Hitting kids is no way to discipline them

In a policy statement released last month, the American Academy of Pediatrics aims to end the debate over whether corporal punishment is an acceptable parenting tool.

The verdict? It’s not.

“Corporal punishment is associated with increased aggression in preschool and school-aged children,” write Drs. Robert D. Sege and Benjamin S. Siegel, coauthors of the statement. Not only that, “experiencing corporal punishment makes it more, not less, likely that children will be defiant and aggressive in the future,” they say.

Corporal punishment can affect children’s long-term health, too. New evidence from brain imaging suggests that it slows brain development. Other studies have found that harsh punishment causes elevations in the stress hormone cortisol, which may explain poorer overall health associated with corporal punishment.

Hitting is also ineffective in teaching a child responsibility and self-control. It can convey a dangerous message: when someone does something wrong, hit them. In this way, children who are hit are more likely to hit their peers and hit their own children when they become parents.

A recent study showed increases in suicide attempts, moderate-to-heavy drinking and substance use disorder in adults who were spanked as children, effects similar to other adverse childhood events like witnessing domestic violence or having an incarcerated parent.

Despite all this evidence, corporal punishment remains widespread and deeply ingrained in American culture as a deterrent for misbehavior — “spare the rod, spoil the child.” It’s worth noting that 54 countries around the world have banned corporal punishment, including Brazil, Kenya and Mongolia. But that may be changing. Surveys show a significant decline in parents who say that hitting is necessary or good for children. This is especially the case among parents 36 years old and younger. There appears to be a generational shift away from spanking.

But abandoning spanking doesn’t mean no discipline. The word “discipline” is derived from the Latin “to teach.” Discipline is critical for healthy development in childhood. Kids need limits, rules and routines. As children learn to cope with their environment, parents play a critical role of teaching them to navigate this world. But there are better ways to teach children self-control than through hitting.

Responding constructively to children’s behavior can be challenging, but a few steps can make a big difference. First, stay calm. Take a step back and breathe a deep breath. This gives you the chance to consider why you are responding this way. To be a good teacher, which is at the heart of parenting, we need to be in touch with ourselves.

Second, try to understand your child’s behavior. It is appropriate for children to express emotion, anger or disappointment, perhaps by crying. Parents can talk with their child and support them in calming down. Praise can be extraordinarily effective in curbing bad behavior. Children want their parents’ approval, and praise is more powerful than punishment in encouraging good behavior. Catch her being good! And children can be forewarned of the consequences for bad behavior, such as not being able to enjoy a privilege (a favorite TV show for example). Then, the consequences need to be implemented, consistently and promptly, by all those caring for the child.

“We know that children grow and develop better with positive role modeling and by setting healthy limits,” says Dr. Sege. “We can do better.”

Ann Gustafson (ann.gustafson@som.umaryland.edu) is a 4th year medical student at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. Dr. Howard Dubowitz is a professor of pediatrics at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

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