Parents know the feeling — you’re ever so tempted to give a child a slap on the behind, and then maybe you do. Afterwards, you tell yourself: I didn’t hit hard, it didn’t hurt for more than moment, it can’t do real damage, and will teach my child to respect me and not misbehave.
But that thinking is wrong, scientists say.
Spanking has long been opposed by professional groups and researchers studying the issue. It puts children on the wrong path: they act out more, and then get spanked again. You can assert authority more effectively by starting early with “time-outs,” and saying “No” in a firm way; with small children, a low icy voice and strong eye contact can be very impressive.
Any kind of hitting, however, tends to backfire. In a 2016 study reviewing 50 years of prior research on nearly 161,000 children, researchers looked at what happened to children who had been physically abused and compared them to children who just got spanked, defined as slaps on the butt with an open palm. They found similarities, although abuse had a bigger effect. The more often children had been spanked, the researchers reported, the more likely they were to defy their parents and become aggressive elsewhere. As adults they were more likely to develop the kind of mental health problems we see when abused children grow up.
A 2012 study by a different research group found that children who had been hit, pushed, grabbed, shoved or slapped — but not subjected to behavior that met definitions for abuse or neglect — were more likely to develop mood and other mental health problems and become dependent on drugs, including alcohol.
Yet spanking remains accepted across America. In a 2013 Harris poll, 67 percent of parents said they had spanked their child. Among parents who were spanked as a child, that number was 73 percent, compared to 25 percent of parents who were not spanked as a child.
One analysis found that more than 10 percent of mothers reported that they were spanking their three-year olds two or more times a week. The data came from a large group of American families considered “fragile,” often because the parents were unmarried.
Physical punishment of children occurs around the world, and the United Nations has come out strongly against it, sparking controversy when it challenged the Vatican position. Pope Francis does not rule out spanking. He asserts that maintaining a child’s dignity is key. Think about it: Considering a child’s dignity may not be an obvious or easy idea to many of his followers, especially outside of Europe and the United States. The United Methodist Church and the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, USA, have passed anti-spanking resolutions.
If you do get to the end of your rope and spank or slap your daughter (or son), don’t just move on. The American Academy of Pediatrics, which strongly opposes striking a child for any reason, suggests that you have a conversation with her soon afterwards. Explain calmly what she did that provoked you and how angry you felt. You might also apologize for losing control, which gives her a good example of remedying a mistake and restores dignity, which Pope Francis finds essential.
Put a baby in the crib or another safe place while you calm yourself down. Call a friend, relative, or partner to get some support or advice. If it happens again, ask your child’s pediatrician or another child care expert for advice. Remember the icy voice and firm stare option.
May 20, 2016
Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA