Time for parents to disarm
An Ottawa child abuse expert says research shows physical punishment should be banned,
Should spanking become a relic of childhoods past, like helmetless bike rides, skin-blistering sunburns, free ranging in a car’s back seat, or being a breathless bystander to dad’s two-pack-a-day habit?
Child abuse expert Ron Ensom thinks so. He is anticipating the day when parents — at least 50 per cent of whom rely on a spank, swat or slap to keep their children in line — will lay down their arms.
He didn’t always believe “physical punishment” of children should be banned.
“It was so common, so ubiquitous, and I probably thought the same way other people did. ‘Hey, I know people who were spanked and they turned out OK.’”
But then he was called to intervene on “an almost daily basis” in incidents at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario.
“You know the shopping centre situation?” he asks. They happen all the time at children’s hospitals, too, says Ensom, who was the head of Child Protection Services. He’d get a call that he was “needed in the lobby.”
“I would go sprinting through the hospital like the folks with the recuss cart where somebody collapses on the floor.” But instead of reviving a patient, he’d try to diffuse a situation where a parent had struck a child.
Ensom was asked by CHEO to look more closely at the long-term consequences of spanking children.
His most recent review (with Joan Durrant of the University of Manitoba) of 20 years of research into the physical punishment of children garnered international media coverage, scorn and praise.
Andrea Mrozek, manager of research for the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada, said there is a difference between punishment and abuse, and parents know the difference.
The paper, published last month in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, found that physical punishment makes children more aggressive, as well as causing a host of other long-term negative consequences.
The authors said the federal government should remove Section 43 from the Criminal Code that allows physical punishment in certain circumstances. They also called on physicians to counsel parents on discipline that doesn’t involve striking a child.
This report has fuelled a heated international debate on how parents should “punish” their children.
More than 30 million viewers have watched an angry, gun-toting father rant on Youtube about his bratty daughter before shooting her laptop eight times, apparently prompting a visit from police and child-protection authorities. He has been celebrated for his tough-love parenting.
In England, a politician recently blamed last summer’s riots on an anti-spanking law, which he said left parents “no longer sovereign in their own homes.” The member of Parliament for the riot-hit Tottenham area said working-class parents should be able to physically discipline their children to prevent them from joining gangs.
Meanwhile, a Chinese parent who makes Tiger Mom Amy Chua look like Mary Poppins has become a bestselling author for detailing his beatings of his children. Xiao Baiyou, who calls himself “Wolf Dad,” boasts in Beat Them into Peking University about hitting his four children with a feather duster whenever they contravened his elaborate rules. It apparently worked. Three of his children attend Beijing University, among the world’s most competitive.
In Canada, the issue of spanking remains mostly behind closed doors until a parent goes too far, such as the Edmonton man who last month was handed a 90-day jail term for spanking his stepdaughter with “considerable force” that caused bruising and “considerable pain.”
Many parents will admit they use an infrequent smack, usually on the bottom, to discourage an unruly toddler from defiant or dangerous behaviour, such as dashing off into the street or sticking her finger in an electrical socket. For others, spanking is a favourite discipline tool.
A 2009 Babycenter survey found that of 1,300 moms questioned, “81 per cent were spanked as kids, but only 49 per cent of them choose to swat their own kids.” In a 2005 study of mothers of preschoolers in Manitoba and Ontario, 70 per cent reported having used physical punishment and one-third did so at least once a week.
Ensom believes parents would seek out other discipline methods if they understood what his and Durrant’s review of almost 80 well-designed studies found in children who were physically punished: Aggression, depression, feelings of hopelessness, anxiety, drug and alcohol use and “general psychological maladjustment.” And as children who were spanked become adults, they are more likely to become aggressive themselves because they have witnessed adults solving problems aggressively.
Ensom and Durrant wrote, “… virtually without exception, these studies found that physical punishment was associated with higher levels of aggression against parents, siblings, peers, and spouses.”
While these researchers approach the issue from a child welfare perspective, those at the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada (IMFC), established by the Christian right organization Focus on the Family Canada, fear an erosion of parental rights.
Andrea Mrozek, manager of research for the IMFC, said there is a difference between punishment and abuse, and parents know the difference.
“One on the bottom isn’t a bad thing. I think the research bears that out. So why on earth would we have the federal laws of this country come in and tell parents how to discipline their children?”
The IMFC, which has fought decriminalizing spanking, relies heavily on the research of psychologist Robert Larzelere, of Oklahoma State University.
In a recent literature review he found “non-abusive” spanking — defined as two open-handed swats to the buttocks when the parent isn’t angry or out of control — has “mostly beneficial” outcomes for children up to six years old, but “mostly detrimental” outcomes for children seven years and older.
Larzelere has also found that “conditional spanking” led to better child outcomes than 10 of 13 disciplinary tactics for two to six-year-old children.
“Non-abusive spanking,” when used to enforce milder disciplinary tactics in defiant children, was found by Larzelere to be “optimal.” Only “time outs” reduced defiance as effectively as “conditional spanking.”
In a review of 38 studies of physical punishment on children (excluding studies of abusive punishment) conducted between 1995 and 2000, Larzelere found 32 per cent of studies showed a beneficial effect, 34 per cent showed a detrimental effect, and 34 per cent showed a mixed effect.
Ensom accuses the IMFC of selectively referring to a few poorly designed studies to try to “discredit the substantial body of solid research that reveals physical punishment poses negative lifetime consequences for children.”
While the IMFC points out that parents know the difference between spanking and child abuse, Ensom says that isn’t the issue. “Of course they do,” he says. “But the key point gets lost with this misleading use of language. Abuse is obviously harmful to children and we now know that physical punishment is harmful too.”
And while there is a difference, Ensom says most physical abuse is punishment that escalated, so why continue to allow physical punishment in a parent’s tool box?
The Canadian Incidence Study of Reported Child Abuse and Neglect (1998) has shown that 75 per cent of substantiated physical abuse of children occurred during episodes of physical punishment.
Another Canadian study (2000) found that children who were spanked were seven times more likely to be severely assaulted by their parents (such as being punched or kicked) than children who were not spanked.
“If you work back from the harm, you can’t distinguish between classic physical abuse, where the parent smacks the child so hard that he fractures her arm, and when he smacks the child every day or two hard enough to feel pain and they think they are teaching her a lesson. The results are the same,” says Ensom.
He says teaching parents better methods of discipline doesn’t strip them of their rights. (He points to a paper on CHEO’S website by Durrant entitled “Positive Discipline,” as an example).
The Ensom and Durrant report calls on physicians to become a voice of reason and instruction for parents, by educating them about the stages of normal child development, recommending alternative ways to discipline and referring interested parents to appropriate resources and parenting classes.
Ensom also points out that when parents get help to stop physically punishing their kids, studies show their children’s behaviour improves. This suggests not only a cause-andeffect relationship between parents’ use of physical punishment and negative behaviours in kids, but also that when parents stop using this form of discipline, children’s behaviours improve.
Parents, Ensom says, would never willingly cause long-term harm to their children. “And so it was with the unforeseen consequences of second-hand smoke and UV, until research helped us set aside our assumptions.
“There is no longer a debate. It’s research wrapped up in common sense.”