Smacking hurts, but it doesn't work, say experts

Sixty percent of Spanish parents think a "slap can avoid more serious problems."

Spanking, slapping, smacking... None of these terms have particularly negative connotations. Used on an exceptional basis to clearly mark the limits for a child or pre-teen, these methods are still seen by many parents as effective.

Others, including many educators and psychologists, don't agree. Although most say that they shouldn't be criminal offenses (we're not talking about gratuitous violence or serious abuse, like beatings), they categorically reject this kind of behavior as a valid, adequate tool to teach children. Firstly, because the acts themselves are reprehensible. "If we don't justify it between couples, why do we allow it with kids, who are defenseless?" they argue. And secondly, because smacking doesn't work, at least in the long term, according to Manuel Gámez Guadix, a psychology professor at Madrid's Autonomous University.

In nine out of 10 cases, slapping comes with "psychological aggression"
Experts point out the importance of paying attention to children when they are good

Gámez has rekindled an old debate with his study about the prevalence of physical punishment for minors in the family sphere. He asked 1,067 university students from his campus if they were ever spanked when they were 10 years old. Sixty percent answered yes. This figure coincides with a 2005 study conducted by the Center for Sociological Research (CIS), which found that around 60 percent of adults think that "a slap can avoid more serious problems." In other studies conducted in the United States using the same methodology, says Gámez, the figure is between 23 percent (among fathers) and 25 percent (mothers).

The professor is quick to point out that the question was about slapping and spanking, nothing that can cause injury or leave marks. In fact, young people who had suffered from more serious forms of violence were left out of the sample so as to not confuse its scope. Tellingly, the number of students excluded from the study because they had received more serious beatings (for example, a father that makes good on his threat to use his belt or a punch) was "considerably high," around 15 percent of the total.

This kind of behavior is widely condemned and almost nobody defends it - at least not out loud. But other acts, such as a slap for a six-year-old girl when she won't stop screaming at a restaurant, or when a kid has just broken grandma's vase after being told a thousand times that he's not allowed to play ball in the living room, are "widely accepted on a social level," says Gámez.

But where is the limit? When is it time for the last resort? How do parents know they haven't gone too far? According to philosopher José Antonio Marina, parents should go by common sense. He stresses the importance of differentiating between physical abuse that has nothing to do with teaching children right from wrong, and merely slapping kids to establish limits, "always in a loving context, not when you lose your nerve." It might help prevent certain behavior in young children, but it doesn't encourage good conduct, according to the director of the Parents' University.

Emilio Calatayud, a judge from a Granada juvenile court, has said on numerous occasions that spanking is permitted, as long as it's at the appropriate moment and isn't too hard. Timing and intensity might seem like vague concepts, but in general, those who defend or at least don't totally reject spanking, from a strictly educational standpoint, say that it must be the last resort, always accompanied by calmness, reflection, affection and dialogue.

The problem is that this rarely occurs. Gámez's study found that slapping is accompanied in nine out of 10 cases by "psychological aggression," such as "shouting, threats and attempts to humiliate the minor."

"Slapping shows the adult's powerlessness and incapacity," according to the educationalist Joan Josep Sarrado. That's how the child perceives it, so he or she sees it as an act of "revenge" by the father or mother, which means it can't have any positive educational effects. It might improve the child's behavior in the short term, Gámez explains, but "in the long term, the problem is that the parent will probably have to use it more and more to obtain the same result."

What's more, many experts also point out the negative effects, both in the long term - making children insensitive to other people's pain and teaching them to use violence to solve their problems - and in the short term, by making them very disoriented if the parent feels so guilty afterwards that they try to make up for it in an exaggerated way.

On the other hand, champions of slapping and spanking often argue: "It worked for me: I wasn't traumatized and I lead a normal life, so it's not so bad." Gámez says that people who were slapped as children are more likely to slap their own kids. It also makes sense that they justify it if it's used for a lack of alternative strategies, or to explain why their own parents acted the way they did.

According to Gerardo Aguado, a psychology professor from the University of Navarre, physical punishment "gets blown out of proportion, because it doesn't traumatize kids for life, either." It's simply a good idea not to use it because "it's unnecessary, it has no educational objective, and it doesn't work." In other words, it won't correct behavior.

But alternative methods require time, effort and patience. "In education, there can be no improvisation," says Sarrado. Dialogue, communication and respect must be taught from a very early age, and the non-physical punishment should also be introduced as soon as possible. It is very important to establish limits and teach kids to deal with frustration, because families also tend to "overindulge" minors, he adds.

Many people argue that the end of a repressive society in Spain gave way to another, much more permissive one that has caused major problems when it comes to exercising authority and setting limits for young people. But going back to the authoritarian formulas of the past can never be the answer, according to Pedro Rascón, president of the confederation of parents' associations, CEAPA.

Possible alternatives might be non-aggressive forms of punishment, which range from taking away some kind of privilege (like watching TV or a toy) to righting the damage caused (saying "I'm sorry" or making them fix or pay for what they broke with their own savings) or being sent to one's room. The important thing, according to Sarrado, is that the punishment should be immediate, fair and consistent - parents mustn't contradict one another, or themselves. It's also important to stick with it: "Even if you reach the conclusion that you haven't responded appropriately, you shouldn't change your criteria until the child stops pressuring you." That way they don't think that this is the reason for the change.

Gámez agrees that these norms should be established early on. He also points out the importance of paying attention to children not only when they misbehave, but also when they are good.

The problem is, most parents aren't professional educators, and these methods are not always easy. But they are not alone: "Nowadays there are parenting schools, and you can keep close tabs on your child through their teachers at school," says Sarrado.

Parents are entitled to make a mistake without being blamed for it. Even so, as Sarrado points out, "the fewer spanks, the better; if possible, none at all." The debate continues. In the meantime, a huge gap remains between the common sense that Marina calls for and scientific answers. If someone gets spanked as a child, Gámez admits that it most likely won't traumatize them, hurt their self-esteem or make them use violence to resolve conflicts. But according to a number of scientific studies, it definitely makes him or her a much more likely candidate than someone who didn't receive physical punishment.


"If people don't act as parents, their child must be taken away"

"The first day I gave birth, the second day I nursed my baby but the third day, they wrenched him from my arms. I cried, I kicked and I screamed, but it didn't do any good," explains Susana (not her real name).

Social workers from the Andalusian government had come to take away Susana's baby, because doctors had found traces of heroin in the mother's bloodstream.

According to the most recent figures, 43,292 minors in Spain are currently under some kind of guardianship. Many of them are the children of drug addicts found to be unfit to be fathers or mothers. A recent ruling from Catalonia's High Court, which sentenced the Catalan regional government to pay nearly 1 million euros to a couple in rehab whose child was taken away from them and put up for adoption, has opened the door to an endless number of similar cases.

Susana's ordeal continued at the hospital door, where she spent three nights sleeping on the ground. She still couldn't believe what had happened to her. Exhausted and alone - her husband was in jail for selling stolen goods - she took a bus to the beach, where she spent a week using drugs.

"That made me forget everything, it made my pain go away, but suddenly my life seemed like a movie. I said good riddance to the people I was with and I called my family. I wanted to be a person again," she says.

A group of nuns helped her go through cold turkey, and every Tuesday she went to visit her son at a juvenile home. One day, she went to see him and he was gone. He'd been given to a foster couple, who couldn't have children of their own.

María del Carmen Serrano, an education specialist who coordinates the work-from-prison program for Proyecto Hombre, an NGO specialized in helping people with drug dependency, has seen dozens of cases like Susana's. She explains that the usual procedure is to check whether the addicts have recovered. If so, they get to keep their child; if not, the girl or boy is taken away from them. There is no halfway point, and this is the problem. "There needs to be a follow-up. Just because they're fine today doesn't mean they will be tomorrow, or vice-versa. All that's taken into account is the moment when the decision is made, when these cases obviously require constant evaluation."

Behind bars, many people are in this situation. Antonio Luis J. R. has served time at the Albolote prison in Granada. He is 37 years old.

"I asked the judge to give me my son back. I'm a different person; I'm rehabilitated." This is the statement that he sent to this newspaper through his public defender, Josefina Díaz. The Andalusian regional court found that his son was in a situation of neglect: he was in prison, the boy's mother was also a drug user and his grandmother had a degenerative disease. Thus, the court decided to put the seven-year-old in foster care, a regime that can eventually lead to permanent adoption.

Now Antonio Luis is fighting to stop that from happening, but time is not on his side. He is partially rehabilitated, according to the therapists who have worked with him in jail. He used to be a drug addict and a petty criminal, who lived in neighborhoods where life isn't worth much. Now he's a model inmate, but it doesn't matter. His son's adoption process is going ahead.

For the moment, Antonio Luis has appealed the court's ruling. He is out on partial parole and is looking for a job. "Then everything would be different," says his lawyer. "He's fighting really hard for his son and he's got to convince the judge that he can take care of him. I'm confident that he'll succeed; he deserves it."

In Andalusia and Madrid, for example, there are more than 5,000 minors under some form of guardianship. It is impossible to know how many of these cases are drug-related, but the experts estimate that a good number of them are.

A member of the custody commission for the Madrid regional government explains that when they're dealing with parents who are drug addicts, their job consists of putting the good of the children first.

"Taking a person's child away is always a difficult decision, but if they don't act as parents, it must be done," he says.

First, however, they try to find a close relative, such as an aunt, uncle or grandparent, who can take care of the minor. If that fails, they turn to foster care. "If they've started treatment during this time, we take that into consideration. The problem is, many of them say they're going to go into rehab, but they end up back in the world of drugs."

Getting one's child back can be a good reason to stop using. That's what Susana did. Now, losing her baby seems like a distant nightmare. She fought her case, and after an endless number of appeals in the courts and with the custody commission, she managed to get him back. Today she's a happy mother who appears in pictures posted on one of the social-networking sites celebrating the birthday of her son, who is now an adolescent.

"I did it," she says. "I managed to get my kid back while dealing with terrible withdrawal syndromes. Why can't everyone else? You've got to fight to the end."

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