Spanking does more harm than good, study finds

Spanking does more harm than good, study finds

A review of 69 studies from across the world has found physical punishment doesn’t appear to improve a child’s behaviour of social competence in the long run.

The review was published in The Lancet, one of the world’s oldest and best-known medical journals.

Elizabeth Gershoff, a professor in human development and family science at The University of Texas at Austin and senior author of the review, said physical punishments such as spanking are “harmful to children’s development and well-being”.

“Parents hit their children because they think doing so will improve their behaviour,” Professor Gershoff said. “Unfortunately for parents who hit, our research found clear and compelling evidence that physical punishment does not improve children’s behaviour and instead makes it worse.”

In their research on the impact of spanking and other physical punishments parents might choose to use to discipline a child, the review excluded verbal and “severe” types of punishment that would be classified as child abuse.

Though some studies included in the review found mixed results - where some positive and negative effects were associated with physical punishment - the majority showed a significant negative impact across a child’s life and behaviours.

In 13 of 19 independent studies, the most consistent finding was that spanking and other forms of punishment created external problem behaviours over time, Professor Gershoff said, such as “increased aggression, increased antisocial behaviour, and increased disruptive behaviour in school.”

The review also found that children who were physically punished acted out no matter their sex, race, or ethnicity.

One study included in the review, conducted in Colombia in South America, found that physically-punished young children gained “fewer cognitive skills” than those who were not.

Seven of the studies the team reviewed examined the association between a child’s negative behaviour and the frequency of punishment over time, with five finding a “dose-response effect”.

“In other words, as physical punishment increased in frequency, so did its likelihood of predicting worse outcomes over time,” Professor Gershoff said.

Other studies in the review found that conduct problems and signs of oppositional defiant disorder - characterised by temper tantrums, argumentative and defiant behaviour, spitefulness, and vindictiveness - were increased by physical punishment.

In addition to these findings, the review also saw that four of the five studies that considered the influence of parenting styles found that an overall warm and positive parenting style “did not buffer the effect of physical punishment on an increase in behaviour problems.”

Alternatives to spanking

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends a variety of alternative methods of discipline, which depend on the child’s age.

“During the first year what infants need is love while they discover new abilities such as crying and making messes,” Dr Robert Sege, a professor and medical doctor who specialises in the study of child abuse, said in an earlier interview. “So parents should distract, by giving them other things to do that are less disruptive or picking them up and moving them to a different place. That’s all they can do.”

As they become toddlers and continue doing things you don’t want them to, Dr Sege said the best technique is to tap into their need for attention.

“Toddlers crave their parent’s attention, so use that to your advantage,” he said. “Pay attention to the things your children do that are wonderful; reward them for those with praise. Then when they do something you don’t like, put them in time-out and take the attention away. Use that. That’s how time-outs work.”

As they get older, he suggests letting children learn the natural consequences of their behaviour.

“Instead of shielding, help them learn the lesson, as long as they are not in danger,” he said. “Things like, ‘You didn’t put your toys away, so instead of playing, you have to clean them up before we can play.’ It takes parents out of the loop.”

Teens also need to learn how to take responsibility for their actions, he said.

“And you do that by calling them out on their behaviour and its consequences and then help them figure out how to resolve those consequences.

“It’s hard, because it requires, at least at first, a level of mindfulness and thought on what you are doing as a parent,” Dr Sege said. “Parenting isn’t easy. The good thing is that our children excuse us for the mistakes we make.”

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