A Massachusetts court ruled Thursday that parents cannot be held criminally liable for spanking their children as long as they use “reasonable” force and don’t cause kids physical harm or mental distress. Still, experts say that even though spanking may be permissible, it’s not advisable.
In its ruling, the Supreme Judicial Court overturned the conviction of a dad who publicly spanked his daughter in 2011. At the time, the little girl was almost 3 years old. In their decision, the justices said that spanking “remains firmly woven into our nation’s social fabric” and “it follows that we must guard against the imposition of criminal sanctions for the use of parenting techniques still widely regarded as permissible and warranted.”
But the court was clear that when the distinction between discipline and abuse is blurry, priority will be given to the child’s safety. “The balance will tip in favor of the protection of children,” the decision said.
Still, experts say that the effects of spanking go directly against what the court is promoting. The decision held that use of force must be “reasonably related to the purpose of safeguarding or promoting the welfare of the minor,” but Deborah Gilboa, a parenting expert and family physician, says spanking does neither. “Parents intend it that way, but research doesn’t find safeguarding or promotion of welfare as an outcome of spanking,” she tells Yahoo Parenting. “It undermines your role as the safest person for your child to talk to or be with. It undermines the lesson that we don’t hit to get what we want. Intentionally causing someone else physical pain is counter to most of the messages that we know kids need to hear.”
More than half of parents still engage in spanking, according to a 2013 Harris Poll. It found that 78 percent of U.S. parents think that spanking is sometimes appropriate, and 67 percent say they have spanked their children. Another recent study out of the University of Michigan found that 30 percent of 1-year-olds had been spanked in the last month by one or both of their parents.
But researchers have been clear that the practice isn’t an effective one. One 2010 study found that frequent spanking of 3-year-olds is associated with increased risk of child aggression at age 5. The American Academy of Pediatrics is against it, stating: “Spanking is never recommended; infants may be physically harmed by a parent who strikes the child. … Whenever a parent strikes a child, it may undermine the relationship of trust that the child needs to thrive.” And, as a story in the American Psychological Association’s “Monitor on Psychology” explains, “Many studies have shown that physical punishment — including spanking, hitting and other means of causing pain — can lead to increased aggression, antisocial behavior, physical injury and mental health problems for children.”
Gilboa says research has found only one scenario in which spanking modifies behavior, and that is when spanking is an expected form of punishment and one that is used across that child’s community. “For example, when you know that if you hit your sister you get a spank on the bottom and it’s always the case and never out of anger,” she says. “But even in that case, the only time it doesn’t have negative effects is if it is normal across that child’s community, and that just not the case in our society anymore.”
Even if spanking is permissible by law, Gilboa hopes that parents will look for other, more effective methods of discipline before reverting to physical force. “I understand the frustration and the desire to help a kid behave the way they need to, which can lead a parent to consider spanking, but there are dozens and dozens way to modify behavior,” she says. “If you are thinking of spanking, try separation — which can be in the form of timeouts or whatever that looks like for your child’s age — or loss of privileges, chores, or spending time with an adult mentor who will have a positive influence. There are a lot of options, but using pain or shame divides families and almost never helps the parent reach their intended goal.”