A "News" Story in The Wall Street Journal

By Chris Dugan (comments in boldface).   Revised September 2007.

Wall Street Journal, June 9, 2000

Tired of Spoiling the Child, Parents Stop Sparing the Rod;
Dr. Dobson vs. Dr. Spock

By Daniel Costello
Staff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal

 The Wall Street Journal is notoriously biased in favor of spanking.  This article is an excellent example of their bias, and shoddy journalism.  As we shall soon see, this "news" story contains no actual "news" at all, including no evidence that spanking is making any sort of a "comeback" from earlier levels of prevalence.

More than five decades after Dr. Spock sent corporal punishment to the woodshed,

 In fact, Benjamin Spock did not come out explicitly in opposition to all forms of corporal punishment of children until 1988, just a few years before he died.

spanking is making a comeback. A growing number of parents -- many of whom were never spanked themselves -- are shunning  the experts, defying disapproving friends and neighbors, and giving their kids a slap on the bottom, the hand or the leg.

 What evidence is presented for this sweeping claim?  Read on:

Web sites popular with parents, such as iVillage.com and Oxygen.com, are filled with chat-room buzz from pro-spankers.

 "Chat-room buzz" from spanking fetishists is more like it.  This is the "evidence" upon which this writer bases his claim about spanking making a "comeback."

Just last year, both Okalahoma and Nevada passed laws explicitly giving parents the right to spank their children.

 Acts of these two state legislatures do not constitute evidence of a greater use of spanking by parents.  There is no logical connection between this "evidence" and the author's claim that parents are spanking more.

Even House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt last year admitted that he has spanked his three kids, noting that his mother disciplined him with a switch -- and he turned out fine.

 Anecdotal testimonials by politicians about their personal lives of decades ago do not constitute evidence that spanking is making a comeback in the presentday population as a whole.  The author, Costello, has not presented a single scrap of evidence that the "news" about an increase in spanking actually exists outside his own mind.

So why the return to tough love?

 So after making a claim based on no actual evidence whatsoever, Costello then proceeds as if this alleged "comeback" of spanking were a news item rather than merely a bit of wishful thinking on his own part.

Other methods simply don't work, frustrated parents say.

 "Frustrated parents" turns out to be a single carefully-selected individual, quoted because she uttered the sort of statement the author needed to use at this point in the article:

Sondra Thompson, a stay-at-home mother of six in Corsicana, Texas, turned to spanking after bombing with such gentler tactics as "time-outs" and stern lectures. ..... "I hear people who talk about how awful spanking is," says Ms. Thompson. "Their kids are usually maniacs."   In a recent Harris poll, nearly 70% of respondents said they think young adults and children don't have as much discipline as they need.

 "Discipline" does not necessarily mean "spanking."  And even if it did, Costello would need to show that this figure has risen in the recent past.  This is the sort of evidence he would need if he were seriously writing a news story rather than a propaganda piece thinly disguised as a news story.

Meanwhile, with communities everywhere struggling to explain school shootings and other teen crime, many are blaming lax parental control.

 Still no evidence that parents are spanking more now, due to school shootings or for any other reason.

While there are no definitive studies of how many parents spank,

 Yes there are, dating back at least as far as Sears, MacCoby and Levin (1957).  The "problem" is that if the author of this "news" item actually acknowledged the existence of prevalence studies on spanking he would have to note that they show a long term trend away from its use. This is exactly the opposite of the spin he seeks to put on this "news story."  So instead Costello pretends that half a century of research doesn't exist.

many pediatricians, psychologists and researchers say the numbers are on the rise.

 Argument from Authority - a classic invalid line of debate.  Where are the actual "numbers" referred to here?  The author doesn't even name any of the "pediatricians, psychologists and researchers" who supposedly claim that the unidentified "numbers" are on the rise.  This is nothing but empty fluff.

Kevin Ryan, director of the Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character Development at Boston University, says parents are starting to reject the politically correct notion that children are too fragile to spank.

 Again, someone's opinion.  No actual numbers.

The notion took hold after World War II as Benjamin Spock, the influential paediatrician, began warning that corporal punishment can traumatize children and trigger more aggressive behavior.

As previously mentioned, Benjamin Spock did not take a clear stand against all forms of spanking until 1988.

..... Some critics have even equated spanking with out-and-out abuse.  Nonsense, says Judy Ussery of Savannah, Ga., who has tried -- and failed --  with everything from confiscating favorite toys to outright bribes. Although  Ms. Ussery was never spanked as a child, she says her kids are a whole lot  worse than she was: "I got the child my mother wished on me."

 In response to an earlier version of this page, Judy Ussery, the mother quoted in the passage above, contacted me via email to set the record straight.  In her email she states, "the quote used was taken out of an entire conversation, and the actual quote in the Wall Street Journal was not accurate and taken out of context" (Ussery, 2007). 

 In fact, Ussery reveals, she was spanked as a child, contrary to the Wall Street Journal's assertion to the contrary.  Also, she and her husband successfully used a wide variety of discipline techniques with their two now-grown children and she rejects the Wall Street Journal's claim that every other discipline approach they tried "failed" except spanking.  Ussery explains, "Our discipline through the years has consisted of enforcing time-out, confiscating the offending object that caused the misbehavior, positive reinforcement of appropriate actions, restricting activities, an occasional spanking, and yes bribes of a special treat or activity (never money) if they continued to behave a certain way. We even tried using a reward chart where certain behaviors and 'chores' (such as picking up toys, putting their dirty clothes in the hamper, and making beds, among only a few) were rewarded with a mark or a star and upon the completion of a period of time, they would earn a special treat or activity, a trip to the ice cream parlor or a visit to the beach. Methods of discipline had to change often because each one would loose effectiveness over time. The older they got the more tailored the discipline became."  She adds, "In fact, spanking was never the first method of discipline used and especially was not used when they were small toddlers. I do not believe that young children can discern or control their behavior, nor can they understand our reaction to it." 

 Ussery concludes, "as for the final comment I was quoted as saying that 'I got the child my mother wished on me.' It was said in jest while talking in generalities and specifically referred to having a child that was exactly like me."  Despite having been spanked herself as a child, Judy Ussery, in her words, "wasn't always a piece of cake to raise."

Emerging Research

 As we shall soon see, the author cites not one piece of "emerging research" which supports his position:

 While academic thinking on the subject has long been dominated by Dr. Spock's  point of view, an emerging body of research suggests that spanking might not be such a bad thing after all. In one decade-long study, Diana Baumrind of the  University of California-Berkeley found that parents who combined positive encouragement and a reasonable level of discipline -- including spanking -- had  the best outcomes, as defined by rough measures of self-worth and personal achievement.

 What the author does not mention is that all the subgroups in Baumrind's research included parents who spanked.  Hence, it was inevitable that whichever subgroup had the best results would "include spanking."  This proves nothing.

 Baumrind is a respected researcher.  However, at the time this article appeared, none of her research had actually looked at spanking per se.  (Baumrind's later (2001) study found that spanked children had poorer long term outcomes than unspanked children.  When she removed from her "spanked" group any child whose parents had ever spanked them with an object of any kind or abusively hard the remaining "spanked" group still had poorer long term outcomes but the results weren't statistically significant at the small sample sizes she used.)

Robert Schwebel, a psychologist who hosts a popular parenting discussion group on iVillage.com, says about one-third of the people on his site openly support spanking, up considerably since the site began four years ago.

 Posts on a web-based discussion forum are an example of "emerging research?"  Is this a joke?

  Christen Goertel, a Stamford, Conn., mother, faced the "to spank or not to spank" dilemma at a recent community picnic. Her three youngsters wouldn't sit still, a playful game of tag got out of hand .... For a moment, Mrs. Goertel says she was definitely tempted to spank the kids -- but something stopped her.

 The reason: The picnic was in honor of National Spank Out Day, an antispanking program sponsored by a non-profit group. "Oh, we spank," Mrs. Goertel confesses, taking a pause from corralling her children during the picnic. "We just came to get out of the house."

 Is this anecdote about Mrs. Goertel taking her children to a picnic supposed to be still more "emerging research?"

 This "news" item is an insult to the intelligence of readers of the Wall Street Journal.

 For decades, articles have periodically appeared in the popular press claiming that: 

a) parents gave up spanking
b) parents realized that the results were disasterous, and 
c) spanking is now "making a comeback," just in the nick of time. 
 It is a time-honored propaganda formula: don't tell people what they should do what you want them to do - tell them they are already doing it - in large and ever-increasing numbers.

 The Wall Street Journal has long been a prestigious news source when it comes to financial reporting.  But on the spanking issue, they have long behaved like a yellow tabloid even before Rupert Murdoch acquired the paper.  I once made the mistake of agreeing to appear as an invited guest on the Wall Street Journal's radio show.    It was an ambush.  The hostess would make a standard prospank argument, one that I had easily refuted numerous times on alt.parenting.spanking and elsewhere.  No sooner would I begin to explain why the argument failed then the hostess would cut in (using an electronic set up which completely cut off my voice as soon as the hostess spoke) and change the subject to yet another standard prospank argument I had heard scores of times before and could easily refute if given the chance.  But no sooner would I begin responding to that argument than the same process would repeat itself.  This cycle continued for about half a dozen turns until the hostess finished the list of standard talking points on her cue card, and then disconnected me without a word, all the while continuing to speak over the air as if to me.  They were getting in a very long "last word" with no danger of any rebuttal from me, since they hung up on me as soon as I had served their purposes.  To the listening audience, it appeared as if I had been struck dumb and speechless by the sheer overwhelming rhetorical power of the stale cliche arguments the hostess was reading off her list of talking points. 

 The purpose of that radio program was to promote spanking under the pretext of "discussing" it, just as this current article's purpose is to promote spanking under the pretext of a faux "news" story. 


  Baumrind, D. and Owens, E.  2001.   "Does Causally Relevant Research Support A Blanket Injunction Against Disciplinary    Spanking By Parents?"  Paper presented to the Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, August 24, 2001.

  Sears, R.R.; MacCoby, E. & Levin, H.  1957. Patterns of Child Rearing. White Plains, NY: Row, Peterson and Co.

  Ussery, J.  2007.  Personal communication.