To Spank or Not To Spank

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The great spanking debate continues to rage in the United States.

Pastor Silas Coellner, a newly promoted middle school vice principal in Massachusetts, recently stoked this debate with an online sermon that advocates spanking.

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Massachusetts pastor under fire after controversial spanking comments

While Pastor Coellner doesn't advocate spanking at school, his comments about the importance of spanking a child when that child is still crawling got our attention. The U.S. already stands out as one of the few high-income countries to allow by law spanking of our children in the home and school, acts that if done to another adult would be criminal assault.

Other countries work to curtail this type of punishment through programs to educate or support parents and promote alternatives to spanking. Research suggests that such alternatives are favorable ones; being spanked has been shown to increase the risk for childhood behavior problems, impact development, and lower IQ. It increases the propensity for the child becoming violent by teaching a child that hitting is appropriate conflict resolution. Numerous studies, show that children who are spanked are more likely to be victims of child abuse and more likely to become adults who abuse their partners and children.

We don't advocate for abandoning discipline; we advocate for discipline that is appropriate to teach a child the important lessons of growing up: being safe, respecting others, telling the truth, et cetera. Discipline should teach, not crush the heart of defiance or inflict pain‚ as advocated by Pastor Silas Coellner.

Spanking very young children is particularly aberrant and abhorrent. An infant's ability to understand the messages will be limited. There is nothing an infant can be taught with pain that they cannot learn from the firm voice of a loving parent. The societal response to parents adhering to Pastor Coellner's advice will be problematic for them. A recent UNC survey of 345 health and medical professionals revealed that 97.5 percent of them consider spanking an infant under 14 months to be child abuse.

Spanking Infants Is Child Abuse, Professionals Say

Those who follow the advice of Pastor Coellner to spank children when they reach the crawling stage "and you can see that heart of defiance," would be child abusers in the eyes of most legal and medical professionals. Among those who regard spanking a child to be appropriate discipline, Pastor Coellner is nearly alone in recommending that parents strike infants. His statement that "If you don't discipline them, they hate you" underscores an impoverished insight into the purpose and modalities of discipline. Infants are not developmentally capable of willful misbehavior. If they misbehave, it is most often due to random behavior or exploration of the environment. If that behavior is unsafe, children can be guided simply by a firm "no."

Good parents will avoid unsafe opportunities for exploring infants and use gentle redirection to avoid most occasions for discipline. Dr. James Dobson of Focus on the Family, a proponent of corporal punishment in some circumstances, states that there is no excuse for spanking babies or children under 15-18 months of age. The American Academy of Pediatrics states that children less than 18 months are more likely to be injured by spanking and unlikely to understand the connection between the behavior and the punishment. They do not, outright, advocate against all corporal punishment, but take a more moderate approach in recommending that parents be encouraged to develop other methods of effective discipline.

Spanking may be nearing the end of its worldwide run as the favorite method of disciplining children. It has been outlawed in 24 European, Asian, and South American countries in efforts to eliminate this type of violence. Its use in schools and institutions has been sharply proscribed in the U.S. Recent data suggest that less than half of U.S. children have been spanked in the last year, though as many as 90 percent of children ages 3-5 have been spanked.

An immediate target for behavior change is ending the widespread practice of using an object such as a belt or a stick when disciplining a child; nearly 50 percent of U.S. children between 7 and 9 years old have been hit with an object in the past year.

Ban on Corporal Punishment Should Be Considered

We don't expect an outright ban on corporal punishment but urge its consideration. More limited bans clarifying national values, such as a legislative bans on use of objects to hit children and a ban on hitting children not old enough to walk, might be more politically feasible. Raising children is challenging work, but parents in the 24 countries where corporal punishment is prohibited -- and many millions of U.S. parents -- are raising well-behaved and productive citizens without spanking.

As physicians, we see the challenges of parents in our clinic and hospital everyday. Parents need support for child rearing and to learn a broad range of skills for teaching the lessons of childhood. We encourage parents to learn about time out, time in, positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, and token economies (or reward systems) among other techniques.

A comprehensive and consistent approach, without violence, by loving parents can teach children the lessons of growing up that we all want them to learn without instilling lessons that society can ill afford.

Dr. Zolotor is an assistant professor of Family Medicine and Dr. Runyan is a professor of Pediatrics and Social Medicine, both at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Both Runyan and Zolotor see of children with injuries suspected for abuse. They both have an extensive history of research and publication regarding family violence, child abuse, and corporal punishment.