Spare the Rod and Spoil the Child: New Takes on Physical Punishment of Children

The American Academy of Pediatrics has long recommended
against corporal punishment. Children who are hit can become hitters
themselves, bullying other children or eventually hitting their own kids. They may
never learn more appropriate forms of discipline or self-control if spanking is
all they experience. What is conveyed to them is that discipline is
reactionary, not thought-through or purposeful.

I’ve stated in a previous column that we are always teaching our children, whether we are
intending to or not and what we teach children when we punish them physically
is that violence is an acceptable way to deal with anger, frustration or
disappointment in another person. If we hit instead of articulating to our kids
our expectations of them, we rob them of the opportunity to learn better
communication skills. Hitting also impedes the development of a sense of trust,
safety and security. Another obvious consequence might be actual physical harm
to the child, as our emotions can so easily get away from us.

Despite recommendations to the contrary, many parents still use corporal punishment to
discipline their children. In a 2005 poll conducted in the United States, 72%
of adults reported that it was “OK to spank a child.”

Well, now, pediatricians and other professionals have some new data to carry in their
armamentarium of advice against spanking. A new study in the journal Pediatrics out this summer concluded that harsh physical punishment—defined as hitting, slapping, shoving or grabbing—is associated with mood disorders, anxiety as well as substance abuse and dependence in later life. These results came from face-to-face interviews by US census workers of nearly 35,000 non-institutionalized adults over the age of 20.  The response to the survey was an impressive 86.7%.  All results were in the absence of more severe child maltreatment. Socioeconomic variables and a family history of dysfunction were adjusted for. One surprising result of this study (for me as well as for the authors) was the finding that as education and household income increased, the incidence of harsh physical punishment actually also increased. The authors of the study concluded, importantly, that some mental
health disorders could be decreased by 2-7% if harsh physical punishment of
children were to stop tomorrow.

So how will this study change my practice? I will certainly continue to advocate for
non-physical methods of discipline. But now I have something more to talk to
parents about than just the benefits of time-outs as the preferred method of
discipline, or the AAP’s positions. Now I can point to real down-the-line
consequences if corporal punishment is the go-to modus operandi in a family.

1. Caring for your
Baby and Young Child
(Copyright American Academy of Pediatrics 2005.)

2. “Physical Punishment and Mental Disorders: Results from a
Nationally Representative US Sample. Afifi,TO et al. Pediatrics Vol. 130 No.2 August 1, 2012.