Spank­ing hurts us all

The ev­i­dence is over­whelm­ing: Phys­i­cally pun­ish­ing chil­dren does last­ing harm, Ge­orge W. Holden says

The Dallas Morning News - - Viewpoints - Ge­orge W. Holden is a pro­fes­sor of psy­chol­ogy at South­ern Methodist Univer­sity and pres­i­dent of the U.S. Al­liance to End the Hit­ting of Chil­dren. He wrote this col­umn for The Dal­las Morn­ing News.

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.

Dean Rohrer/

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