Spanking toddlers makes for more aggressive kindergartners, according to a new study from Tulane University in New Orleans.
While organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Center for Effective Discipline staunchly advocate against corporal punishment, many parents continue to turn to the rod when disciplining their children.
In a 2005 online poll, 72 percent of adults reported that it was "OK to spank a child." Various studies in recent years found the prevalence of corporal punishment varied widely, from 35 percent of parents to 90 percent, authors of the Tulane study note.
In the new study, published Monday in the journal Pediatrics, researchers found that of 2,500 mothers surveyed across the country, 46 percent reported no spanking in the last month, 28 percent said they spanked one to two times, and 26 percent reported spanking more than twice.
Three-year-old children of mothers who used spanking more frequently were significantly more likely to have aggressive kids later on down the road, the Tulane researchers found.
Even when controlling for other factors that affect child aggression by age five, such as parental neglect, maternal depression and stress, and the child's aggressive tendencies as a toddler, researchers found that maternal aggression begets childhood aggression. Toddlers who are spanked were more likely to grow into kindergarteners that bully, hit, and were destructive and disobedient.
While several studies have found a correlation between physical punishment and childhood aggression, by controlling for confounding variables, the study's methods provide "very significant" results and offer strong evidence for a causal link between the two, says Jay Reeve, chief executive officer at Apalachee Center, Inc., a family-targeted mental health center in Tallahassee, Fla.
These findings offer empirical evidence of what many psychologists already suspect, notes Edward Christophersen, clinical pediatric psychologist at Children's Mercy Hospital and Clinics in Kansas City, Mo.
"Children imitate behavior that their parents model for them. If both parents use spanking as a means of controlling their children, then their children are much more likely to use physical force with playmates and siblings."
Rahil Briggs, a child psychologist with Montefiore Medical Center and assistant professor of pediatrics at New York's Albert Einstein College of Medicine, echoes this sentiment. Children "spend much of their early years looking to their caregivers for signals," she says.
"If you want to teach your child to say, 'Thank you,' then say it, in front of your child, whenever appropriate. Conversely, if you want to teach your child to hit, then hit your child as a regular form of discipline."
The Lessons of Violence
Though many child organizations now take an anti-spanking position, spanking and other forms of physical discipline still play a role in the upbringing of many American children -- even if a parent does not use corporal punishment in the home.
Twenty states still allow the practice in their public schools and according to statistics from the Center for Effective Discipline, 223,190 public school students were hit in 2008 as a form of discipline. So-called "spanking bans" for schools have been a contentious issue, especially among southern states.
While it may stop poor behavior in the short term, notes Alan Kazdin, a professor of psychology and child psychiatry at Yale University's Child Study Center, physical discipline, whether wielded by a parent or another authority figure, "fails to teach correct behavior in the long run."
What's more, research tells us that moderate to heavy corporal punishment also brings with it several negative side effects, such as increased aggression, poor academic achievement, poor parent-child relations, and increased likelihood of mental health problems, Kazdin says.
Kazdin has seen the direct connection between parental violence and childhood aggression at his clinic.
"When one trains parents to stop using corporal punishment and use other techniques, child aggression decreases," he says. "We've seen that for 30 years."
Moreover, other forms of punishment can offer an opportunity for growth, Briggs says.
"I encourage parents to consider discipline as an opportunity for education -- to teach your child impulse control, understanding of cause and effect, and effective ways to manage difficult situations," she says.
"Thus, while the very occasional spank may be appropriate, I strongly suggest other methods."