To Spank or Not to Spank

The American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Pediatricians sharply disagree.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recently issued a statement, “Effective Discipline to Raise Healthy Children,” in which it declares all disciplinary spanking by parents to be harmful. Here’s what the report recommends to its members: “Parents may be counseled that although spanking seems to interrupt a child’s misbehavior, it is ineffective in the longer term. For many children, spanking increases aggression and anger instead of teaching responsibility and self-control.”

There’s no doubt that spanking has fallen out of favor, certainly among many experts, as a disciplinary tool. And in the minds of some parents it’s become socially unacceptable. It’s interesting to note, however, that the authors of the AAP report acknowledge that more than 70 percent of parents today agree with the statement that “spanking is at times necessary in the discipline of young children.”

Another organization comprised of pediatricians, however, calls spanking a “valid option” for disciplining children. Dr. Den Trumbull is a member (and past president) of the American College of Pediatricians (ACPeds). He writes that the AAP report “seems based on advocacy efforts more than a fair objective summary of the scientific evidence.”

He continues:

Young children need correction and, at times, punishment from their parents to learn appropriate behavior and self-control – key ingredients for their future success in life. For the more defiant and contrary young child, timeout and reasoning do not consistently work. Compared to other corrective measures, using spanking to enforce milder tactics has been shown to result in less defiance and less aggression than 77 percent of alternative measures (including timeout) with these children.

In my book, Don’t Let the Culture Raise Your Kids, due for release this spring, I write about the parameters Dr. Trumbull recommends for parents who choose to use spanking as a method of discipline:

Use it when milder measures have failed; it shouldn’t be your first or only option. The typical ages for spanking are between two and six, because appealing to reason and consequences are less effective for smaller children. Spanking should always be a planned action; it should never be a reaction or done in anger. Spanking should never be harmful or cause bruising. To be specific, use an open hand to deliver one or two swats to the bottom. It should always occur in private, never in a public setting, in order to avoid humiliating the child. And it needs to be followed by a review of the offense, and the reassurance of the parents’ unconditional love for the child.

As I wrote in a previous column, the most commonly used arguments against spanking are that it teaches children that hitting is acceptable, potentially leading to aggressive behavior on their part, and that it causes them emotional harm. “When spanking follows a proactive, forewarned procedure, the child does not perceive that as hitting,” Dr. Trumbull told me. “However, when it’s reactive and delivered in anger, that would not be appropriate.”

The American College of Pediatricians has put out a statement called “Research on Disciplinary Spanking is Misleading.” It takes a close look at the flawed studies regarding spanking and how “misrepresenting the science on the effects of spanking in children is significant in that it is being used to influence legislators worldwide to ban spanking by parents.”

In fact, parents who choose to spank should be aware that the line between spanking and child abuse is hotly disputed these days. They run the risk of being labeled child abusers if children complain to teachers that they’re spanked at home. Legal challenges to parents who spank their children have already been raised in several states. In 2012, for example, Delaware redefined child abuse as anything that causes “pain,” and specifically bans hitting, which would include spanking. Some countries have banned disciplinary spanking altogether.

“Despite the recent avalanche of biased research against all physical discipline,” writes the American College of Pediatricians, “evidence indicates ordinary spanking to be a valid and needed disciplinary option when 2- to 6-year-olds refuse to cooperate with milder measures.”