A disturbing situation kept arising at Children’s Mercy Hospital and its clinics. Youngsters, usually while waiting for appointments, were being hit by their parents and caregivers.
Sometimes once. Sometimes repeatedly.
“We felt we needed to do something,” said Amy Terreros, pediatric nurse practitioner in Children Mercy’s child abuse and neglect division.
Tension can skyrocket for patients and parents at the hospital. People are weary, tense and sometimes in pain. Parents feel they need to spank.
Understandable, perhaps, Terreros said, but no less disturbing in a place focused on healing and safety, particularly for children who are ill or hurt.
“They are already stressed when they’re here,” Terreros said. “They don’t need to witness another child being hit.”
The hospital earlier this year initiated a No Hit Zone program, with signs and brochures explaining the policy and offering ways other than spanking for caregivers to correct children and keep them from acting up.
For years, many child development experts have urged parents to refrain from spanking children. They offer a variety of reasons, calling it ineffective discipline that too easily escalates into abuse.
Yet an overwhelming majority of parents continue to say occasional spanking for discipline is acceptable.
The case of Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson brought the always impassioned debate to the fore. With claims of regional and racial differences about corporal punishment mixed in, the conversation has grow even more heated.
On Wednesday, the Vikings placed Peterson, who is in the fourth year of a seven-year, $100 million contract, on the NFL’s exempt list. That bars him from team activities while a child abuse case against him is pending.
Peterson was charged with reckless or negligent injury to a child, stemming from the whipping of his 4-year-old son that reportedly resulted in wounds and bruises.
“I saw those photos with the marks and bruises,” Terreros said, “and that’s the majority of the kids I see in my (child abuse) clinic.”
Spanking that doesn’t injure or leave marks is not considered abuse. But Terreros said it was time, especially at the hospital, to set a standard against all hitting.
“How is that a respectful way to treat your children?” Terreros said. “It’s not OK to hit another adult, but somehow children are looked at as our property, and that’s wrong.”
In a Harris poll last year, 81 percent of parents said spanking is sometimes appropriate, a result not much different from a similar poll in 1995, when 87 percent said the same.
Asked if they spanked their children, two-thirds said they had. In 1995, it was four out of five.
Jerry Wyckoff, an area psychologist and author with Barbara Unell of “Discipline Without Shouting or Spanking,” said it disturbs him that the tide hasn’t turned against parents striking children in the U.S.
“If I hit my wife, I would be arrested,” he said. “If I hit my child, I could get praised by other parents. That doesn’t make any sense to me.”
Wyckoff is encouraged that parents are pursuing other discipline methods, although they sometimes still resort to spanking.
The book, which advocates a teaching method that focuses on consequences rather than spanking, has sold more than 1 million copies and has been translated into several languages.
Wyckoff has spoken in countries such as New Zealand that don’t allow spanking in the home. Thirty-eight other nations similarly ban corporal punishment.
To Wyckoff, the often heard comment of “that’s how I was raised” about the Peterson case — affirming the practice of spanking, although not of abuse — is unacceptable.
“I hope Adrian finds another way to deal with the discipline issue because his 4-year-old does not need to be hit,” Wyckoff said. “None of us needs to be hit.”
Deborah Sendek, program director for the Center for Effective Discipline, said science backs up child advocates who want spanking to stop.
“What we find is that children who are hit tend to be more aggressive,” Sendek said.
The finding crosses all ethnic groups, even for children who might have been more aggressive anyway, she said.
But others find such studies flawed.
Parenting author John Rosemond said the most reliable spanking research has been done by Robert Larzelere and Diana Baumrind, and it finds no evidence that spanking is psychologically damaging to children.
Further, he said, the research shows that children spanked “occasionally and moderately by loving parents” score higher on scales of well-being than children who weren’t spanked.
Rosemond doesn’t advocate spanking, he said, but he doesn’t oppose it on scientific grounds. And he laments that many parents who spank don’t do it appropriately.
Some cite the Bible in their use of switches and belts, but their interpretation of the “rod” in Scripture is wrong, he said.
“A parent will say, ‘I spank him every time he does this,’” Rosemond said. “My response is, ‘You don’t get it. Obviously the spanking is not working.’”
Anti-spanking advocates are lined up against an equally ardent contingent who see benefits in “controlled” corporal punishment.
The socially conservative Focus on the Family recommends spanking only for “specific, purposeful misbehavior,” never to be done in anger. Spanking works best, according to the organization, for children ages 2 to 6.
Sendek counters that courts and child abuse clinics know that violent beatings often begin with corporal punishment. And common sense says that kids who see adults react to situations with physical violence are more likely to do the same, she said.
In a University of Wisconsin study, she said, 30 percent of the parents said they had hit their children younger than age 1.
“Scary, and that’s a survey of self-reporting parents, so chances are the number is higher than that,” she said.
No Hit Zones have sprung up in hospitals and are being considered by authorities at government buildings and libraries. The program at Children’s Mercy is a collaboration with Gundersen Health System’s National Child Protection Training Center. The Center for Effective Discipline is part of Gundersen.
At Children’s Mercy, Terreros said the 31 No Hit Zone wall signs aren’t meant to be negative or punitive, but part of a broader approach to help parents. The hospital offers free sessions called CARE Workshops — Child-Adult Relationship Enhancement.
The No Hit Zone signs and brochures help defuse situations when emotions run high, she said.
“Our staff knows that if they hear things escalate in families, they can go to them and offer support.”
The Harris poll in 2013 found 86 percent of Southern parents most likely to consider spanking as sometimes appropriate. In the Midwest, it was 83 percent, while on both coasts it was about 75 percent.
Former NBA star Charles Barkley further lit up the debate on “The NFL Today” show on CBS by saying, “Whipping — we do that all the time. … Every black parent in the South is going to be in jail under those circumstances.”
If Barkley’s statement shocked, it rang true for Stacey Patton, an African-American journalist and child advocate.
“I’m not surprised at the support for Peterson, particularly in the African-American community,” Patton said, “because whipping children is ingrained in our culture.”
But that doesn’t make it right, said Patton, who launched Spare the Kids Inc. and sparethekids.com to offer alternatives to black families.
“Charles Barkley says this is something we do, but I would like people to stop and ask, ‘Why do we do it?’ ” she said.
Patton suffered abuse from her adoptive parents, which she wrote about in her memoir, “That Mean Old Yesterday.” She researched issues of black childhood in graduate school.
The notion that African-American children needed to be “toughened up” goes back to the days of slavery and the Jim Crow South, she said.
But such thinking should be rejected, Patton said, along with other cultural rationales and the cover of Bible verses, which she considers excuses for lazy parenting.
Patton said she hears black people say, “I was whipped and I turned out OK.”
“But I say the fact that you make that statement is a sign you didn’t turn out OK,” she said. “You grew up to be a person who thinks it’s OK to assault children.”