The trouble with spanking
Editorial, Vancouver Sun, February 10, 2012
Parenting, it has often been said, is the last job we leave to amateurs. And even worse, we often give those amateurs conflicting advice about the best way to rear their children.
Take spanking, for example. Some people have suggested that spanking harms children by teaching them that they can solve their problems through violence, while others maintain that spanking is an effective form of discipline, one that ensures children will themselves live disciplined lives.
With advice like that, what's a conscientious amateur supposed to think, or more importantly, do?
Fortunately, two Canadian researchers have analyzed the academic literature on spanking over the last 20 years and have come to some solid conclusions. University of Manitoba child clinical psychologist Joan Durrant and social worker Ron Ensom of Ottawa's Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario noted that not one of the more than 80 studies they analyzed found any positive long-term effects associated with spanking.
Although a few studies found that spanking didn't have much effect one way or the other, the vast majority discovered a range of negative effects. Indeed, some research found that spanking predicted later anti-social behaviour, including delinquency and spousal assault.
These results aren't particularly surprising given that we know children frequently emulate adult behaviour, and hence they might well learn to use violence to solve their problems.
Other studies found associations between physical punishment and mental health problems such as depression, anxiety and substance abuse, while still others discovered an association between spanking and delayed cognitive development.
All of this evidence suggests that spanking is always a mistake. Nevertheless, some people suggest such research has things the wrong way around - specifically, they argue that difficult and aggressive children are more likely to be spanked, not that children who are spanked become more aggressive.
Fortunately, several of the reviews studied, tested and falsified that hypothesis. For example, some studies that controlled for children's anti-social behaviour still found an association between physical punishment and later anti-social behaviour. And furthermore, children's aggressive behaviour declined in a study in which parents were taught to rely less on physical punishment.
These studies suggest that a causal relationship between spanking and aggressive behaviour really does exist. And they suggest something else - that if we want to ensure children are raised in the best possible environments, we need to ensure that parents and potential parents are educated about the effects of, and alternatives to, physical punishment.
Many parents might, for instance, believe that spanking works since it does often result in a child ceasing troublesome behaviour. But parents need to know that those effects are likely temporary and short-term, while the damage done by spanking may be long-term or permanent.
But understanding the effects of physical punishment is at most half the battle, since parents also need to be educated about alternatives. And while such education can be accomplished in a number of ways, such as through parenting classes, Durrant and Ensom note that pediatricians need to play a leading role in both assessing how parents discipline their children and in providing them with information about what the most up-to-date, evidence-based research suggests.
If we do this, we will still be leaving parenting to amateurs, but at least they'll be receiving some top-flight coaching.
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