I recently ran across a study about spanking children. I didn't think too much of it as I was seduced by the article I previously blogged about regarding the breakthrough with mirror neurons. This morning on my way to work I was listening to a morning radio show as I usually do and the topic turned to the study I had seen previously. The discussion raised many questions and some slightly heated opinions from listeners. So what is the deal? Let me attempt to give you the short and sweet version.
A study was recently published in the journal Pediatrics. Specifically the study examined mothers spanking their three year old children and if this showed a relationship with later aggressive behavior in the children. 2,461 children were examined across 20 large U.S. cities. The analysis including controlling for several potential confounds: maternal child physical maltreatment, psychological maltreatment, and neglect, intimate partner aggression victimization, stress, depression, substance use, and consideration of abortion. The study found that mothers' spanking more than twice in a month showed a significant relationship with increased risk for higher aggression in the children at the age of 5. Therefore it was conlcuded that while CP may be effective in a short-term, immediate situation, there may be consequences for its repeated and extended use.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended that parents should not use spanking or more encompassing - corporal punishment. The American Psychological Association also released a resolution on CP but only specifically targeted use in schools and other facilities and made no mention of its use in parenting. In the United States, parental corporal punishment is not restricted as it is in other contries such as Sweden where it is outlawed (outlawed in 1979) along with countries such as Germany, New Zealand, Iceland, Netherlands, Norway et cetera. In some other countries such as in Scotland where CP is legal but using "implements" is illegal.
During the radio show people expressed the usual array of discussion points as is normally heard when discussing the topic:
"I was spanked, I'm fine"
"I spank my kids and they behave"
"What about all the kids in stores who don't mind their parents? They need a spanking!"
"I think spanking is bad, I never hit my kids"
"I was spanked as a kid and I'd never do it to my kids"
"We use time out with our kids and they behave just fine"
I will have to note that these are more paraphrases from callers' opinions than exact quotes since I'm working from memory. Being a science-minded person when attempting to assess a topic I tend to stay away from subjective and/or anecdotal evidence which is what most people provide - based on their experiences during their childhood or as a parent. However, even in the scientific arena, with social behavior it can be difficult to be exact and not everything is easily quantifiable.
For instance, a 1996 review of short-term coporal punishment found it could increase desired behavior in children but it didn't seem to really differ from alternative displine actions in effectiveness.
A later review performed in 2003 concluded that using CP had "inherent risks" for the children both physically and psychologically.
Other research has contested many studies on the grounds of researcher bias and the lack of fully operationalizing terms such as "corporal punishment" and pointing to studies citing its effectiveness in the short term.
However these criticisms are eclipsed by studies such as the one appearing last year in Neuroimage where Harvard Medical School researchers (using fMRI) found harsh corporal punishment - by their criteria as when an object (e.g., belt, paddle and hair brush) was used on occasion for the purpose of disciplining a child, provided it did not extend beyond the buttocks, was not conducted out of anger, and did not result in injury; with a frequency of 12 episodes per year - had a significant effect upon the prefrontal cortex of young adults. These young adults who were exposed to harsh corporal punishment showed reduced volume in sections of their prefrontal cortex (PFC) - the part of the brain which performs the executives functions (such as impulse control and reasoned decisions) and is involved in working memory.
Other studies have found reduction in cognitive abilities and even effects upon I.Q.
Punishment as a means for behavior modification is quick and simple based upon the classical conditioning paradigm - link a beahvior with pain and the behavior ceases. Unfortunately, it's not that simple - even in behavior modification there can be problems such as generalization or association of pain with the wrong behavior. But parents aren't given classes in behavior modification and many still rely on punishment as a behavior modifier - many because it was how they were disciplined as children.
While alternatives to punishment and even to the now well-known "time outs" exist, these are more complicated and require more time and effort which may not be on a parent's list while in the grocery store.
So what are you saying Crobar? Should I spank my kids or not?
Well that's not for me to say - I'm not one to tell you how you should or shouldn't deal with your child's behavior; with the obvious exception of punishment involving harm to the child such as the man in Las Vegas who punched his girlfriend's 16 month old daughter to death (she suffered from a shattered skull).
I'm not a parent (yet), I'm not a researcher or clinician in this area and therefore not an expert so I have no authority to say what parent's should and should not do. However, like everyone on the radio show this morning and, I'm sure, here on the website - I'm offering my opinion and sharing what information I have. You make your own decision.
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