Spanking, or, as it’s formally known, “corporal punishment,” has been much in the news of late.
Out on the presidential campaign trail there was Senator Ted Cruz’s revelation that: "If my daughter Catherine, the five-year-old, says something she knows to be false, she gets a spanking."
And recently, in Canada, following a call by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to prohibit spanking, the Liberal government has promised to abolish a parent’s right to physically discipline children. Along similar legal lines, in June 2015, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled that the state was justified in denying foster parenting privileges to a couple who practiced corporal punishment and supported spanking or paddling children. The couple in the case had argued, unsuccessfully, that physical discipline was an integral aspect of their Christian faith.
According to a recent Washington Post article: "America is slowly growing less supportive of spanking children. But a majority of Americans still support it."
So, is it okay to spank a misbehaving child, every once in a while?
By way of personal disclosure, my wife and I don’t have children, and I try not to sit in lofty judgment of couples whose kids present very difficult behavioral problems. But as a psychiatrist, I can’t ignore the overwhelming evidence that corporal punishment, including spanking (which is usually defined as hitting a child with an open hand without causing physical injury), takes a serious toll on the mental health of children.
Why parents spank children
In a review of corporal punishment in the United States, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Toledo Michelle Knox noted a striking irony in the American attitude toward corporal punishment: "In the United States, it is against the law to hit prisoners, criminals or other adults. Ironically, the only humans it is still legal to hit are the most vulnerable members of our society – those we are charged to protect – children."
Knox, like many mental health professionals, cites a strong correlation between corporal punishment and child abuse, noting that “…spanking is often the first step in the cycle of child abuse.”
What may begin as the parent’s well-intentioned wish to discipline a child often ends with the parent’s mounting anger and worsening blows.
It isn’t that the parent is “evil” by nature or is a “child abuser.” Often, the parent has been stressed to breaking point, and is not aware of alternative methods of discipline – for example, the use of “time-outs,” removal of privileges and positive reinforcement of the child’s appropriate behaviors.
Impact of spanking on children
The psychological toll on children subjected to corporal punishment is well-documented.
In 2011, the National Association of Pediatric Nurse Practitioners (NAPNA) issued a statement noting that: "Corporal punishment (CP) is an important risk factor for children developing a pattern of impulsive and antisocial behavior…[and] children who experience frequent CP… are more likely to engage in violent behaviors in adulthood."
Similarly, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, in a 2012 statement, concluded that: "Although corporal punishment may have a high rate of immediate behavior modification, it is ineffective over time, and is associated with increased aggression and decreased moral internalization of appropriate behavior."
In short, spanking a child may seem helpful in the short term, but is ineffective and probably harmful in the long term. The child who is often spanked learns that physical force is an acceptable method of problem solving.
Parents vs. researchers
But wait: aren’t there exceptions to these general findings? Aren’t there times when a light rap on the backside can do a misbehaving child some good – or at least, not cause any significant harm?
Many parents think so, but most specialists would say there is little evidence to support such claims. That said, Dr Marjorie Gunnoe, a professor of psychology at Calvin College, and her colleague, Carrie Lea Mariner published a study in 1997 that concluded that, “for most children, claims that spanking teaches aggression seem unfounded.”
Gunnoe and Mariner argued that the effects of spanking may depend on the “meaning” children ascribe to it. For example, spanking perceived by the child as parental aggression (as opposed to nonaggressive limit setting) may be associated with subsequent aggressive behavior by the child.
And, to be sure, some parents have argued that it is the misbehavior of children that leads to spanking – not the reverse.
Dr Catherine A Taylor (of Tulane University) and colleagues concluded in a 2010 review that: "Even minor forms of corporal punishment, such as spanking, increase risk for increased child aggressive behavior."
Furthermore, clinical studies have shown that reducing parents’ use of corporal punishment can reduce children’s subsequent aggression.
Parents who believe they have no alternative except to spank their misbehaving children do not need finger-wagging lectures from clinicians.
But they do need professional support and education, aimed at reducing their level of stress and increasing their use of alternatives to corporal punishment.
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