The first time Donna Maria Coles Johnson spanked her daughter, they both cried. Johnson remembers that afternoon two years ago as if it were yesterday. They had just come home from church, and Vanessa, then 2, refused to take off her dress before nap time. "She gave me this look like she was the mother," Johnson, 43, recalls. "I'm fast-forwarding 16 years in my mind, hearing her say, 'Well, I'm taking the car anyway.'" Without a word, Johnson picked Vanessa up, took her into the bathroom and gave her six slaps on the thigh. After explaining the reason for the spanking, Johnson consoled her little girl. But that night, with Vanessa's leg still pink, Johnson broke down in tears. "I knew I was responsible for training her to deal with authority, but I also knew my child was hurting."
Few parenting topics inflame emotions the way spanking does. Parents who do it argue that occasional spanking is an important disciplinary tool. Parents who don't do it say hitting a child teaches that violence is O.K. On playgrounds and in mommy groups, parents eye each other warily. New York City mom Mila Tuttle, who doesn't spank her 2-year-old, recalls seeing a child hit his mother at a café and the mother swatting back, telling him "Don't do that--it's disrespectful." A man at the next table stood up and started screaming that the woman was a child abuser. "It was shocking," Tuttle says. "I think you can spank and still be a good parent."
Can you? A slim majority of Americans seem to think so: according to a 2002 Public Agenda poll, 57% of parents acknowledge spanking their kids. Psychologists and other academics are similarly divided, with each camp accusing the other of twisting data to suit an agenda. Opponents say corporal punishment can lead to aggression, poor mental health, even sadomasochistic tendencies and criminal behavior. Sally Moon, 42, a stay-at-home mother in Portland, Maine, agrees. Even when her daughter Teagan, 2, bites, Moon puts her in time-out and reasons with her. Says Moon: "I strongly believe children shouldn't be hit for any reason."
Neither the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) nor the American Psychological Association (APA) has come out fully against the practice. In 1998 the former issued a statement that said, in part, "Spanking is only effective when used in selective, infrequent situations." An APA statement permits similar wiggle room: "There is difference of opinion within the psychology community about spanking. But there is general concern that if and when spanking might lead to more severe forms of corporal punishment, parents should avoid [it]."
Plenty of experts believe that spanking is not always wrong. John Rosemond, executive director of the Center for Affirmative Parenting in Gastonia, N.C., and author of several books on discipline, notes that 50 years ago almost all children were spanked. Yet by all accounts, children are more aggressive and prone to violence today, and at earlier ages, than they were back then. Rosemond isn't advising parents to break out the whip. He simply points out that existing research on spanking is unpersuasive. "There is no evidence gathered by anyone who doesn't have an ideological ax to grind that suggests spanking per se is psychologically harmful," he says.