UNC study links spankers to abusers

Staff WriterAugust 19, 2008 

Parents tempted to treat Junior's misbehavior with a lashing from a tree switch out back or dad's leather belt are being urged to think again.

A study released today by doctors at UNC-Chapel Hill finds that parents who spank their children with an object -- such as a belt, switch or paddle -- are nine times more likely to abuse their child through more severe means. Also, parents are much more likely to beat, burn or shake their children if they spank frequently, according to the study, which is being published by the American Journal of Preventative Medicine.

"Parents get angry when they're spanking, and it's not working," said Adam Zolotor, lead author of the study and a pediatrician at UNC-CH's Department of Family Health. "If a child gets spanked so often, they just don't care anymore and will misbehave anyway."

It's the latest finding in a growing body of research suggesting that parents should use their voices, not their hands or household tools, to keep children in line. This study rests on anonymous admissions of 1,435 mothers of children from North and South Carolina randomly selected to share details of the discipline they and other caregivers use in the privacy of their homes.

Rates of abuse, the researchers found, are alarmingly high, even in a survey dependent on parents owning up to behavior that could cost them the right to raise their children. Twelve percent of mothers who reported spanking a child's bottom with an object also admitted engaging in behavior researchers classified as physical abuse. Also, 12 percent of those who spanked 50 or more times in the last year admitted abuse such as beating, burning, shaking or hitting the children with an object about their bodies.

Spanking has been a mainstay in American parents' discipline regimen for generations. Most national studies show that more than half of parents have spanked or slapped their children in the past year. In the UNC-CH study, Zolotor and his colleagues found that nearly half of those parents with children ages 7 to 9 whipped their children's behinds with objects in the past year.

Broken relationships

Corporal punishment has been on the minds of North Carolinians this summer. In June, Triangle residents watched Johnston County mother Lynn Paddock admit she lashed out at her brood of adopted children with a plastic plumbing supply line; Paddock borrowed the parenting advice from an evangelical Christian minister who teaches parents how to rear submissive children. A Johnston County jury sent Paddock to prison for life for the suffocation death her youngest son, Sean, 4.

Over the last year, child advocates have appealed, without success, to legislators to outlaw corporal punishment in public schools. Some districts, such as Johnston County, have recently abandoned the practice.

"People want to change behavior immediately, and they think spanking is the way to go," said Tom Vitaglione, a child advocate from Raleigh-based Action for Children, which has pushed for the statewide ban on spanking in schools. "Down the line, though, [these children] do far worse. That relationship of trust is broken."

At least 56 school districts still allow administrators to spank or paddle children. Efforts to ban that practice entirely have met fierce opposition.

John Rustin, vice president of the Family Policy Council, a nonpartisan research group in Raleigh that focuses on family issues, opposed the ban and thinks there's still a place for spanking in North Carolina homes and schools.

"Spanking can be administered in a loving manner to help children understand what's right and wrong," Rustin said. "But, it's not just something that ought to be done with little thought."

Some Christians heed the Bible's admonition that parents who spare the rod will spoil their child. Several ministers have written books or taught seminars instructing parents how to employ the rod, preaching that a parent's hand ought to be preserved for loving and nurturing, not discipline. Michael Pearl, the Tennessee pastor Paddock turned to for discipline advice, suggests in his books that parents whip babies younger than 1 with "a footlong willow branch shaved of its knots," and for older children, "plastic plumbing pipe, a 3-foot shrub cutting or a belt."

Beth Taylor, a mother of two boys, said she finally gave up on spanking years ago when her oldest son began acting worse after she turned to a belt to punish him. It was the only tactic she knew, Taylor said. Growing up, her father had whipped her and her sisters with a strap.

"It made him lash out at me," said Taylor, who lives in McDowell County in Western North Carolina. "It broke my heart. I worried about him hating me."

Frustrated, she took a parenting class to figure out what was going wrong. There, Taylor said, she learned her spanking provoked her son. Now, to get her oldest son to behave, Taylor disconnects his cell phone. For her youngest, 7, she takes away his video game machine.

"Nothing gets their attention faster," Taylor said.

mandy.locke@newsobserver.com or (919) 829-8927

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