Disciplining young children is one of the key jobs of any parent - most people would have no trouble agreeing with that. But whether or not that discipline should include spanking or other forms of corporal punishment is a far trickier issue.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) does not endorse spanking for any reason, citing its lack of long-term effectiveness as a behavior-changing tactic. Instead the AAP supports strategies such as "time-outs" when children misbehave, which focus on getting kids to reflect on their behavior and the consequences of their actions. Still, as many parents can attest, few responses bring about the immediate interruption of a full-blown tantrum like a swift whack to the bottom. (See pictures of the evolution of the college dorm.)
Now researchers at Tulane University provide the strongest evidence yet against the use of spanking: of the nearly 2,500 youngsters in the study, those who were spanked more frequently at age 3 were more likely to be aggressive by age 5. The research supports earlier work on the pitfalls of corporal punishment, including a study by Duke University researchers that revealed that infants who were spanked at 12 months scored lower on cognitive tests at age 3.
"I'm excited by the idea that there is now some nice hard data that can back up clinicians when they share their caution with parents against using corporal punishment," says Dr. Jayne Singer, clinical director of the child and parent program at Children's Hospital Boston, who was not involved in the study. (Read "Should Kids Be Bribed to Do Well in School?")
Led by Catherine Taylor, the Tulane study was the first to control simultaneously for variables that are most likely to confound the association between spanking and later aggressive behavior. The researchers accounted for factors such as acts of neglect by the mother, violence or aggression between the parents, maternal stress and depression, the mother's use of alcohol and drugs, and even whether the mother considered abortion while pregnant with the child.
Each of these factors contributed to children's aggressive behavior at age 5, but they could not explain all of the violent tendencies at that age. Further, the positive connection between spanking and aggression remained strong, even after these factors had been accounted for.
"The odds of a child being more aggressive at age 5 if he had been spanked more than twice in the month before the study began increased by 50%," says Taylor. And because her group also accounted for varying levels of natural aggression in children, the researchers are confident that "it's not just that children who are more aggressive are more likely to be spanked."
What the study, published Monday in the journal Pediatrics, shows is that outside of the most obvious factors that may influence violent behavior in children, spanking remains a strong predictor. "This study controls for the most common risk factors that people tend to think of as being associated with aggression," says Singer. "This adds more credence, more data and more strength to the argument against using corporal punishment."
Among the mothers who were studied, nearly half (45.6%) reported no spanking in the previous month; 27.9% reported spanking once or twice; and 26.5% reported spanking more than twice. Compared with children who were not hit, those who were spanked were more likely to be defiant, demand immediate satisfaction of their wants and needs, get frustrated easily, have temper tantrums and lash out physically against others.
The reason for that, says Singer, may be that spanking instills fear rather than understanding. Even if a child were to stop his screaming tantrum when spanked, that doesn't mean he understands why he shouldn't be acting out in the first place. What's more, spanking models aggressive behavior as a solution to problems.
For children to understand what and why they have done something wrong, it may take repeated efforts on the parent's part, using time-outs - a strategy that typically involves denying the child any attention, praise or interaction with parents for a specified period of time (that is, the parents ignore the child). These quiet times force children to calm down and learn to think about their emotions, rather than acting out on them blindly.
Spanking may stop a child from misbehaving in the short term, but it becomes less and less effective with repeated use, according to the AAP; it also makes discipline more difficult as the child gets older and outgrows spanking. As the latest study shows, investing the time early on to teach a child why his behavior is wrong may translate to a more self-aware and in-control youngster in the long run.