Spare the rod and spoil the child was once the rule of thumb. But parental attitudes have long been shifting away from physical punishment and now the American Academy of Pediatrics has definitively stated that parents should not spank their children. In a statement published in the academy’s journal, the group warns that corporal punishment in the home can lead to aggressive behavior in children.
“The good news is, fewer parents support the use of spanking than they did in the past,” said Robert D. Sege, MD, PhD, and a past member of AAP Committee on Child Abuse and Neglect, an author of the policy statement. “Yet corporal punishment remains legal in many states, despite evidence that it harms kids – not only physically and mentally, but in how they perform at school and how they interact with other children.”
Representing about 67,000 doctors, the academy also warns against using nonphysical punishment that is humiliating, scary or threatening.
“One of the most important relationships we all have is the relationship between ourselves and our parents, and it makes sense to eliminate or limit fear and violence in that loving relationship,” said Sege, a pediatrician at Tufts Medical Center and the Floating Hospital for Children in Boston, as the New York Times noted.
“Researchers link corporal punishment to an increased risk of negative behavioral, cognitive, psychosocial, and emotional outcomes for children,” as the AAP reports.
Not only have studies proved spanking to be ineffective as a child discipline technique, but doctors warn that it can have harmful long-term consequences that can shape the course of a child’s life.
A history of parental corporal punishment and verbal abuse has been associated with changes in brain anatomy that can be visualized by using MRI, according to the AAP. When comparing a group of young adults who had prolonged and repeated exposure to harsh corporal punishment to those who had not, doctors noted reduced prefrontal cortical gray matter. That means you can see a physical difference in the development of the brain. A more recent study also noted a relationship between physical punishment and cortisol levels. Toxic stress can also lead to changes in brain architecture.
Perhaps even more worrisome is the possible connection between harsh verbal abuse and adolescent mental problems. In a study investigating the relationship between verbal abuse by parents and child outcomes, as the AAP noted, researchers noted that harsh verbal abuse before age 13 years was associated with an increase in adolescent conduct problems and depression between ages 13 and 14.
Doctors say it’s best to begin with the premise of rewarding positive behavior. Set rules and stick to them. AAP also opposes corporal punishment in schools, which is addressed in a separate policy statement published in 2000.
“There’s no benefit to spanking,” Dr. Sege said. “We know that children grow and develop better with positive role modeling and by setting healthy limits. We can do better.”