Do Parents Really Know Best When Disciplining Their Children?

We want to raise children who are resilient to adversity, loss, and addiction and mental health problems. But spanking is not the tool that is going to achieve the desired result.
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If parents were to base their disciplinary decisions solely on scientific research, spanking would be a strategy of the past. More than 100 studies document the negative effects of spanking, while positive associations with physical discipline are nearly non-existent.

Still, two-thirds of Americans approve of parents spanking their kids, and nearly 80 percent of preschool children in the U.S. are spanked. Even more intriguing, some parents staunchly and publicly defend the practice, going so far as to claim that parents' failure to spank contributes to the downfall of society, leading to generations of disrespectful, out-of-control children.

The Trouble With Spanking

A couple of months ago, Murray Straus of the Family Research Lab reviewed more than four decades of research, including longitudinal data from more than 7,000 U.S. families as well as results from a 32-nation study, which shows spanking slows cognitive development and increases antisocial behavior. Antisocial behavior, in turn, increases the risk of later substance abuse. Straus also discovered that college students who were spanked as children are more likely to engage in criminal behavior, even if they grew up with helpful and loving parents.

Another recent study found that children who are spanked may be at an increased risk of mental health problems later in life. Even with physical punishment that falls short of abuse, the researchers discovered a higher prevalence of depression, anxiety, personality disorders and substance abuse among those exposed to physical punishment as children.

These studies add to a large volume of research that indicates that physical punishment should not be used on children. Previous studies have linked spanking with increased aggression, which is also a risk factor for later drug abuse. A study by researchers at Tulane University found that children who were spanked more often at age 3 were 50 percent more likely to be aggressive by age 5. The children who had been spanked were more likely to throw tantrums, be defiant, get easily frustrated, demand immediate gratification and show aggression toward others.

In addition to the negative effects of physical discipline, spanking isn't the most effective disciplinary tool. Physical discipline might breed short-term behavioral change (largely because the child is scared into submission, not because they learned a lesson), but it doesn't last. The problem is the immediate result is desirable, and the undesirable consequences are less tangible, impacting things like the way the child thinks and feels, and reveal themselves over time. Mental health rarely gets the attention it deserves, and spanking is another area where we underestimate the potential ramifications to a child's well-being.

Other concerns expressed by child development experts include the following:

• Physical punishment infringes on the basic human right not to be hit. In 2006, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child issued a directive calling physical punishment "legalized violence against children" and recommending its elimination in all settings, including the home. The treaty that established the committee has been supported by 192 countries, with the notable exception of the U.S. and Somalia.

• Once a parent makes spanking part of their disciplinary repertoire, they are more likely to rely on spanking as the go-to strategy rather than coming up with alternatives. When spanking proves ineffective, parents may escalate their use of force, increasing the risk of abuse.

•Spanking may erode the bond between parent and child. Rather than developing internal motivation to behave appropriately and relying on the parent for guidance and security, the child may comply out of fear of their parent.

•A child's self-image is based, in part, on how others perceive them. Although parents want their child to know right from wrong, spanking may send a message that the child is "bad," weak or less valued.

'My Kid, My Business'

On most parenting questions, the authorities are divided. Spanking, however, is one of those rare issues with a clear consensus in the scientific community. In spite of overwhelming research against physical punishment, parents aren't heeding the message. Although more than 30 countries have abolished parents' right to use corporal punishment at home, American parents are holding fast to their right to spank.

Are parents turning a blind eye to the science, believing they know what's best? Or are they simply doing whatever it takes in the moment to stop their child's misbehavior?

When the American Academy of Pediatrics sets guidelines for other parenting issues, people listen. When it recommends methods other than spanking for managing undesired behavior, such as time-outs, taking away privileges, verbal reasoning and positive reinforcement, parents defend their right to spank.

We want to raise children who are resilient to adversity, loss, and addiction and mental health problems. But spanking is not the tool that is going to achieve the desired result. So what can parents do instead? Develop positive parenting skills, such as listening, monitoring what your children are doing, giving choices, setting clear, consistent rules and enforcing logical consequences.

"Spanking is okay if it's done right" is a common retort, and some experts agree. As long as it doesn't rise to the level of abuse, is used sparingly and in conjunction with nonphysical discipline, and is done without anger, some believe spanking is a parental right -- even responsibility -- that is necessary to raise obedient children.

To be sure, spanking is less detrimental if it occurs in a loving and nurturing environment, but it is still damaging, especially when delivered in anger (which it often is). While some children are naturally resilient, on the whole, more children will be damaged than helped by physical discipline.

Familiarity Breeds Comfort

So why do parents continue to use physical discipline when, at best, spanking may lead to the very misbehavior most parents want to stop and, at worst, can be damaging to a child's mental and emotional development?

The penchant for spanking may say less about parents' beliefs and goals than it does about the difficulty of child-rearing. Good discipline isn't fast or easy -- spanking has unwanted consequences; yelling can be just as harmful as spanking. There are few disciplinary practices that are consistently effective, especially with toddlers, and parents in the throes of a power struggle may be willing to settle for compliance. Many fear that not spanking makes them weak, unconventional or - the worst of all parenting insults - permissive.

Spanking also has a cultural element. Research shows that people who were spanked as children are more likely to use physical discipline with their children. They reason, "I was spanked as a child and I turned out fine," but the reality is that personal observation is unreliable. There may be deep-rooted changes in the way they think and act, or their child may be more sensitive to physical punishment than they were.

Even people who feel that they were harmed by physical discipline in childhood may end up spanking their own children. This is because of the desire children have to see their parents favorably and because children identify with their parents' behaviors and model them even if they themselves were harmed by them.

In the U.S., the decision whether to spank or not is a very personal one. Parents get a lot of advice, and most are doing the best they can. But in making our decisions, let's not overlook the clear and consistent evidence against physical punishment. We want respect. We want trust. But we don't need to be feared to build the type of relationship we want with our kids.

David Sack, M.D., is board certified in psychiatry, addiction psychiatry and addiction medicine. He is CEO of Elements Behavioral Health, a network of mental health and addiction treatment centers that includes an adolescent rehab at Right Step as well as Promises, The Ranch, The Recovery Place, The Sexual Recovery Institute, Clarity Way, Journey Healing Centers and Lucida Treatment Center.

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