To spank or not to spank?

For generations, most parents spanked their children as a form of punishment to discourage behavior they viewed as bad. In some families, religious teachings still encourage spanking while in others, it is a parenting approach passed down from generation to generation. Sometimes it is referred to as the “spare the rod, spoil the child” philosophy.  But as parents, the ultimate goal should not just be to discourage negative behavior but rather to give children the skills to self-regulate; to be self-disciplined, thoughtful and respectful.  I also think that if we are honest with ourselves sometimes spanking may be as much about the parent’s frustration and emotions as it is about encouraging discipline.  Spanking also tends to develop into a feedback loop where more and more severe spanking (corporal punishment) is required to achieve the same effect; a potentially unhealthy or even dangerous situation. So does hitting really work anyway?

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A new study published in the journal Pediatrics suggests that the opposite may be true: spanking could actually increase the risk of bad behavior. Using a nationally representative sample of US families, researchers interviewed 1,933 parents when their children were 3 years old and again at 5, asking whether and how often they were spanked. Overall, 57% of mothers and 40% of fathers engaged in spanking when children were age 3, and 52% of mothers and 33% of fathers engaged in spanking at age 5.

Then the scientists tested the children at age 9, using more than 50 questions to assess aggression and rule-breaking behaviors. They also tested vocabulary.  After statistically controlling for different variables — a child’s age and birth weight, aggression and vocabulary skills at younger ages, family income and race, among many others — the researchers found that spanking by the mother at age 5 was significantly associated with greater aggression and rule-breaking. Frequent spanking by fathers at age 5 was associated with lower child receptive vocabulary scores at age 9.

To conclude, while spanking may have an immediate and short-term impact on the child’s behavior, it appears that spanking is not an effective strategy to promote good behavior and self-regulation, but instead may result in more aggressive children who are more likely to break rules.

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