Every Friday my syndicated column goes out all over southeastern Ontario. Here’s today’s, on spanking:

If I were to pick one hundred random passers-by and asked them what they thought about spanking a 4-year-old who was swearing at his mother and refusing to obey, I’m pretty sure a healthy majority would say it’s a-okay. On the other hand, ask those same hundred people whether spanking a 12-year-old in the same circumstances would be acceptable, and I’m pretty sure the vast majority would say no. That’s because people, in general, have common sense.

Marjorie Gunnoe, a professor of psychology at Calvin College has just published a study confirming what the vast majority of us already know: spanking young children to discipline them is not harmful, but spanking older children is. Of course hitting can be abusive, but most of us also know that spanking is not the same as abuse. And in her study, she found that those who were spanked before they were six actually ended up happier and more successful as adults than those who were not.

It’s perfectly logical, really. Those who were spanked likely had parents who believed in discipline, consequences, and enforcing boundaries. Thus, they grew up to be more obedient and respectful, more responsible, and better adjusted. Personally, I don’t think you have spank to enforce boundaries and consequences, and I’ve got lots of ideas for disciplining without spanking. But those who spank also do discipline, and that’s likely the key ingredient in raising well-adjusted kids.

On the other hand, a good parent realizes once a child reaches a certain age that there are more appropriate discipline techniques than spanking, because the child can now reason better. Those parents who continue to spank, then, even as the children grow, likely aren’t as functional as others. Their kids will turn out worse, which is also exactly what Gunnoe found.

Sometimes we need research to remind us of the obvious, because in many instances legislators, media figures, and societal leaders have forgotten it. Here’s the hard truth: you can’t legislate common sense, and often when we try to pass laws to prevent something we know is harmful, we end up interfering too significantly in the lives of families who are just going about their business in a perfectly appropriate way.

Last week France waded into this dangerous territory, too, though this time it’s even more of a farce. From now on, in France, if you tell your husband in the middle of an argument, “You’re a lazy good-for-nothing!” you could be arrested. Psychological violence in marriage has been outlawed.

Research, you see, has shown that name-calling is just as psychologically harmful to people as physical abuse. I agree wholeheartedly. But here’s the rub: just because it’s harmful doesn’t mean that we should make a law about it. How do you identify what is “psychological violence” and what is just a couple getting into too heated an argument?

Nevertheless, make repeated rude remarks about a spouse’s expanding waistline, and you could be hauled before a judge. Accuse them unfairly of having an affair, and you could be prosecuted, too.

Unfortunately, modern society believes that things like bad behaviour, inequality, unfairness, and poverty can actually be defeated if only we enact the right laws. Legislators have forgotten that many problems, as bad as they are, just don’t have easy solutions because human beings are awfully messy creatures. And I would rather trust a society run by common sense—where people say, “I’ll know abuse when I see it”—than one run by people who think they can force us all to act properly. You can’t. Laws aren’t the answer; reaching out to our neighbours, and forming a closer community so we can help those in trouble, probably does infinitely more good than any number of pieces of paper outlawing criticisms of one’s spouse’s housekeeping skills. Life will never be easy, and will never be fair. The sooner we realize that, the better.

UPDATE: I’m getting a lot of grief on Twitter and in email about this one, so let me make a few things clear. I never spanked my kids. We used time outs, and I didn’t think spanking was necessary. That being said, I know many good parents who have used it, and to call spanking abuse is, in my mind, ridiculous. I’m not trying to say that all parents should spank; after all, I didn’t. What I am saying is that IT ISN’T WRONG. And the criminalizing spanking movement needs to give it up, because in the countries where it has been implemented, rates of juvenile delinquency have increased as has child abuse.

Don’t spank your kids if you don’t want to. I didn’t! I’m just saying, “stop judging parents who do”. I know abuse when I see it, as do you, I’m sure. But the anti-spanking movement is really an anti-authoritarian movement. It seeks to undermine parental authority and family sanctity. And when parents are told they can’t discipline by spanking, they often stop disciplining altogether (which is also what has happened over the last few decades). Couple that with yesterday’s post about self-esteem, and you have a disaster waiting to happen.

My husband is a pediatrician, and he routinely advises against spanking in his office because too many parents do it in anger. But if you are controlled, and if you are careful, I really don’t think it does lasting harm; and, as this study shows, it can actually have lasting benefits. Personally, I preferred other ways, and there is research showing that spanking girls can backfire, while spanking boys can be necessary. We had girls, so spanking wasn’t an issue for us.

But blanket condemnation against spanking, and calling it “violence” and “abuse” is the problem that I was trying to get at in this column. If you call spanking abuse, then abuse loses its horror. I would so much rather have a child in a loving family that is spanked than a child who is never disciplined. To me, the latter is far more “abusive” than spanking. That said, I still chose not to spank. But I refuse to judge those who do, and in fact, in many cases, I think those parents were right.

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