do that, she would rob readers of the opportunity to plug in their favorite fantasies, and her piece would lose the power to soothe and reassure, which, after all, is her purpose. She is obviously protecting somebody.

The Academy used Dr. Baumrind's words, not because they thought they had found an outstanding authority on the subject--they hadn't--but because they needed someone who could lend the gloss of respectability to their failure of moral courage.


Response of June 3, 2000
Re: Views on discipline

Dr. Baumrind's formula for correct spanking has little to do with science, except for the style and the jargon, but much to do with pandering. She gives spankers the official nod of approval they crave. They can now relax. They can settle back and trade favorite spanking anecdotes (which I suspect undergo slight improvements with each retelling, and benefit from a little innocent borrowing and trading among friends) and allay their private fears that they are anything other than loving parents who would never deliberately hurt a child--that is, not without first counting to three. They come away from the ritual feeling cleansed. A little of this might be happening on this forum. I expect I'll be hearing for the ten-thousandth time why it isn't such a bad thing to spank the toddler who is having a tantrum in the toy store, is about to run out into traffic, insert a finger into the light socket, touch the hot stove, or is being "willfully defiant." (Have I touched all the bases?)

And I expect I'll be hearing Dr. Baumrind's words at least a few more times being mindlessly intoned like a mantra: "The short- and long-term consequences of corporal punishment, or any other disciplinary practice within the normative range, depend for their effects on the cultural and child rearing contexts in which the practice is embedded." That's Dr. Baumrind's way of saying "We do it because it's okay, and it's okay because we do it." Such reasoning could be applied as well to the practices of infanticide, human sacrifice, cannibalism, witch burning, slavery, incest, pedophilia, polygamy, marital rape and wife beating. I anticipate the smug rejoinder: "Oh no, Mr. Riak, it doesn't apply to those things because we don't approve of those things." Yeah. Not anymore you don't.

I am astonished to hear informed, literate, sophisticated folks trot out personal anecdotes to demonstrate the truth of a theory. Anecdotes aren't evidence, and autobiography is inherently suspect. People tell only the part of the story that makes them look good and feel good, or proves what they want to prove. It seems to me that every member of our species comes equipped with a rose-tinted rear view mirror. The information it provides is pleasant, but not evidentiary.

On that note, let me reminisce briefly about my late, dearly beloved uncle who smoked a pack of Camels every day of his adult life, was never ill and died at 90 due to a freak accident while repairing the roof. Now, doesn't his example clearly prove the harmlessness of smoking? There's a point to this apparent digression, so bear with me.

In fact, the majority of smokers never experience tobacco-related illnesses, and some smokers lead healthier lives than some non-smokers. Similarly, the overwhelming majority of people who drive under the influence of alcohol, arrive safely at their destinations. Some drunk drivers drive more safely than some sober drivers. But sound research coupled with a clear sense of moral responsibility has moved society to protect itself against these highly risky and totally unnecessary behaviors. Spanking, on the other hand, its serious risks ignored and its so-called benefits wildly exaggerated, remains untouchable. Why?

In 1990, Dr. Philip Greven, professor of history at Rutgers, published Spare the Child: The Religious Roots of Punishment and the Psychological Impact of Physical Abuse. Below is an excerpt from PART IV CONSEQUENCES, subheading: "Aggression and Delinquency," which I think some readers will find useful. It certainly confirms my impressions as a teacher in the pre-release programs at two California prisons, Folsom and Valley State Prison for Women. When I poll my students on this topic, the percentage who say they grew up in non-spanking households hovers near 0%. Getting spanked clearly didn't do them any good, cultural context notwithstanding.

Dr. Greven writes:

"The most visible public outcome of early violence and coercion in the name of discipline is the active aggression that begins to shape the character and behavior in childhood and continues, in far too many instances, throughout the lives of those who suffered most in their earliest years. Aggressive children often become aggressive adults, who often produce more aggressive children, in a cycle that endures generation after generation. Corporal punishments always figure prominently in the roots of adolescent and adult aggressiveness, especially in those manifestations that take antisocial form, such as delinquency and criminality. Assaults upon children by adults in the name of discipline are the primary familial models for aggression, assaults, and other forms of antisocial behavior, delinquency, and crime that emerge when children grow up.

"Physical punishment of children consistently appears as one of the major influences shaping subsequent aggressiveness and delinquency of males. The psychologists Ronald Slaby and Wendy Roedell in 'The Development and Regulation of Aggression in Young Children,' note that 'one of the most reliable predictors of children's level of aggression is the heavy use by parents of harsh, punitive discipline and physical punishment.' They add that 'Parental punitiveness has been found to be positively correlated with children's aggression in over 25 studies.' "One of the most massive long-term studies of delinquency's origins and etiology, began in 1940 by Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck, confirms the central role played by discipline and families in shaping of antisocial aggressiveness enacted in male delinquency and criminality in adolescence and adulthood. The Gluecks compared both delinquent and nondelinquent boys from English, Irish and Italian families in poor urban areas and discovered conclusive evidence that delinquency is rooted in early childhood experiences, discipline and family life being of paramount importance.

"What the Gluecks prove is that delinquency begins long before children become adolescents; signs are often visible by the time children are between three and six, and almost always before they are eleven: 'The onset of persistent misbehavior tendencies was at the early age of seven years or younger among 48 per cent of our delinquents, and from eight to ten in an additional 39 per cent; thus a total of almost nine-tenths of the entire group showed clear delinquent tendencies before the time when boys generally become members of organized boys' gangs...'

"The Gluecks continued their analysis of discipline in their major study 'Unraveling Juvenile Delinquency' (1950) in which they assert: 'All in all, the most marked difference between the disciplinary practices of the parents of the delinquents and those of the non-delinquents is found in the considerably greater extent to which the former resorted to physical punishment and the lesser extent to which they reasoned with the boys about their misconduct.' The Gluecks believe their analysis 'is a revealing commentary on the relative effectiveness of physical punishment as opposed to an appeal to reason in the control of child behavior.'

"The lowest incidence of delinquency and antisocial behavior in adolescence and beyond is always found among males who were loved, respected, cared for and reasoned with in childhood.

"The overwhelming evidence now available from scholarship on the roots of delinquency and crime suggests that corporal punishment -- the application of the rod and other implements of discipline -- is a major factor in generating the rage, aggression, and impulses for revenge that fuel the emotions, fantasies, and actions of individuals, mostly male, who become active delinquents or criminals."


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