Should Parents and Caregivers Spank Children?

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Should Parents and Caregivers Spank Children?

Jim Windell

            Physical punishment of children can stop misbehavior, right?

            Not only that, but spanking and hitting kids will teach them a lesson and go a long way toward preventing future misbehavior, agreed?

            Parents and caregivers in the United States and around the world use physical punishment as a response to children's perceived misbehavior. In fact, 63 percent of children between the ages of 2 and 4 worldwide – that is, approximately 250 million children – are regularly subjected to physical punishment by caregivers. It must be effective if so many caregivers use this type of discipline.

            Actually, a new narrative review has found physical punishment of children is not effective in preventing child behavior problems or promoting positive outcomes. Instead, the use of physical punishment, especially spanking, predicts increases in behavior problems and other poor outcomes over time.

           The study, by an international group of scientists including a researcher from The University of Texas at Austin, was recently published in The Lancet. In the study, the researchers looked at 69 studies, most of which were from the U. S., but with eight from other countries. The team looked at studies involving physical punishment such as spanking and excluded any behaviors that could constitute child physical abuse. After the review, the researchers found ample evidence to support a United Nations statement from the Committee on the Rights of the Child that recommended countries end the use of all types of physical punishment on children. Sixty-two countries have banned physical punishment, which is increasingly seen as a form of violence, although the U.S. is not one of those countries. In the U.S., it is legal in all 50 states for parents to use physical punishment. It is also legal in 19 states for schools to use physical punishment against children.

           The scientists found that physical punishment was not associated with any positive outcomes for children and increased the risk that children would experience severe violence or neglect. The paper points out that negative outcomes associated with physical punishment, such as behavior problems, occurred no matter the child's sex, race, or ethnicity and regardless of the overall parenting styles of the caregivers. The authors also found evidence that the magnitude of negative outcomes for children increased as the frequency of physical punishment increased.

          “There is no evidence that physical punishment is good for children," said Elizabeth Gershoff, senior author of the paper. “All the evidence indicates that physical punishment is harmful to children's development and well-being.”

            Gershoff, the Amy Johnson McLaughlin Centennial Professor in Human Development and Family Sciences at The University of Texas at Austin, went on to say that “Parents hit their children because they think doing so will improve their behavior. Unfortunately for parents who hit, our research found clear and compelling evidence that physical punishment does not improve children's behavior and instead makes it worse.”

           Gershoff previously authored a landmark 2016 meta-analysis of dozens of studies and found that physical punishment was not associated with any positive outcomes for children and was heavily associated with a variety of negative outcomes. Gershoff's work was cited by former Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. in a 2016 federal letter urging states to consider ending the use of physical punishment in schools. Gershoff also helped to inform policy statements from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Psychological Association that use research on the harmful effects of physical punishment as a basis for recommending that caregivers no longer use it.

           This paper was intended as a resource for policymakers and people who work with families, such as medical and mental health providers.

           “This is a public health issue,” said Anja Heilmann, lead author of the paper and an associate professor at University College London. “Given the strength of the evidence that physical punishment has the potential to cause harm to children, policymakers have a responsibility to protect children and legislate to end the use of physical punishment in all settings.”

           To read the original journal article, find it with this reference:

Anja Heilmann, Anita Mehay, Richard G Watt, Yvonne Kelly, Joan E Durrant, Jillian van Turnhout, Elizabeth T Gershoff. (2021). Physical punishment and child outcomes: a narrative review of prospective studies. The Lancet; DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(21)00582-1


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