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Spanking, Physical Punishment of Children Linked to Adult Aggression and Delinquency

Find alternatives to physical punishment of children

In 1989, world leaders decided that children needed a special convention because people under the age of 18 years have human rights and often need special care and protection that adults do not. The Convention on the Rights of the Child was the first legally binding international instrument to identify basic rights that children everywhere have, such as the right to survival, to develop to the fullest, and to be protected from harmful influences.

“The Convention” expressly recognizes that parents have the most important role and encourages them to deal with their children “in a manner consistent with the evolving capacities of the child.” One such issue discussed is discipline method. Article 19 states that children have the right to be protected from all forms of violence, including discipline involving violence such as spanking.

To that end, discipline methods have been scrutinized in many studies, looking at both the short-term and long-term impact they have on children as they grow into adults. The latest analysis of that research suggests that physical punishment has no positive consequences and can lead to negative outcomes including increased aggression and later delinquency.

Joan Durrant PhD, a child clinical psychologist and professor of family social sciences, and Ron Ensom MSW notes that research beginning in the mid to late 1990’s showed that physical punishment predicted later antisocial behavior and a variety of psychiatric disorders including depression, anxiety, and drug and alcohol abuse. More recent research shows that spanking slows cognitive development and hampers academic achievement. There has been studies that show physical changes such as a reduction in the volume of grey matter in the brain.

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In studies that looked at alternatives to physical punishment, when parents were trained in more constructive ways of providing discipline, there was a significant drop in difficult behavior in the children. When parents of aggressive children are instructed in how to reduce their use of spanking, and they do indeed reduce it, the level of their children's aggression declines," said Ensom.

In the United States, spanking as a form of discipline has declined, but many do still believe that it is an acceptable form of punishment because it appears to stop the behavior. But this is only a short-term fix, warns George Holden, a professor of psychology at Southern Methodist University. “The most common long-term consequence is that children learn to use aggression,” he concludes.

The American Academy of Pediatrics strongly opposes striking a child for any reason. Experts suggest that pediatricians and other physicians that work with families help parents learn other methods of discipline, such as allowing the child to experience the natural consequences of his or her behavior (ie: mishandling a toy will cause it to break), withholding privileges, and time-outs.

Journal Reference:
Durrant J and Ensom R. "Physical punishment of children: Lessons from 20 years of research" CMAJ 2012; DOI: 10.1503/cmaj.101314.

Additional Resource: The American Academy of Pediatrics

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons