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Lisa Belkin

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Spare The Rod, Cause The Kids To Riot

Posted: 01/30/2012 10:30 am

In Britain yesterday, radio listeners heard senior Labour MP and former education minister David Lammy suggest that rioting is the result of anti-spanking rules.

It's called smacking in Britain, and Lammy told a London radio station: "Many of my constituents came up to me after the riots and blamed the Labour government, saying: 'You guys stopped us being able to smack our children'."

The riots he refers to were the ones that broke out this summer across England, when thousands of "youths" looted and firebombed and marauded through the cities of Manchester, Salford, Liverpool, Nottingham and Birmingham. And the way the Labour party "stopped" parents from smacking was with a 2004 law that "specified that parents were allowed to smack their offspring without causing the "reddening of the skin" and left decisions to social workers over whether or not parents had overstepped the mark," according to an article this morning in The Guardian.

Until 2004 the standard was "reasonable chastisement" and a judge had final say.

How to control British youth has been the subject of fierce debate since the riots, and this is not the first time the idea has been raised that if only parents could whup their kids, peace might be restored. After yesterday's broadcast, Lammy told the Guardian that he didn't mean to imply a direct connection between the smacking ban and the riots -- but he didn't do much to discount such a connection, either.

Perhaps the law went a little overboard, he suggested. "It is up to parents to determine the way they want to help their children navigate boundaries and how they define right and wrong, it is not for the state to define that for them," he told Guardian reporter Alexandra Topping. "The state is not there on the 15th floor of a tower block, where there may be drug dealers and violence and families may be struggling. He added: "This is not about abuse, not about hitting or about violence, and it certainly isn't about domestic violence."

And he told The Express the next day that poor families particularly needed this discipline method in their arsenal, because they didn't have so many of the other options available to more well-to-do marents. Reporter Padraic Flanagan writes:

Mr. Lammy, 39, said it was easier for middle-class parentst to control their children as they could afford private schools, which have tougher discipline than state schools, and could pay for hobbies and activities.

Oh, I see. Rather than find a way to lift a family out of poverty, or improve discipline and order in the schools, or provide activities and hobbies to poor children the job of the government is to make it easier for parents to hit their kids?

Mr. Lammy has said that he has "very occassionally" spanked his own sons, who are three and five. That puts him in the same group as most Americans. (Twenty-three countries have banned hitting children; the US is not one of them.) Dr. Robert Needlman, the author of the newest edition of Dr. Spock's Guide To Baby and Child Care (which happens to be this blog's book club selection this month) says that about 85 percent of parents in the U.S. say they spank their children "sometimes", in spite of what Needlman calls "extensive evidence" that it does not improve a child's behavior and that it can "teach a child that the larger, stronger person has the power to get his way, whether or not he is in the right."

We are not just talking about a study or two. Psychologist Elizabeth Thompson Gershoff, for one, published a review of 62 years of research, analyzing 82 separate spanking studies and found that while there is lots of evidence that spanking works in the very short term (ie "I threaten you, and you do what I say") it has no positive impact, and a good deal of negative impact, on long term behavior ("ie "When I am not standing there threatening you then you will continue to do as you please.")

Spanking, experts repeatedly warn, is an act of frustration, not education. There are better ways, on both sides of the Atlantic.

What works for you, that doesn't require laying a hand on your child? Tweet your advice to @HuffPostParents using hashtag #Idontspank or leave your answer in the comments.