Down To Earth Dad

Child Discipline
Is Spanking Worth the Risk?

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If you want your toddler to become more aggressive, you might consider spanking him frequently. There's no guarantee that you'll cause inappropriate aggressive behaviors in the long-term--getting into fights, destroying things, or bullying others--but research suggests the risk is greater.

Yes, spanking might immediately stop bad behavior, notes Catherine A. Taylor PhD, the professor and researcher who led an eye-opening study of corporal punishment at Tulane University's School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine in New Orleans. But timeouts and other discipline measures can accomplish discipline goals without the long-term risks associated with spanking.

Despite widespread knowledge about the pitfalls of spanking, studies show that parents still use spanking as a discipline method. In fact, estimates of U.S. parents who have used spanking vary from 35-90%. In a 2005 U.S. poll, 72% of adults reported that it was "OK to spank a child," with approval ratings being highest in the South and lowest in the Northeast.

So why, with all the information out there about the negatives attached to spanking, do parents continue spanking their kids? "Change takes time.When we've been doing things in a society for one way for a long time, it can take a while for new information to seep through and reach the point of credibility for the general public," says Taylor. "For example, a lot of parents will say, 'I was spanked and I'm totally fine,' or 'I spank my kids and they're totally fine.' Or they'll point out that they had no car seats growing up, or were exposed to second-hand smoke with no adverse outcome. The issue with spanking is, we are talking about factors that raise risk of poor outcomes for children; there's not an absolute guarantee that poor outcomes will happen. If you don't wear a seat belt you may not be injured, but we know that your risk for injury goes up if you don't use a seat belt. The question is, 'How can we reduce risk for children?'"

The answer, when it comes to spanking, seems to be this: Don't spank. "From a risk standpoint, the evidence is now pretty strong that spanking does, in fact, increase the risk of later aggression for children," says Taylor. Her research shows that children spanked frequently (more than twice in the prior month) at age 3 had about 50% higher odds of being more aggressive at age 5 as compared to those who weren't spanked--after adjusting for parenting stress, depression, and other types of family aggression that might have explained the link. Taylor also accounted for the fact that children who are more aggressive to begin with are more likely to be spanked; but she found that spanking them only served to raise--not lower--their risk for increased aggression.

Taylor offers this advice to parents: "I would tell parents that children need safe, stable, and nurturing relationships, along with guidance and discipline in order to thrive... so parents should focus on positive, nonphysical forms of discipline, such as time-outs, and avoid spanking, which carries with it unnecessary risk for children.... There are other things that we know work just as well and are just as effective for discipliningchildren, but which don't carry with them the weight of risk that spanking does." Taylor's research on the topic was recently published in Pediatrics.

Taylor pointed to a "meta-analysis"--a sort of super-study that combines the results of several other studies--that crunched research about how to bring about the best outcomes for children. The meta-analysis study asked the question, "What kinds of components of programs that already exist are associated with children becoming less aggressive, and also, how do we improve parenting skills?" The results are eyeopening. Two key parenting program approaches that really worked to help reduce child aggression were: 1) teaching parents how to use time-outs correctly and how to deliver consistent discipline--so that children can predict what their parents will do and thus know how to behave; and 2) helping parents increase positive interactions with their children.

More information about child discipline can be found at the American Academy of Pediatrics website, www.HealthyChildren.org.

Aregular contributor to Children's Voice, Patrick Mitchell publishes a monthly newsletter, The Down to Earth Dad, and facilitates the National Dads Matter!(TM) Project for child- and family-serving organizations. He provides keynote addresses and trainings, and conducts Family Storytelling Night(TM) events for programs and schools. To reserve Patrick Mitchell for speaking engagements, or to implement the National Dads Matter!(TM) Project for your families and community partners, call him toll-free at 877-282-DADS, or e-mail him at patrick@downtoearth dad.org. Website: www.DownToEarthDad.org.

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