A Call to End Use of Spanking to Discipline Children

an Op-ed by Rush Russell, Executive Director of Prevent Child Abuse-New Jersey

During the past week, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued an updated policy statement calling on parents to end spanking as a form of discipline. The Academy is an organization of 67,000 pediatricians nationwide committed to the optimal physical, mental and social health and well-being for all infants, children, adolescents and young adults.

Although studies are finding that fewer parents are using spanking to discipline their child, a Harris poll in 2013 found that 70% of parents supported a statement that “a good hard spanking is sometimes necessary to discipline a child.”

While many parents believe spanking is a harmless or even effective form of discipline, the research is becoming overwhelmingly clear that spanking is not only ineffective, but that it increases the child’s risk for an array of alarming and destructive outcomes…ones any parent hopes to avoid in raising their children.  Parents will also say they were spanked … and “turned out all right”.  But again the research paints a different picture.

A few of the excerpts from this new report:

  • Young children who were spanked more than twice per month at age 3 were more aggressive at age 5.  A follow-up study of these children of children at age 9 found lower vocabulary scores of the children who were spanked. The study found that spankings also led to increases in child misbehavior and then more spankings, creating a cycle of interactions reinforcing child aggression.
  • Corporal punishment is associated with increased aggression preschool and school-aged children and increases the likelihood that children will be defiant and aggressive in the future.
  • Corporal punishment increases the risk for mental health and cognition problems.
  • Corporal punishment increases the risk that the child commits dating violence and domestic violence as an adult … a logical consequence of learning that violence is a way to deal with anger.
  • Use of spanking increases the risk of later suicide attempts, heavy drinking, and substance use disorders.
  • Parental verbal abuse and corporal punishment has been shown to change the brain anatomy, affecting a child’s IQ and learning abilities.

Defenders of spanking will say that “when delivered in a calm and loving manner, a moderate spanking can be effective to change a child’s behavior.  Unfortunately, research does not support the finding that spanking is effective.  And that is typically not when or how spanking happens.  Most parents use spanking out of frustration, when they are angry, and can’t get their child to behave the way they want.  They hit the child, knowing the child is defenseless, can’t fight back and will recoil in pain or cry, and temporally stop doing something.  However, the research confirms that it increases resentment and anger of a child towards a parent and frays the trust that is supposed to protect them, not hurt them. And when do parents typically stop spanking?  When their child is old enough and big enough to pose a threat that they might fight back.

If you are frustrated with a co-worker, do you reach out and swat them?  Of course not, since it would be a crime, but one with many other possible consequences as well.  But why is okay to hit children?  Because they are small and you can get away with it?   Is that the behavior you want to model for them as a way to deal with your own frustration?

Good news: Research does find fewer parents are now resorting to corporal punishment to discipline their children.  And more educational materials are widely available to educate parents about more positive and effective alternatives that work better. These include positive reinforcement for appropriate behaviors, setting limits, redirecting challenging behavior, setting future expectations and use of time outs and rewards.   Adapted to the situation and developmental age of the child, all of these have been shown to be more effective than spanking and avoid the longer term harm.

This new report from our nation’s doctors can hopefully accelerate that trend to end use of corporal punishment and help all parents learn there are more positive and effective strategies to shape a child’s behavior … and their futures.