Good news! The American Academy of Pediatrics has tightened its recommendations on corporal punishment, clarifying its position and coming down more decisively against the practice. As the Chicago Tribune reports:
In a new policy statement released Monday, the organization explicitly advises parents not to spank their children. The new policy is an update from the 1998 version, which stated, “Parents should be encouraged and assisted in developing methods other than spanking in response to undesired behaviors.”
“The main difference (between the two statements) is that the other policy suggested pediatricians discourage parents from using corporal punishment, and instead encourage them to use other means of discipline,” explained Dr. Robert Sege, study co-author and pediatrician at Floating Hospital for Children at Tufts Medical Center in Boston. “We now advise parents not to spank their children — not to use corporal punishment.”
This change is one of degree—the AAP already advised doctors to discourage parents from spanking and promote other options. But the change is significant nonetheless. Now, doctors are asked to specifically advise parents not to spank. The language is stronger and more decisive.
Why the change? Two reasons:
…a 2016 survey of more than 780 U.S. pediatricians found just 6 percent of the doctors held positive attitudes toward spanking, with more than 2 percent expecting positive outcomes from spanking. Seventy-eight percent of respondents did not agree that spanking was the “only way to get the child to behave,” and 75 percent disagreed that “spanking is a normal part of parenting.”
Because of this and other research, Sege said the academy thought it was the right time to “revise (the statement) and make it stronger.”
While I was aware of the research on spanking—all of which pretty soundly condemns the practice—I hadn’t thought to look at what percentage of pediatricians, who work with children regularly, support the use of corporal punishment. And the numbers indeed are striking!
The AAP lays out key studies as follows:
Sege, along with co-author Benjamin Siegel, used current research and three separate studies to justify the AAP’s stance.
The first study found that when parents spanked their children, the child’s misbehavior increased, sometimes repeating the bad activity within 10 minutes.
The second was a meta-analysis — a study that looks at other studies — that showed corporal punishment did not teach a child how to behave well long-term.
The third study is more recent and used MRI scans.
“The study looked at the brains of children — some of whom had been spanked, some of whom had not — and the ones who were consistently spanked had differences in their brains compared to the other ones,” explained Sege. “In particular, the region of the brain responsible for self-regulation appeared to be smaller in kids whose parents spanked them consistently.”
I had not heard about that last study. That’s huge.
Several years ago, my then-preschool age son and I participated in a study conducted by a local college’s psychology department. They had me tell him not to touch some toys. Then I left the room for a moment while they watched behind one-way glass to see what he did. He did not touch the toys. As we got ready to leave, the researchers told me that my son had the most self control they’d seen in any child in their study thus far. I was struck.
I realize that this is a simple anecdote, and that every child is different. I realize that there are plenty of other children who, like my son, have never been spanked who would still have touched those toys. The moment was still meaningful for me, because I grew up with parents who not only relied on spanking and but also argued that spanking teaches self control. In fact, they had always asserted that if children are not spanked, they won’t learn self control.
That moment felt like proof positive that my parents were wrong.
Will the American Academy of Pediatricians’ new statement have any effect? I can’t say. I do know that the statement is gaining news coverage—and that, at least, is something. As spanking becomes less socially acceptable—and statements like this can’t hurt—its use will decline.
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