Spanking hurts us all
The evidence is overwhelming: Physically punishing children does lasting harm, George W. Holden says
It was very encouraging to see that a major medical association, comprised of 67,000 pediatricians, has come out with a strong statement against physical (or corporal) punishment.
The American Academy of Pediatrics now joins dozens of other professional organizations and two mainline religious denominations (the United Methodist Church and the Presbyterian Church USA) with statements, policies or resolutions against parents or teachers hitting children.
The new position, which builds on an earlier one from 1994, reviews some of the evidence about the adverse effects of physical punishment, or any other disciplinary technique that shames or humiliates children. It calls on pediatricians to provide guidance to parents about how to use the most effective child-rearing practices. More broadly, it calls on pediatricians to act in the best interest of children by promoting this new policy in their offices, in their communities and even at the state level.
What is the problem with physical punishment (known as spanking, slapping, “whupping” or, in the school setting, paddling)? Lots. First, it doesn’t work, beyond a child immediately stopping the problematic behavior. It doesn’t work in the long term because children are often hit repeatedly for the same reason. Children actually get the wrong message from being spanked or slapped. And importantly, physical punishment brings unintended negative baggage.
The evidence about problems with spanking is amazingly uniform and convincing. There are well over 1,200 research studies on the topic. These studies included more than 160,000 children, from many diverse groups in the U.S. as well as from dozens of other countries. Children who are hit are likely to exhibit one or more problems.
These include aggression toward others, antisocial behavior, depression, anxiety, decreased cognitive performance, lower moral development and lower self-esteem. Children who are spanked are likely to develop negative parent-child relationships and are at heightened risk for physical child abuse. All of these negative outcomes linked to physical punishment have been replicated in multiple studies. The body of research has been described as “unequivocal” with the conclusion that the debate is over as to whether or not parents should spank their children.
If the research is so clear, why do parents keep spanking their children? There are many reasons, but I’ll give my top three:
■ Parenting is hard work and a spank is a quick and superficially effective way to get a child to stop doing something. Consequently, it is easy to fall into a habit of hitting. In a study using audio-recordings to document family interactions at home, I found that there was a lot of variability in mothers’ use of spanking or slapping. But among mothers who spanked or slapped their young children, it was used at a rate of 18 times a week.
■ It appears to parents that spanking does indeed work. Children, when hit, stop their “misbehavior” and start crying. But do children hear the message parents are giving? All too often, parents don’t think about discipline from the child’s perspective, or the fact that they may be spanking their children for the same misbehavior over and over.
■ Spanking is a deeply entrenched, time-honored disciplinary technique in our country (and many others). Most of our parents spanked us and for that reason, we think it is normal and appropriate to use. After all, we turned out OK, didn’t we?
Times change. At one time, only five or six generations ago, most people thought men had the right to hit their “disobedient” wives. Now that behavior is not tolerated and is, in fact, outlawed.
Why do we still allow adults to hit children? Think of the message the children are getting. Is it any wonder that violence permeates our culture?
How to get people to drop their reliance on physical punishment and change their disciplinary ways? A big step is having pediatricians speak out against physical punishment. That is why this new policy is so important. As president of the U.S. Alliance to End the Hitting of Children, I have also been working to educate parents about the problems linked to physical punishment and alternative ways to discipline children without hitting them.
It is time that Americans stop that outdated approach to child-rearing. Listen to your doctor.