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What if spanking works?


The following ran in the June 17, 2012, edition of the Boston Globe. Psychologist George Holden provided expertise for this story.

June 19, 2012

By James H. Burnett III

IT DIDN’T TAKE LONG for me to realize that asking a man why he spanks his children is like asking him when he stopped beating his wife.

I’d been trying to interview parents about spanking for weeks when I finally got the name of one mother who, as a friend we shared put it, had more opinions on the matter than Jimmy Durante had jokes. I gave the woman a call one day and began to explain what I was working on — that’s when she slammed down the phone.

A few moments later, she called back to apologize. “I’m at work — that is not a conversation to have around other people,” she hoarsely whispered. “I know you say a mutual friend told you to call me. But for all I know, you could be Social Services or something.” She insisted that I not call her again.

Things continued more or less like that with more than a dozen other people — uncomfortable silences, hang-ups, an astounding number of variations on “Thanks, but no, thanks” — until I reached Kevin Cargill, a 35-year-old real estate professional in Boston.

“I can’t lie, my wife and I do spank our daughters, and I’m not ashamed of it,” Cargill tells me with a nervous chuckle. He says spanking has sometimes been the only way to get through to his girls, who are now 12 and 13. “But at the same time, I can’t say that around everyone. It’s a serious thing, man. And there are people out there who’ll think you’re a beast if you admit to spanking.”

Countless debates at the edges of playgrounds may roil over how much screen time is too much and the right age to stop breast-feeding, but there’s no more radioactive topic in parenting today than corporal punishment....

A few years ago, a Southern Methodist University psychology professor named George Holden installed audio recorders in 33 homes in the Dallas area. His plan was only to measure how often the participants yelled at their kids, Holden says, “but we inadvertently captured more than we expected.” In half the homes, the recorders caught the sounds of parents slapping and spanking. What his research shows, Holden says, is that “parents may be behaving at odds with what they say, and certainly at odds with what they think good parents would do.”...