January 12, 2023

By Diana Hembree and Courtney Wise

Good morning, MindSite News readers! Today we bring you a book review and commentary by our own Courtney Wise on why spanking – long considered harmless by many parents – is actually harmful to children’s mental health and safety. This is not a critism of anyone who has used this once ubiquitous punishment, but a look at the definitive research showing why we should all stop – for the sake of our children.

Also in this editon: Dr. Barbara Greenberg on why it’s important for parents (and everyone else) to control their anger, even if kids and partners are avoiding their chores. How theatre class teaches empathy. Seattle schools vs. the social media giants. Plus: a kids’ news site that parents can actually enjoy, too.

Spare the child: New book builds upon research that spanking harms children

Despite consistent evidence to the contrary, many U.S. adults, regardless of race, have carried the idea that spanking children is fine. Like my mother and hers before her, I grew up in an environment where I had to pick and prepare my own switch when my grandmother determined I’d gotten too out of hand – “It wasn’t abuse. We all turned out fine” is the common refrain. But it turns out many adults who were hit are not okay–they just didn’t possess the language or freedom to say so.

Like MindSite’s own co-founding editor Diana Hembree, who recalled the dangers of school paddling in a gripping first-person essay, I too attended an elementary school where such punishment was accepted as normal. In fact, another MindSite News story shows that Black children are three times more likely to be paddled at school.

Physical punishment certainly felt like a cultural imperative. I didn’t become a mother until my 30s, and even then – at that big age – being clear about my decision to not hit or “spank” my child to the people who raised me felt almost antithetical to being Black. That’s unsurprising, considering what journalist, researcher, and child advocate Stacy Patton told Andscape in a 2017 interview following the release of her book, Spare the Kids: Why Whupping Won’t Save Black America. The hardest part of writing it, she said, “was listening to the testimonies of people who talk about the pain they suffered during their own childhood, and how so many people couldn’t even talk about this because it was considered culturally taboo to do so: It’s disrespectful to their mothers and other elders.”

Now, in a new book from a different author, Spanked: How Hitting Our Children is Harming Ourselves, Christina L. Erickson, professor of social work and environmental studies at Augsburg University, presents more evidence to support an urgent end to what we politely call spanking, but which, she notes, is really child abuse. She told the MinnPost that her “aha” moment came in a sudden burst of parenting frustration. “It was a pretty normal moment,” Erickson said. “The girls were being age-appropriately naughty, fighting over a toy.” But on that day, the argument caused her stress level to soar and pushed her to a frightening limit. “I became really upset and angry–more so than I expected. I went into the room to hit them. And then I stopped myself.”

Having grown up in a home where spanking was practiced, Erickson nearly reverted back to what she’d learned – and it caused her to consider how many other U.S. parents turn back to the practice as an acceptable disciplinary tool. Researching and writing the book prompted an internal shift in her perspective. “I had a lot of evolution in my own thinking,” Erickson said. “Before, I was mired in the idea that spanking was a benign family discipline tactic that didn’t have big social impacts on a broader scale. But my research uncovered harms that were just too great to ignore.”

Among these harms, underscored by other researchers, are increased aggression, rage and hostility, anxiety and depression, and worrisome changes in brain development, similar to those found in severe maltreatment. It is also ineffective. As researcher Ralph Welsh found in a study he called “the belt theory of juvenile delinquency,” physical punishment may curtail certain behaviors when a child is younger, but by adolescence kids that have been hit by their parents are more likely to be involved in the juvenile detention system.

Equally troubling, “physical punishment doesn’t work to get kids to comply, so parents think they have to keep escalating it,” said Elizabeth Gershoff, PhD, a researcher on physical punishment at the University of Texas at Austin, in the APA Monitor. “That is why it is so dangerous.”

– Courtney Wise

Ask Barbara: Advice from a Teen Psychologist

Dr. Barbara Greenberg, Clinical Psychologist

I am so furious with my kids and husband not helping around the house that I’ve started to explode. Now everyone is hurt and resentful. What should I do?

Dear Barbara,

I am a working mom who is very frustrated with my family. I am angry that the kids are not helping around the house, not even cleaning off the table after dinner or washing their dishes. I am also mad that my husband doesn’t ever clean the house and leaves towels on the bathroom floor. I feel like I am in another century in which women did all the housework. I try to stay calm but lately I have gotten in a rage over this stuff and screamed at everyone in the family. I know they were shocked and hurt but I don’t know what to do with all the anger I am feeling.

In this column, Dr. Greenberg talks about the drawbacks of the scorched-earth approach to relationships and offers strategies for expressing anger in a constructive way. If you’re a parent, guardian or family member with a problem you’d like to share, please write Dr. Barbara Greenberg at info@mindsitenews.org. We look forward to hearing from you.

How drama class can teach kids empathy

via Twitter

Two tween girls are doing improv in a rowdy theater class that suddenly goes quiet as they practice “the mirror,” an exercise in which they follow each other’s motions. One raises an arm – or did the other raise hers first? The girls follow each other’s movements so smoothly that no one can tell who is leading. Afterwards the instructor asked how they were able to sync their movements so fluidly without talking, and one girl replied, “We were using our eyes.”

This story, recounted in a Washington Post article on drama and mental health, suggests that theater not only teaches “active listening” – verbal and non-verbal skills to reach mutual understanding – but emotional intelligence. We may have  thought the drama kids in our high school were just having more fun than us, but nope: a study from George Mason University and the Commonwealth Theatre Center followed children aged 5 to 18 over six years and found increases in communication skills across age, gender and race – all  linked to drama.

“The longer the kids spent in the theater classes, the more they gained in 21st century skills, like communication, creativity, imagination, problem solving, and collaboration,” says study co-author  Thalia Goldstein, an associate professor of applied developmental psychology at George Mason University.

In other news…

Seattle schools vs. the social media giants: In case you missed our story earlier this week, Seattle schools have filed a David vs Goliath lawsuit against the tech companies running TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, and Snapchat, arguing that they’ve “created a public nuisance by targeting their products to children” and need to be held accountable for the youth mental health crisis, the Associated Press reports.

The tech companies have hooked tens of millions of students on “excessive use and abuse” of the social media platforms, according to the complaint, including content that is “harmful and exploitive…such as pro-anorexia and eating disorder content.” Among other things, the Seattle public school district is asking the companies to pay for kids’ mental health treatment for problems stemming from overuse of social media.

If you’re looking for a website to promote mental health among your younger kids, try NewsForKids.net. Our favorite story so far was the story of Hilde Lysiak, who became famous for reporting on big stories – at age 9 . Some adults talked down to her in an “isn’t this adorable” way, suggesting she would be better off playing with dolls. Lysiak’s response is one that all adults should ponder. “I never began my newspaper so that people would think I was cute,” replied the young Nellie Bly. “I want to be taken seriously. I’m sure other kids do, too.”

If you or someone you know is in crisis or experiencing suicidal thoughts, call or text 988 to reach the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline and connect in English or Spanish. If you’re a veteran press 1. If you’re deaf or hard of hearing dial 711, then 988. Services are free and available 24/7.

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Type of work:

Diana Hembree, MS, is MindSite News co-founding editor. She is a health and science journalist who served as a senior editor at Time Inc. Health and its physician’s magazine, Hippocrates, for four years,...

Courtney Wise Randolph is a native Detroiter and freelance writer. She is the host of COVID Diaries: Stories of Resilience, a 2020 project between WDET and Documenting Detroit which won an Edward R. Murrow...