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Should You Spank Your Child?

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Your child is throwing the temper tantrum of the century. Scratching, hitting, biting, spitting, and screaming—it cannot get much worse. What do you do? Do you spank your child or will that just make matters worse?

Spanking is one of the most controversial forms of child discipline. Most child development professionals agree that spanking is ineffective and may lead to more aggressive behavior. But many individuals and groups support or encourage spanking as part of a disciplinary approach for children. According to the National Survey of Early Childhood Health, other commonly used forms of discipline include taking away toys or treats, yelling, using time out, and giving explanations.

So what should parents do? Is spanking the best way to discipline children or are other methods more effective?

Child Discipline

Discipline is a way of teaching children the restraint and values necessary to become competent and independent adults. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), an effective discipline system contains three vital elements:

  • A learning environment characterized by positive, supportive parent-child relationships
  • A strategy for teaching and reinforcing positive behaviors
  • A strategy for decreasing and eliminating undesired behaviors

Most parents reward good behaviors and punish bad behaviors. The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) suggests rewarding your child’s good behavior with things like:

  • Praise
  • An extra bedtime story
  • Delaying bedtime by a half hour
  • A preferred snack
  • Points toward a special toy or privilege

Bad behaviors, on the other hand, can by punished by:

  • Ignoring your child
  • Sending your child to time-out
  • Taking away privileges

Many parents report that they use spanking to punish unacceptable behaviors, but most child development professionals agree that spanking is among the least effective forms of discipline.

Consequences of Spanking

Research shows that although spanking can stop an undesirable behavior in the short-term, its effectiveness diminishes with each subsequent spanking. The AAP has identified the following consequences of spanking:

  • Spanking of children younger than 18 months increases the chances of physical injury, and the child is unlikely to understand the connection between the behavior and the punishment.
  • Repeated spanking may cause agitated, aggressive behavior in the child that may lead to physical altercation between parent and child.
  • Spanking models aggressive behavior as a solution to conflict and has been associated with increased aggression in children.
  • Spanking and threats of spanking lead to altered parent-child relationships, making discipline substantially more difficult when physical punishment is no longer an option, such as with adolescents.
  • Spanking is no more effective than other disciplinary approaches, and reliance on spanking as a disciplinary approach makes other strategies less effective.
  • A pattern of spanking may be sustained or increased.
  • Studies reported in the journal Pediatrics show that spanking prior to the age of two was strongly associated with behavior problems when children reached school age. These findings were significant only for white, non-Hispanic children.
  • Another study in the journal Pediatricsshowed a link between harsh physical punishment and risk for mood disorders, anxiety, alcohol and drug abuse, and personality disorders.

For these reasons, the AAP strongly discourages any form of striking a child. They recommend that, if the spanking is spontaneous, parents should calmly explain why they did it, how angry they felt, and perhaps apologize to the child.

Alternatives to Spanking

If spanking is not effective, what is? Many child development professionals recommend extinction approaches, or the removal of positive reinforcement after unacceptable behavior. Two effective and commonly used extinction approaches are the time-out method and the removal of privileges.

The Time-out Method

The time-out method is highly effective for young children. To use this option, you must first set ground rules. Make it clear to your child which behaviors—tantrums, hitting, and yelling, for example—will warrant a time-out. Select a quiet, removed location where your child will have to sit.

When your child misbehaves, give one warning, then put him in time-out if the behavior continues. Set a timer immediately—the AAFP recommends one minute for each year of age—and leave your child in time-out. You should stay within earshot and reset the timer if your child continues to misbehave. When the timer is over, allow your child to leave the designated area.

Removal of Privileges

Removal of privileges usually works best for older children and adolescents. Make a short list of important rules your child must follow, and let him know what the consequences of breaking the rules are.

Removing privileges such as driving, watching TV, or playing video games for a set amount of time is effective in discouraging future rule breaking. Another effective strategy that works well with adolescents and even older children is not allowing them to participate in activities, such as parties, sports events, or outings with friends.

Positive Reinforcement

While time-out and removal of privileges both work well for punishing and discouraging bad behavior, you should also encourage good behavior by rewarding it. Praise your child when he deserves it. Extend your child’s privileges when he follows the rules. Develop a points system that allows your child to earn points toward a reward with good behavior.

By teaching your child that bad behavior is unacceptable and good behavior is rewarded, you will have instilled important values in your child that will help him become a self-sufficient, well-adjusted young adult.

RESOURCES:

American Academy of Pediatrics
http://www.aap.org/

National Institute of Child Health and Human Development
http://www.nichd.nih.gov/

CANADIAN RESOURCES:

Health Canada
http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/index-eng.php

Parenting Today
http://www.parentingtoday.ca/

References:

Anticipatory Guidance (Pediatric Preventive Care) EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed/what. Updated November 26, 2012. Accessed January 4, 2013.

Bloomberg SJ, Halfon N, Olson LM. The National Survey of Early Childhood Health. Pediatrics. 2004;113(6 Suppl):1899-1906.

Disciplining Your Child. American Academy of Pediatrics Health Children website. Available at: http://www.healthychildren.org/English/family-life/family-dynamics/communication-discipline/pages/Disciplining-Your-Child.aspx. Updated January 2, 2013. Accessed January 4, 2013.

Child behavior: what parents can do to change their child’s behavior. American Academy of Family Physicians website. Available at: http://familydoctor.org/handouts/201.html. Updated September 2010. Accessed January 4, 2013.

Guidance for effective discipline. American Academy of Pediatrics. Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health. Pediatrics. 1998;101(4 Pt 1):723-728.

Where We Stand: Spanking. American Academy of Pediatrics website. Available at: http://www.healthychildren.org/English/family-life/family-dynamics/communication-discipline/Pages/Where-We-Stand-Spanking.aspx. Updated May 19, 2011. Accessed January 4, 2013.

Physical punishment, culture, and rights: current issues for professionals. Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics. 2008;29:55-66.

Slade EP, Wissow LS. Spanking in early childhood and later behavior problems: a prospective study of infants and young toddlers. Pediatrics. 2004;113:1321-1330.

10/26/2012 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed/what.php: Afifi TO, Mota NP, Dasiewicz P, MacMillan HL, Sareen J. Physical punishment and mental disorders: results from a nationally representative US sample. Pediatrics 2012 Aug;130(2):184-92.



Last reviewed January 2013 by Brian Randall, MD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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