Spanking can make young children aggressive, study says

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Lawrence Newman, a psychologist at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, often finds it tough to talk to parents when the subject turns to spanking their kids.

"You can't argue with them," he said. "The parents say, 'But it works!' "

Their proof: the kids immediately stop misbehaving.

But at what price? Apparently, the risk of increased aggression on the part of the kids, according to a large, comprehensive study released today by the American Academy of Pediatrics. It is published in the May issue of the academy's journal, Pediatrics.

Researchers in the national study, directed by lead author Catherine A. Taylor of Tulane University, interviewed 2,461 mothers about their use of corporal punishment and their children's aggressive behavior at ages 3 and 5. Key demographics and eight potential parental factors that could affect the children's behavior -- for example, psychological maltreatment, domestic violence, depression and substance use -- also were covered.

After statistically controlling for those demographics and behavioral influences, the researchers still found that spanking a child of 3 more than twice a month was associated with an increased risk for higher levels of aggression at age 5.

Local experts noted that there have been similar studies with similar conclusions in the past but praised this one for its complexity and completeness.

"The results are consistent with earlier studies but perhaps a little more convincing because so many of those other factors are so well-controlled in this study," said Anthony Mannarino, vice president of the psychiatry department in the West Penn Allegheny Health System.

"The study is very clear," said Dr. Newman, of UPMC. "When multiple other risk factors are factored out of the statistics, corporal punishment itself is at [age] 3 predictive of aggressive behavior at 5 years old."

Child psychologists and pediatricians long have tried to persuade parents to use nonviolent punishments like timeouts, and 45.6 percent of the mothers studied reported no use of spanking in the previous month. But 27.9 percent reported spanking once or twice, and 26.5 percent reported spanking more than twice.

The latter two numbers did not surprise local child experts.

"It was a little lower than I thought it might be," Dr. Mannarino said. "Spanking children is part of the culture to some extent."

"It's common because it's been part of parenting routines for generations and, of course, handed down by generations, whereas [antispanking] campaigns are usually brief and fairly impersonal," said David Kolko, director of the Special Services Unit at Western Psychiatric Institute & Clinic.

"The concern with it is that parents may begin to use it in situations where it may be less appropriate or safe, especially if they use more physical force or use it frequently and indiscriminately."

And it sets a bad example.

"It's the old adage, children learn more from what they see than from what people say," Dr. Mannarino said. "It's like parents who say don't smoke when you grow up but they smoke anyway."

What parents should do when a child misbehaves is to try to turn it into a positive experience. That's possible even when the child is no older than 3.

As an example of what he calls "social repair," Dr. Newman used an incident in which a toddler grabs a toy from another child. "If he can do that, he is able to go back to that child, give the toy back, give a hug and say 'I'm sorry,' " he said.

Timeouts also are a superior alternative to spanking -- if they're done correctly, Dr. Mannarino said. "A timeout where the kid is sent to his room and is watching TV is not a timeout ... a child on the lap of a mother who is soothing him is not a timeout."

Rather, a timeout is a few minutes without any positive reinforcement. "It feels like a long time for a young child."

The sample of mothers used in the study was obtained from the earlier Fragile Families and Child Well-being Study. That group of 4,898 was obtained from 1998 to 2000 by sampling births in cities with populations over 200,000 in 1994.

The research was supported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.


Pohla Smith: psmith@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1228.


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