06/12/2012 10:58 am ET Updated Aug 12, 2012

'Spanking' Your Child: The World Disagrees

Opinion pieces for and against corporal punishment of children cycle around with tremendous regularity. Most are based on absolutely no data, and merely offer some variation on the theme of "I was (or I wasn't) spanked as a child, and look how well I turned out."

Many articles inexplicably extrapolate from these hyper-personal narratives to conclude not only that "what's good enough for me is good enough for my children," but moreover that whatever the other camp is proposing (to spank or not to spank) is inherently bad for the child with no reference to statistics or science. Most recently, a proponent of spanking argued that not to spank your child teaches her or him that "if life isn't fair, then throw a fit and you'll eventually get your way."

Full disclosure: my parents did not hit or spank me and I have never thought it necessary, desirable or expedient to hit or spank my child. I know for a fact that she is absolutely clear that throwing a fit won't get her anywhere. And I also know for a fact that these personal experiences cannot be translated into a theory of child psychology for larger gain.

Instead, let me try to overcome some of the dearth of information on this topic from the perspective of desired objectives and actual outcomes.

First of all, it might come as a surprise for readers in the United States that many countries have outlawed all forms of corporal punishment of children, including spanking, slapping, other forms of hitting, as well as kicking and shaking. Countries with full bans on corporal punishment include Austria, Denmark, Finland, Germany, New Zealand, Norway, Spain and Sweden, as well as Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Moldova, Poland, South Sudan and Ukraine. (For a full list, see here).

Sweden was the first country to pass a ban on corporal punishment in 1979, and quite aside from impressive child health and education indicators, it is clear that the country has not descended into anarchy as a result of this "lack of discipline." It is noteworthy that Sweden's standard of living has been described by economists as "enviable", fuelled by a "skilled labor force" (including a substantial number of workers born after the absolute spanking ban). Moreover, the economic downturn that is engulfing all of Europe is projected to be relatively short-lived in Sweden. In other words: either it pays off to be throwing fits, or else ban on spanking does not really produce lazy, fit-throwing adults after all.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that there is any direct causal link between bans on corporal punishment and a country's economy. I am, however, suggesting that hitting children (whatever you choose to call it) is not something most people agree with. And not because I wasn't spanked myself. Rather, countries around the world have agreed that spanking is wrong, at least in principle, through ratifying the universal treaty on children's human rights, the Convention on the Rights of Child. (South Sudan also has not ratified this treaty, but banned corporal punishment of children in 2011).

In other words, the vast majority of the world's 7 billion individuals live in countries that have, in principle, signed and ratified commitments to end violence against children in all its forms, including corporal punishment in the home.

To be sure, the fact that governments from all over the world have come together to declare that spanking must stop is not going to convince those who believe in spanking as an effective method of discipline that, in fact, it is not.

To this there is only one thing to say: they are wrong.

It is a generally accepted notion that positive reinforcement brings about more lasting behavioral change than punishment both when it comes to animals and when it comes to people. A recent article in The Atlantic notes that theories on how to modify behavior through positive reinforcement form the backbone of successful programs such as Weight Watchers and AA, and provide the underlying structure of newer behavior modification applications for smart phones and computers.

Indeed, observing children around me, it seems likely that what might produce "lazy fit-throwing" adults is not lack of corporal punishment but rather lack of clarity with regard to what constitutes acceptable behaviour in the first place. There are any number of ways to communicate this clarity, and violence -- including spanking -- is not one of them. Consistent quality education at home and at school would be a better place to start.

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