To argue hitting a child in any context seems absurd. Yet, most Americans today still spank their children. Reports suggest up to 70% today (Sege, Siegal). These American parents think it is an effective and necessary punishment for their child’s growth. But, because spanking is linked to aggression, increased defiance, and lower cognitive development in children, Americans are strongly encouraged to find non-violent means of discipline.
Yes, children need to be punished for misbehaving, but parents do not need to be using physical violence in order to efficiently help children learn from mistakes. The studies and results of spanking keep pouring in. Just one month ago, an impacting updated study was released by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the country’s top pediatric organization representing over 67,000 pediatricians. They strongly urged parents to stop spanking altogether. Even a small act of physical aggression has shown no behavioral improvement at all. It has, in fact, portrayed the opposite.
The most compelling recent study, conducted by The Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing, studied roughly ~4200 children in the 20 largest U.S States. They tested children born 1998-2000 at age 3, 5 and again at 9 years old who were spanked at least two times a week between the ages of 3-5. After controlling all variables and factors, this still directly exposed significantly negative outcomes. The first result, based on the Child Behavior Checklist (CBCL), showed children being spanked at age 3 and 5 were associated with significantly higher levels of externalizing behavior at age 9, as compared with the reference category of no spanking (Sege, Siegal).
Another similarly small study was performed in 2014 on 33 families. Of those 33, 15 used corporal punishments. Even though most of the parents used verbal punishment strategies prior, corporal punishment was used at an average of 30 seconds later. The results were undeniable; within 10 minutes, 73% of the children acted in the same fashion of which originally punished (Holden, Williamson, Holland).
The second category of results from the original Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing tests by AAP, and arguably the most important results, were those portraying a significantly lower child receptive language development scores at age 9 of those subjects who were spanked opposed to children who were not. This study was based off receptive vocabulary scores of the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test (PPVT), a well-validated and widely used measure of child receptive verbal capacity. Based on a national survey of children of the same age (9), the mean score was significantly lower for children who were spanked than the average of all children.
This directly shows that high-frequency spanking at those ages continues to predict later reduced PPVT scores for the children (Sege, Siegal). But the ramifications do not stop at adolescents. In a 2009 study of 23 young adults exposed to corporal punishment, MRI’s showed a reduced gray matter volume in the prefrontal cortex. This area manages cognitive understanding, personality control, decision making, and social interactions. The history of exposure to Corporal punishment has also been associated with aggression, delinquency, violent behaviors, depression, suicidal behaviors, and substance abuse.
Ultimately these groups also had lower I.Q. scores compared to controlled groups (Tomoda). Physical abuse, defined by the American Society of Positive Care for Children, is any non-accidental act that results in physical injury. Corporal punishment is a punishment that involves hitting someone. Discipline is the practice of training people to obey rules or a code of behavior. By no means do all of these three terms need to intermingle. It is absolutely possible to discipline without physically punishing someone and whether by accident or not, causing physical harm.
Assault in America today, can find someone guilty with a misdemeanor or even a felony. It is clearly illegal to hit adults, so why is it legal for adults to hit children? Children cannot defend properly themselves physically or verbally. The parents are their safe space, yet they are the ones physically using their superiority over them. Children have no proper representation to speak about if they have been hit too hard. In contrast, adults can colorfully describe pain. This distinct difference creates subjectivity around the small acts of violence.
It becomes primarily up to the parents to determine what is too rough and what is not. This is a dangerous gray area for a lot of innocent children abused in the name of punishment. While, adults have a law, a judge or a jury of peers to defend them, children are at the mercy of their guardian’s rulings. So, if there are no benefits to spanking a child, why do it? It is simply a human reaction to anger. When parents get upset because the child behaved unsatisfactorily, they react and turn to physical punishment. This creates a violent anger outlet for parents to make themselves feel better by getting revenge on the child’s misbehaving.
Because it’s socially acceptable for this parent-to-child relationship in today’s American society, this violence becomes almost justified to the parent. But the key fact is, this is not teaching the child a lesson, but rather, further confusing and implementing this notion of using physical harm to solve a problem. And because children will model after their parents, this also perpetrates more violence based on imitation. From this violence, they learn that the bigger and stronger person will come out on top, whether they are right or wrong. And the fact remains, children who are physically or verbally punished are more likely to use negative physical and verbal behavior (Korioth).
The key for parents to avoiding violent knee-jerk reactions is to briefly step away, calm themselves and return once everyone’s emotions are not so heightened. Then, they have a chance to present a thorough communication to the child as to why they are being punished and what will now happen because of this. Dr. Vincent J. Palusci, a child abuse pediatrician at Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital at N.Y.U. Langone explained parents must understand “how to treat your child in different stages in development to teach them how to cool down when things do get explosive”(Caron).
But in order to do this, the parents themselves must be of clear mind. American parents are encouraged to understand how to use more non-violent methods in order to efficiently discipline. Such examples are a time-out, losing privileges or toys, and doing chores or activities in lieu of play time. Yes, there must be a negative/positive reinforcement scale for children. So this must consistently include encouraging words of affirmation when a child follows the rules and behaves well. But, as far as negative reinforcement goes, there is always a way around physical harm to get any point across, especially to a small human whose brain is still developing and attempting to grasp the world around them.
The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests “praise good behavior, be a role model for good behavior, set clear limits and expectations, [and also] redirect your child away from the bad behavior.” (Korioth) Clearly, in America, corporal punishment is culturally and socially acceptable. The Harris Poll was taken in 1995 that showed 87% of households believed spanking their children was appropriate, while the newest Harris Poll taken in 2013, shown only 81%.
So, while the statistics of spankers is slowly declining, the majority of American parents still uphold physically punishing their children. This is due to tradition and social norms. In our Western culture, parents place standards on themselves to be a “good parent.” By having this physical upper-hand, it creates a notion of power. Corporal punishment does have a form of effectiveness, however short term it may be. Based on this, one can assume there is a direct correlation with controlling a child and the self-imposed standards of success in parenthood (Corso).
America needs to better prepare parents to understand their own anger reflexes and how to appropriately deal with it before trying to reprimand their child. Ultimately, this is always going to be a controversial topic amongst the public versus the medical field. But, by acknowledging purely methodical and long-term, scientifically researched-based facts, parents can not only train their children to become better future parents themselves, but also can abstain from hurting them cognitively, mentally, and emotionally. Perhaps, America, it has finally become the time to spare the child of the rod.