Disciplining children is one of the key jobs of any parent – maybe the most important job a parent has. But whether or not that discipline should include spanking or other forms of corporal punishment is a far trickier issue. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), with over 60,000 members nationwide,does not endorse spanking for any reason, citing its lack of long-term effectiveness as a behavior-changing tactic. Instead the AAP supports strategies such as “time-outs,” praising good behavior, suffering consequences (both natural and logical), and removal of privileges, among other things.
Now, researchers at Tulane University provide some of the strongest evidence yet against the use of spanking: of the nearly 2,500 youngsters in their study, those who were spanked more frequently at age 3 were more likely to be aggressive by age 5. The research supports earlier work on corporal punishment, such as a study by Duke University researchers that revealed that infants who were spanked at 12 months scored lower on cognitive tests at age 3.
“There is now some nice hard data that can back up clinicians when they share their caution with parents against using corporal punishment,” says Dr. Jayne Singer, clinical director of the child and parent program at Children’s Hospital Boston, who was not involved in the study.
The Tulane study, led by Catherine Taylor, was the first to control simultaneously for variables that are most likely to confound the association between spanking and later aggressive behavior. The researchers accounted for factors such as acts of neglect by the mother, violence or aggression between the parents, maternal stress and depression, the mother’s use of alcohol and drugs, and even whether the mother considered abortion while pregnant with the child.
Each of these factors contributed to children’s aggressive behavior at age 5, but they could not explain all of the violent tendencies at that age. Further, the positive connection between spanking and aggression remained strong, even after these factors had been accounted for.
“The odds of a child being more aggressive at age 5 if he had been spanked more than twice in the month before the study began increased by 50%,” says Taylor. And because her group also accounted for varying levels of natural aggression in children, the researchers are confident that “it’s not just that children who are more aggressive are more likely to be spanked.”
What the study, published in the professional journal Pediatrics, shows is that outside of the most obvious factors that may influence violent behavior in children, spanking still remains a strong predictor. “This study controls for the most common risk factors that people tend to think of as being associated with aggression,” says Singer. “This adds more credence, more data, and more strength to the argument against using corporal punishment.
Among the mothers who were studied, nearly half (45.6%) reported no spanking in the previous month; 27.9% reported spanking once or twice; and 26.5% reported spanking more than twice. Compared with children who were not hit, those who were spanked were more likely to be defiant, demand immediate satisfaction of their wants and needs, get frustrated easily, have temper tantrums, and lash out physically against others.
The reason for that, says Singer, may be that spanking instills fear rather than understanding. Even if a child were to stop his screaming tantrum when spanked, that doesn’t mean he understands why he shouldn’t be acting out in the first place. What’s more, spanking models aggressive behavior as a solution to problems.
For children to understand what and why they have done something wrong, it may take repeated efforts on the parent’s part, using time-outs – a strategy that typically involves denying the child any attention, praise or interaction with parents for a specified period of time (that is, the parents ignore the child). These quiet times force children to calm down and learn to think about their emotions, rather than acting out on them blindly.
Now, I personally know from previous articles I’ve written on this subject that there are parents who believe very strongly and passionately in corporal punishment. Often they cite the Bible as a source for defending the practice. However, many ministers today are speaking out against that interpretation of scripture. To give an example, the Reverend Dr. Thomas E. Sagendorf, a United Methodist minister, says, “I can find no sanction in the teachings of Jesus or the witness of the New Testament to encourage the practice of corporal punishment. The attitude of Jesus toward children was wise, loving, and filled with compassion. Anyone who takes seriously Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount will immediately see that it’s inconceivable that Jesus of Nazareth–compassionate as he was toward the weak and powerless–would ever sanction or participate in violence toward children. It’s hard to conceive of Jesus hitting a child on any occasion or for any reason. Jesus was overwhelmingly committed to non-violent response. A number of voices, however, do take a different view, often quoting Old Testament scriptures to prove their point; but those who subscribe to this argument misunderstand and misuse scripture. A similar method of selective reading could just as well be used to justify slavery, suppression of women, polygamy, incest, and infanticide.”
I am well aware that some parents who condone corporal punishment will never be convinced by scientific research that it is not effective; and certainly that is their right. I am merely sharing this newest information, and you can do with it what you like. It is, indeed, true that spanking may stop a child from misbehaving in the short term; however, it becomes less and less effective with repeated use, according to the AAP. It also makes discipline more difficult as the child gets older and outgrows spanking. As the latest study shows, investing the time early on to teach a child why this behavior is wrong may translate to a youngster who is more self-aware and in control later on.