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When Good Parents Spank

Dr. Barbara Kezur takes a measured breath before commenting on the issue of spanking children. She speaks gently but with great confidence. "Parents who spank their children regularly and repeatedly need to do some soul-searching," she says. She was responding to questions referring to a recent piece here about spanking children. It was prompted by an article in the medical journal Pediatrics that reported 65 percent of young children were spanked at least once over a four-week period by one or both parents.

Dr. Kezur has lived and practiced in Westport for 23 years. As an adult and child psychologist who also conducts family therapy, she knows her way around the topic of spanking. "Parents today are stressed more than ever before," she says. "And this can make it somewhat easy for family conduct to get out of hand sometimes."

Out of hand indeed. In the United States spanking is more common than people realize. The study was conducted by researchers at Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine and involved some 2,000 families. It adds to evidence that suggests spanking (and other corporal punishment) sets kids up for aggressive behaviors later in life.

"Many good parents have at times reacted to their own and their child's anger by resorting to physical punishment, and it's not always by design but rather by frustration," says Dr. Kezur. But parents, she says, need to revisit the event later so that they can talk about it and apologize to their children. Because spanking and other forms of corporal punishment are, she says, unquestionably less effective than using "a behavior system that includes making plans for the future and creating consequences for children's actions."

In fact, inflicting physical punishment on a young child can, ultimately, hurt more than the sting of a single slap. The study solidifies the link between spanking and aggressive behavior because it controlled for other maternal risk factors such as neglect, maternal use of drugs and alcohol, maternal stress and depression, and the physical or psychological maltreatment of the child, all of which might have explained the connection between the two.

The only real way to teach a child is by talking to them. Dr. Kezur says, "Not much learning occurs when people 'are in the middle of being upset.'" Learning only happens, she adds, when people calm down and talk to each other, no matter how young they are.

If we want to teach our children well, inflicting physical harm is completely counter-productive. "Talking goes a long way toward helping children grow into the kinds of people we want them to be," says Dr. Kezur.

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