The most recent issue of the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics included a report on the use of physical violence as a form of discipline (aka “spanking”) and its relation to intimate partner violence. The study examined a large sample of close to 2,000 families participating in a nationally representative study of families across the USA. The authors were interested in examining whether the use of spanking in 3 year-old children was associated with physical violence between the parents.
The results were not surprising:
1. 65% of 3 year-old children were spanked at least once by their parents during the previous month.
2. The odds of using physical punishment doubled in households where parents used aggression against each other. This is not surprising since physical punishment is a form of interpersonal aggression.
3. Maternal stress significantly increased the odds of using physical punishment. This is also not surprising since physical punishment is more likely to be used by parents who are angry.
4. Maternal depression significantly increased the odds of using physical punishment.
5. The odds of using physical punishment were not associated with maternal education, but when the father had a college degree both the father and the mother were significantly less likely to use physical punishment. I am curious to hear my readers’ thoughts on this interesting finding.
The authors concluded (CP = Corporal Punishment; IPAV = Intimate Partner Violence):
Despite American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendations against the use of CP, CP use remains common in the United States. CP prevention efforts should carefully consider assumptions made about patterns of co-occurring aggression in families, given that adult victims of IPAV, including even minor, non physical aggression between parents, have increased odds of using CP with their children.
Yes, the American Academy of Pediatrics unequivocally recommends against the use of aggression as a discipline method. Why? Because the research on physical punishment is clear: it is unnecessary and is associated with a long list of NEGATIVE consequences. For example, although proponents of “spanking” argue that if you don’t spank, the child will not learn to behave properly, the research actually suggests the opposite. Children who are spanked, when compared to their non-spanked peers, are, among many others:
1. more likely to use aggression against their peers
2. less likely to internalize rules
3. more likely to engage in criminal activity during adolescence
4. more likely to engage in domestic abuse as adults
5. more likely to suffer from depression
and on and on and on.
For those who want to read more about the science behind the negative effects of corporal punishment, visit the research library of Project No Spank; http://nospank.net/resrch.htm
I unequivocally oppose the use of violence towards children as a discipline method for two reasons. The first is explained above. The scientific research shows that physical punishment does not work in the long run, is associated with an increased risk for many behavioral and psychological problems, and is simply unnecessary given that we have non-violent discipline techniques that are very effective. But I also oppose violence towards children on philosophical grounds. Although I never talk about philosophy -and especially my views- on this site, this time I want to share them with you. I am a secular humanist, and as a humanist I oppose interpersonal violence except in cases of self defense. I view spanking as a culturally accepted violent act towards a child. We use the words “spanking” or “corporal punishment” as euphemisms so that we don’t confront the reality of the act: when a parent spanks a child the parent is physically assaulting the child. Why do we accept such aggression when we oppose other forms of interpersonal violence? For example, in western societies we oppose marital violence. We believe that there is no excuse that could justify a husband for hitting a wife. A husband can’t argue that he hit his wife because the wife was “misbehaving”, or that it was “just one hit”, or that he used “an open hand”, or that the hit “didn’t leave any marks”, etc. Under all circumstances, we oppose the assault of a wife by her husband. We do not accept the premise that it is “the husband’s right” to hit his wife. Yet, our culture accepts the premise that “it is a parent’s right” to hit his/her child. We allow the use of violence against young children under the excuse that such aggression is “culturally accepted” or even “necessary” to teach the “child a lesson.” But I ask, what lesson? That we can use violence to achieve our goals? That it is acceptable to hit people when they don’t do what we want? That hitting those who can’t defend themselves is ok as long as you are teaching them a lesson? Children are not possessions. Children are, albeit small in size, real human beings who have the right to live in an environment where they are safe from being physically assaulted. Being free of physical harm is the most basic human right, and children should not be exempt from it.
From a scientific and humanistic perspective, there is no valid argument that justifies the use of violence towards children in the name of discipline. It is unnecessary, ineffective, and leads to many negative consequences. My explicit recommendation to all parents is: Never use violence to correct a misbehavior or to teach your child a lesson.
Three final points. Please don’t confuse a position against spanking with being “permissive”. You can be very strict without the use of violence. You can provide structure, rules, limits and consequences, without being violent towards your child. See below for alternatives to spanking.
Second, be wary of the “my grandma smoked till she was 100″ excuse. That is, some people justify spanking, or even refuse to believe the science, because “I was spanked as a kid and I’m ok”. That would be the same as believing that there is no association between smoking and cancer because “my grandma smoked till she was 100 and didn’t die from it”. Smoking increases the probability that you will get cancer, even though some people who smoke will be ok. Likewise, spanking increases the probability of a laundry list of negative outcomes, even though some people who are hit as children will be ok.
Finally, some have argued that spanking is OK in certain cultures as long as you provide nurturance and love. It is true that some studies have shown that high levels of maternal support can reduce the negative consequences of physical punishment. But, from a humanistic perspective, I find the argument that “it is ok to hit my child if I provide love” as invalid as a husband saying “it is ok to hit my wife if I show her that I love her”.
For information about alternatives to spanking visit:
Taylor, C., Lee, S., Guterman, N., & Rice, J. (2010). Use of Spanking for 3-Year-Old Children and Associated Intimate Partner Aggression or Violence PEDIATRICS, 126 (3), 415-424 DOI: 10.1542/peds.2010-0314
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