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Nation’s pediatricians strengthen their stand against spanking

Fortunately, corporal punishment is losing favor among parents in the United States.

young family
Dr. Robert Sege: “Young parents … are much less likely to believe in spanking or to use spanking than prior generations. And this cuts across racial and ethnic groups in the United States.”
Photo by Pablo Merchán Montes on Unsplash

For the past two decades, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has recommended that parents be “encouraged” to use methods other than spanking to discipline their children.

This week, the organization, which represents about 67,000 pediatricians across the United States, issued an updated policy statement that takes a much stronger stand on spanking: The group now states unequivocally that parents should not use spanking or any other form of corporal punishment  — defined as “noninjurious, open-handed hitting with the intention of modifying child behavior” — on their children.

The pediatricians also warn parents to avoid verbal abuse — language that “belittles, humiliates, denigrates, scapegoats, threatens, scares, or ridicules the child.”

“Aversive disciplinary strategies, including all forms of corporal punishment and yelling at or shaming children, are minimally effective in the short-term and not effective in the long-term,” the AAP’s new policy explains.

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“Researchers link corporal punishment to an increased risk of negative behavioral, cognitive, psychosocial, and emotional outcomes for children,” it adds.

Those harms — including a greater risk of depression — can occur even when “warm” parenting practices are used along with the corporal punishment, the pediatricians also warn.

‘A generational shift’

Fortunately, corporal punishment is losing favor among parents in the United States, as Dr. Robert Sege, the first author of the AAP’s new policy statement and a pediatrician at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, pointed out in a press conference on Monday.

“There’s been a generational shift in belief about spanking,” he said. “Young parents … are much less likely to believe in spanking or to use spanking than prior generations. And this cuts across racial and ethnic groups in the United States.”

Some parents may believe that their families and community expect them to spank their children, he added, “but by and large, the majority of American parents don’t spank their children, don’t want to, and, if they do, they feel bad about it.”

Still, corporal punishment remains surprisingly popular among Americans in general. A 2013 Harris poll found that 70 percent of U.S. adults support the statement that “good, hard spanking is sometimes necessary to discipline a child.”

What the research says

The evidence overwhelmingly suggests otherwise, however. Indeed, study after study has shown that physical punishment is not only ineffective at improving children’s behavior, but makes them more likely to defy their parents.

A small 2014 study that recorded families’ use of corporal punishment found, for example, that the effects of such discipline tended to be quite short-lived. Within 10 minutes of being punished, almost three-quarters (73 percent) of the children in the study were behaving in the same manner for which they had been punished.

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Another study, which followed about 5,000 children from the age of 3 to 9, found that those who were spanked at an early age tended to exhibit more aggressive behavior, including at school, than those who weren’t spanked. The children who received corporal punishment were also at greater risk of developing mental health disorders and cognitive problems.

“There appears there may be a vicious cycle that when children are spanked, they become more aggressive and have more misbehavior, and then they get spanked more,” said Sege.

“You get into a cycle that’s really unfortunate for both the children and the parent,” he added.

Other studies have found a troubling association between corporal punishment and physiological changes in the brain. Two studies have reported, for example, that young adults who experienced prolonged and repeated exposure to corporal punishment or verbal abuse as children have less gray matter in the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain that’s responsible for self-regulation (among other things).

“This information is consistent with other studies of the development of children’s brains and suggests that spanking can have long-lasting effects on kids,” said Sege.

Healthy methods of discipline

Sege and his pediatrician colleagues are not saying that parents shouldn’t discipline their children, but they want parents — and all other adults caring for children — to know that there are plenty of healthy, evidence-based forms of discipline at their disposal, “such as positive reinforcement of appropriate behaviors, setting limits, redirecting, and setting future expectations.”

“The purpose of discipline is to teach children good behavior and support normal child development,” writes Sege in an article about the updated policy for AAP’s members. “Effective discipline does so without the use of corporal punishment or verbal shaming.”

FMI: You can read the full updated AAP policy statement in the December issue of the journal Pediatrics. The AAP also offers detailed tips for parents on the best ways to help children, from infancy through adolescence, learn acceptable behavior on its  HealthyChildren website.