Last month (December 2018), the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) issued a policy statement calling for a ban on physical discipline for children.
This is a much stronger than the position AAP took in 1998: “Parents should be encouraged and assisted in developing methods other than spanking in response to undesired behaviors.” Now, pediatricians are advised to speak out against parents using spanking in addition to providing assistance with effective disciplinary strategies.
So why now?
In announcing this new policy statement, Dr. Robert M. Sege, an author of the report, explained that in the 20 years since 1998, a substantial number of studies indicate that spanking is harmful to children’s physical, mental and even their intellectual health. These studies also show that spanking is not effective in helping children learn to manage their behavior. The leadership of the Academy felt there should be a review of the research and that they should issue a much stronger statement on behalf of the nation’s 67,000 pediatricians.
There’s no benefit to spanking. We know that children grow and develop better with positive role modeling and by setting healthy limits. We can do better!”
– Dr. Robert M. Sege
What does the literature say about spanking?
There have been many studies that observe the relation between physical punishment and children’s behavior. For example, the report cites a 2016 meta-analysis — a study that combines the findings from many studies — by Elizabeth Gershoff and Andrew Grogan-Kaylor. The meta-analysis found that children who were spanked were more likely to yell, break rules, or fight, have poorer mental health and cognitive difficulties. Spanking was also associated with adult mental health problems and adult anti-social behavior.
The AAP report also cites a study of 5000 children where the children were followed several times during childhood. The children who were spanked more than twice a month when they were 3 were more likely to show aggressive behaviors at 5. Factors that might affect these results, such as the child’s initial level of aggressiveness and other family demographic and risk factors, were statistically controlled for.
In a follow-up study when these same children were 9, the researchers found that the children who were spanked at 5 were more likely to be aggressive at 9. Significant increases in aggressive behavior were seen for children spanked more than twice a week at age 5, as well as for those spanked less than twice a week, compared with children who were not spanked. In the press conference, Dr. Sege speculated that a vicious cycle may be at work: that when children are spanked, they become more (not less likely) to misbehave and then they get spanked more!
Why do parents spank children?
According to a Harris Poll, the percentage of parents who spank their children is decreasing—it dropped from 80% in 1995 to 67% in 2013. Still that leaves only one-third of parents in the never-spanking group.
I have done many, many seminars with parents and when the topic of spanking comes up, I ask parents why they spank. The most typical answers are:
I was spanked as a kid and I turned out okay.
I was pretty rebellious growing up. If I haven’t been spanked, I might have gotten into real trouble. Spanking saved me.
The Harris Poll confirms what parents tell me—those spanked as children tend to spank as parents. Among parents who were spanked, 73% have spanked their children. In contrast, only 25% of parents who were not spanked have spanked their own children.
The Harris Poll also found that the younger the parent, the less likely they are to spank: Half of what they call Echo Boomers (or Millennials) who are parents (50%) have spanked their child, compared with 70% of Gen Xers, 72% of Baby Boomers and 76% of Matures. So there seems to be a generational shift on spanking.
But even so, 50% of younger parents and 25% of those who weren’t spanked do spank — at least sometime — so why?
These parents in my seminars say that they often spank as a last resort. They have tried everything else. Nothing is working. They are at their wits end. Or they get angry at their child. In other words, they say they lose control.
Discipline that works
Effective discipline is all about self-control. At first, we as parents manage children’s behavior by teaching them rather than punishing them, and as children grow, we help them learn to manage or control their own behavior. Self-control is the goal. We want them to make wise decisions when we aren’t there so they don’t “get into real trouble.”
There is research evidence that a number of discipline techniques help children learn self-control, to listen and to manage their own behavior. Here is a brief description of seven of the most effective approaches for young children.
- Be a role model. Obviously, children learn more from what we do than what we say. If they see us managing ourselves badly—or well—in the face of challenges, they are likely to emulate our behavior. The late Gerald Patterson and his colleagues at the Oregon Social Learning Center found that when parents were irritable with their children, their children were more likely to be disruptive and irritable in school.
- Anticipate the problem and prevent it. George Holden of the University of North Carolina observed two-and-half-year-olds at the supermarket with their mothers. He found that the mothers who anticipated problems and directed their children to acceptable behavior had children who were less likely to be demanding and difficult. Understanding the settings and contexts, such as a supermarket or playground, where problem behaviors may occur, and providing children with strategies that work is an effective approach.
- Share the reasons why. Parents who explain why they are requesting a particular behavior (We need to pick up the toys so that we can find them when we want them), have children who are more compliant. Reasoning with children as a disciplinary strategy at age three was associated with decreased aggression and rule-breaking behavior at age 5.5.
- Notice and acknowledge when children behave well. Parents reinforce positive behavior each time they notice and praise their children for behaving well, such as disagreeing with an adult in a respectful way or dressing themselves in the morning. Remember to praise the specific behavior. For example, rather than saying “Good job,” point out exactly what the child did well: “You got yourself dressed this morning!”
- Use an other-oriented approach. When I wrote the bookThe Preschool Years, I discovered the research of Martin Hoffman of New York University and his concept of other-oriented discipline, in which parents make children aware of the effect of their behavior on another person. This may involve pointing out the direct consequences of the child’s behavior on someone else: “When you tease your sister, it makes her angry and sad.” Or it may involve pointing out your response. Hoffman found that children were more likely to listen to others and be more considerate if parents used other-oriented discipline—except when parents accompanied this message with harsh discipline, severe threats or physical force. The power of the harsh discipline apparently blocks the lessons of the other-oriented discipline. Hoffman’s approach continues to influence research today, especially for children’s prosocial development. For example, in one study, mothers’ use of an other-oriented approach during childhood and adolescence was positively related to sympathy and concern of adults aged 25-32, as reported by the adults’ friends!
- Make sure the consequences fit the misbehavior. Setting consequences, discussing the consequences with the child and following through in a consistent and non-punitive way is also an effective approach. Please note that the consequences must be something the parent can stick to: “You won’t be able to play with your friend for a month,” for example, is not likely to stick. Consequences also need to fit the situation: “If you spill something, you must wipe it up.”
- Promote children’s autonomy and decision making — what I call Plan B. Autonomy refers to helping children learn to use their own skills in solving problems as they are developmentally able to do so. Stephanie Carlson and her colleaguesof the University of Minnesota has found that parents can be over-controlling (fixing problems for their children), under-controlling (letting anything happen) or autonomy supportive (giving children skills and choices in solving problems). She and her colleagues have found that young children who experience parenting that supports their autonomy are likely to demonstrate better academic achievement, executive function skills and social-emotional-cognitive development. An example is a five-year old who has trouble giving back a smart phone. Before giving him the phone, the parent might ask the child what he plans to do when screen time is over (what I call Plan B), then could have have him generate lots of ideas, discussing which plans will work and which might not, and why. When this child decided that he would play with Legos, a show-down fight was avoided at the time while the child’s self-control and problem solving abilities were strengthened.
Importantly, all of the above strategies work best within a parent-child relationship that is warm, supportive and affectionate!
It’s also about heart, not just mind
In my experience, the parents who want to spank can hear about effective ways to manage their children’s challenging behavior and still spank when push comes to shove. This ban will need more than research evidence.
It will need heart. In seminars I have done, hearing the emotional messages of “reformed spankers” has been the most powerful impetus for change, such as the parent who voluntarily speaks out:
I used to believe that because I was spanked, it was okay, that I did turn out well. But then I really remembered how it felt to be spanked—the deep humiliation, the anger, the I-am-going-to-get-you-back attitude. And I didn’t want that for my child. I didn’t want that to color our relationship. So I vowed to do better. And I am.
In announcing the new AAP policy, Dr. Sege said:
There’s no benefit to spanking. We know that children grow and develop better with positive role modeling and by setting healthy limits. We can do better!
1. Meuwissen, A. S., & Carlson, S. M. (2019). An experimental study of the effects of autonomy support on preschoolers’ self-regulation. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 60, 11-23.
Ellen Galinsky is the chief science officer at the Bezos Family Foundation where she also serves as executive director of Mind in the Making. In addition, she is a senior research advisor for the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). She also remains president of Families and Work Institute. Her life’s work revolves around identifying important societal questions as they emerge, conducting research to seek answers, and turning the findings into action. She strives to be ahead of the curve, to address compelling issues and to provide rigorous data that can affect our lives.