Sandy Adams, a mother of three in Acworth, Ga., had run out of energy and patience. After a long Saturday running errands with her kids -- ages 10 months, 4 and 8 -- she pulled into the mall parking lot for her last stop of the day.
"We were all hungry and cranky, myself included," Ms. Adams recalls. As she turned to unbuckle her 4-year-old's seat belt, he looked her straight in the eye, shook up the can of Coke he was holding and sprayed her right in the face.
"It was not an accident," Ms. Adams recalls. "He knew perfectly well what happens when you shake a can of soda, yet he did it anyway.
"I knew that if I said, 'Now, honey, you shouldn't have done that,' or took away a privilege like watching TV, it wouldn't convince him that what he'd done was wrong," she says. "So I gave him two swats on the behind. He got the message."
In recent years, child-rearing experts have condemned spanking as ineffective or even abusive. More and more states have issued bans on corporal punishment in the classroom.
Nevertheless, while it may be politically incorrect to admit that you spank your child, most parents never abandoned the practice.
Murray Straus, director of the Family Research Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, has studied the effects of spanking on children for more than 25 years, and claims that almost all American toddlers are hit by their parents. About one-third were first hit when they were infants, he says, and one in five are hit until they leave home.
In a 1995 study of 204 mothers of toddlers conducted by Dr. Rebecca Socolar, a pediatrician at the University of North Carolina Medical School in Chapel Hill, 74 percent believed spanking was appropriate discipline for youngsters 1 to 3 years of age. Most spankers used a few quick swats on the behind, but 57 percent used a brush, belt or other object. Four percent spanked hard enough to leave marks.
Though the American Academy of Pediatrics has called for a ban on corporal punishment in schools, it has avoided a similar statement against parental spanking at home.
An AAP spokesman adds, however, that the academy "strongly opposes spanking a child and urges parents to find alternatives to physical punishment."
Many experts believe there's no need to spank children -- ever.
"If spanking really worked, then parents wouldn't have to do it routinely," says Irwin Hyman, a psychologist at Temple University in Philadelphia. "Spanking is humiliating, demeaning and, I believe, a low-level form of abuse."
Needless to say, parents who spank resent being lumped together with child abusers.
"There is a huge difference," says Melanie Rodriguez, mother of a 4-year-old son and a 1-year-old daughter in Manassas, Va. "I was spanked severely with belts and tree branches when I was a child, so I know. And I don't spank my kids like that. But a swat works when nothing else does, and until my son is old enough to reason with, I'll continue to spank him. How else will he learn?"
Of course, many experts would question exactly what Ms. Rodriguez's son is learning.
"One of the lessons a child learns from spanking is that it's OK for big people to beat up little people and that you can get what you want by hitting," Straus says.
His studies indicate that, when toddlers are hit regularly, some become more impulsive and aggressive, while others become withdrawn, passive and afraid to explore their environment. Older children are at greater risk for low self-esteem, anti-social conduct and, later on, depression, alcoholism and violent behavior.
There are five arguments frequently cited to justify spanking, but the experts cite alternatives in every case.
Nothing else works.
"Toddlers can be mercurial and are notoriously difficult to deal with," Straus says. "Having to repeat something over and over again comes with the territory."
With older children, say ages 4 and up, time-out works best, as long as you warn your child ahead of time and then stick to what you said you'd do. If your child continues to ignore or defy you, send her to a designated spot for one or two minutes per year of age.
For an older child who flies into a rage, refuses to do what you ask or utters the threat "Try and make me," calmly try to figure out what's making him so angry. Without lecturing or threatening, work to defuse hostility so he can better cope with whatever is frustrating him.
If a child tries to hit or bite you, Hyman suggests grasping him from behind by the wrists and forearms so his arms are crossed and locked. Say, "I won't let you bite me or anyone else. If you do, I'll hold you in place for one minute."
I was spanked, and it taught me to respect my parents.
Spanking doesn't teach respect or even good behavior, Hyman says.
"If a child gets a spanking for misbehavior," he says, "chances are he'll learn to be craftier and work harder at not getting caught next time."
Instead of administering a spanking to show a child who's boss, step back and ask yourself: "What's going on here? Is there a reason she's acting like this?"
If you realize a 2-year-old can't understand what you mean when you say, "Pick up those crayons," you'll be better able to make a game out of doing it together.
Let an older child suffer the natural consequences of his actions: If he leaves his Rollerblades out in the rain, for example, don't buy him new ones.
He hit somebody, so I want him to know what it feels like.
"There's no logic to this argument," Straus says. "You also want him to know that touching a hot stove can burn, but would you put his hand in an open flame?"
Instead, make it clear to your kids that hitting is something that's never allowed. If it occurs, tell the hitter to apologize, then give her a time-out or withdraw a privilege. If necessary, move kids to separate rooms and don't allow them to play together until they can do so nicely.
Use positive strategies whenever possible: Be sure to let your children know that you notice when they do listen and play well together.
I spank only when it's a question of safety.
"My 3-year-old kept climbing up on the kitchen counter and grabbing the bottle of antibiotics," recalls Christy Bartels, a mother of two in Phoenix. "I told her over and over again that she was going to get a spanking if she continued. Finally I just put her across my knee. That time, she listened."
Instead of spanking, emphasize prevention. A childproofed house lessens the likelihood of accidents. Regular lectures on how to cross a street will give kids the safety knowledge they'll need when you're not there to hold them back.
Sometimes I just lose it.
Even parents who hate the idea of spanking admit there are times when they simply can't think of anything else to do.
If this is a problem for you, make a point of taking breaks to calm yourself during the day so that your patience and stamina aren't depleted. Don't even attempt potentially combustible interactions such as taking hungry or tired children with you when you go to the supermarket.