The negative consequences of corporal punishment, explained

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Though corporal punishment has no scientific definition, it is colloquially understood as striking a child – typically with an open hand on the buttocks or extremities with the intention of modifying behavior without causing physical injury. Despite being less popular than in the 1950s, corporal punishment remains one of the most common strategies to reduce undesirable behavior.

Many studies have found that spanking is tremendously common. Over 90 percent of American families report using spanking as means of discipline at least once. Sixty-eight percent of American parents believe spanking is not only suitable, but essential to child rearing. Shockingly, over 90 percent of American parents strike their toddlers at least three times a week – two-thirds at least once a day.

Research shows that corporal punishment is wielded both on children exceedingly young and teenagers. One in four parents begin to spank when their child is only six months old, 62 percent begin when the child is twelve months. Such discipline of young children is correlated with the continued spanking of adolescents, with more than 52 percent of 13 and 14 year-olds being hit an average of eight times per year.

Though many parents believe violent discipline is not used in anger but often “in love,” data shows otherwise. Multiples sources indicate parents are more likely to spank when they are irritable, depressed, fatigued, stressed or angry, which challenges the notion that most parents hit in a calm, peaceful manner. In 44 percent of those surveyed, spanking was used roughly 50 percent of the time because parents had “lost it.”

According to a self-reporting study, 54 percent of mothers admit that spanking was the wrong punishment in at least half the times they used it. Approximately 85 percent of parents expressed moderate to high anger, remorse and agitation while punishing children. Parents who experienced frequent physical punishment as children perceive it as acceptable and frequently spank their children, which adds to the cycle of abuse. Although spanking is justified in the eyes of more than 90 percent of parents, 85 percent say they would rather not if they had an acceptable alternative.

Research shows that such violence against children has many profound negative effects later in life. Multiple studies show that physical punishment – including hitting, spanking or causing physical pain – can lead to aggression, antisocial behavior, physical injury and even health problems for children. When spanking fails, parents tend to increase intensity rather than change strategies. Physical punishment may not always be immediately effective, so parents escalate it.

Dr. Elizabeth Gershoff published a meta-analysis of over 88 studies conducted over 62 years and determined the effects of spanking on child behaviors. Apart from immediate, short-term compliance, she found spanking also had numerous negative results on other behaviors.

“Children who are spanked as one-year-olds are more likely to behave aggressively and perform worse on cognitive tests as toddlers than children who are spared the punishment, research from Duke University shows. Almost all the studies point to the negative effects of spanking. It makes kids more aggressive, more likely to be delinquent and to have mental health problems. [Because children tend to mimic parental behaviors, it’s possible spanking] creates a model for using aggression,” Gershoff commented. “Less is known why spanking could inhibit cognitive development. One possibility is that parents who spank are less likely to use reasoning with their children, something that’s good for development.”

A comprehensive study by researchers at the University of New Hampshire concluded spanking by parents, especially on younger children, can induce permanent, significant mental damage and lower IQ later in the child’s life.

The researchers also found lower average IQ in nations in which spanking was more prevalent. Children who were hit had up to a five-point reduction in IQ compared the IQ’s of kids who weren’t spanked – and the more children were spanked, the lower their IQ.

A study, which defined spanking as hitting a child, usually on the buttocks, at least three times a week, showed that corporal punishment significantly slows the development of mental ability, particularly in children two to six years old. Spanking and cognitive development are dose-dependent – the more children are hit, the more their mind suffers.

Ninety-three percent of mothers hit their two to four year olds an average 3.6 times per week or 187 times per year. Thirteen percent of parents hit their children at least seven times per week.

It is not surprising that frequent use of spanking can lead to highly aggressive behavior in children who receive it. Analyses conclude that when children three years old are spanked, they have an increased risk of child aggression only two years later. Even for controlling for baseline antisocial behavior, the more three-to-six-year-olds were hit, the worse their behavior was a few years later.

Children of parents who use physical punishment are significantly more likely to engage in aggressive behaviors like bullying and fighting. Even minimal amounts of spanking are precursors to antisocial behaviors like cheating, lying and bullying. Children in a punitive environment at age two to three years scored 39 percent higher on a scale of aggressive behavior than children in non-punitive homes. Children from eight-to-nine-years of age scored 83 percent higher.

Spanking not only causes dysfunction and impaired cognitive ability, but because of increased aggression and disobedience, it also fails to regulate behavior long-term.

“You cannot punish out these behaviors that you do not want. There is no need for corporal punishment based on the research. We are not giving up an effective technique. We are saying this is a horrible thing that does not work,” Alan Kazdin, Yale University psychology professor and director of the Yale Parenting Center and Child Conduct Clinic, articulated.

Because spanking is so culturally accepted, it may be difficult to question its efficacy or imagine other alternatives. Traditions lasting generations are hard to break; however, it is crucial to recognize that this barbaric tool must be discarded. My next article will discuss the ethical nature of corporal punishment and propose ideas that will lead to a world less prone to violence and dysfunction.

Photo courtesy of americanspcc.org.

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