An end to physical punishment of children.
Should anyone, ever, hit their children? The weight of evidence from the psychological literature has leaned increasingly in the direction of ‘no’, but recent research presents the strongest case yet. A recent review1 pulls the vast body of work in this area together and makes strong case against physical punishment – likening it’s effects to straight-up physical abuse. The scale of this issue is staggering: in 2012, amongst 11,000 US families surveyed, 30% of mothers of pre-schoolers admitted hitting their children in the last week, and 80% said they believed in it as a parenting tool 2 . Large numbers of health care professionals also think physical punishment can be, in moderation, a useful (or at least harmless) parenting tool.
But how do these beliefs stand up in front of the evidence? And what other parenting options are there?
How do we know this hitting children is detrimental?
Clearly, you can’t run a randomised control trial to test the effects of spanking children on later outcomes (for instance, on their behaviour, later IQ, mood, etc). To do this, half the children would have to be purposefully smacked (clearly unethical), and the study would be hopelessly flawed in any case (by variations in parents beliefs, adherence to study protocol etc). As a result, we rely on observational or self-report studies. These can include parental reports of attitudes and behaviours, children (or adults) report of what happens them, or analysis of social service records. Gershoff and colleagues pull a variety of evidence together, and focus on studies whose designs support an argument (if not 100% direct evidence) of causation (using something called Hill’s criteria).
“[The] links between physical punishment and detrimental outcomes for children are consistent across cultural, family, and neighbourhood contexts. The strength and consistency of the links between physical punishment and detrimental child outcomes lead the authors to recommend that parents should avoid physical punishment, psychologists should advise and advocate against it, and policymakers should develop means of educating the public about the harms of and alternatives to physical punishment.”
There is not much wriggle room there- physical punishment is harmful to children. Period. The authors of the paper highlight the subsequent harms as including disruptive, delinquent, or aggressive acts in children. They also show that the evidence suggests a moderate amount of physical punishment has the same negative relationship with outcomes as greater ones (just with a proportionate magnitude), and no evidence supporting physical punishment with better behaviour. Gershoff’s qoute above reflects the work of other experts in the field. For instance Durran & Ensom (2004) 3 argues that, following their own review 4 :
“The evidence is clear and compelling — physical punishment of children and youth plays no useful role in their upbringing and poses only risks to their development. The conclusion is equally compelling — parents should be strongly encouraged to develop alternative and positive approaches to discipline.”
A better way?
If you are reading this and do hit your children, you likely mean well – you love your child and want what is best for them in the long run. But the results you will likely get are not what you likely want. So what is the alternative? Take some time to look at other parenting styles and reflect on what may work for you. An alternative approach I (try to!) follow is positive parenting, and may be something to think about. Positive parenting is not being lax, permissive or ‘soft’. It is about being a positive role model, rewarding positive behaviours, and coaching children to decide how to behave for themselves, in the absence of you watching over them. I don’t think my way of parenting is any better than anyone elses (and I routinely make snap parenting decisions I later regret!), but I have found it a good set of guiding principles. A full discussion of positive parenting is beyond the scope of this article, but I have suggested some titles below which give great (and evidence-based) descriptions and techniques. Why not check them out, and make up your own mind?
Some books I recommend on positive parenting* (also works for US/World readers)
This article is inspired by an article by Arash Emamzadehwriting for PsychologyToday, and drawing on the some of the source material. I don’t often follow suit from others like this (at all!), but this one is important.
- Gershoff, E. T., Goodman, G. S., Miller-Perrin, C. L., Holden, G. W., Jackson, Y., & Kazdin, A. E. (2018). The strength of the causal evidence against physical punishment of children and its implications for parents, psychologists, and policymakers. American Psychologist, 73(5), 626-638. ↩
- Gershoff, E. T., Lansford, J. E., Sexton, H. R., Davis-Kean, P., & Sameroff, A. J. (2012). Longitudinal links between spanking and children’s externalizing behaviors in a national sample of White, Black, Hispanic, and Asian American families. Child Development, 83, 838-843. ↩
- Durrant, J. E., & Ensom, R. (2004). Coalition on Physical Punishment of Children and Youth.(2004). Joint statement on physical punishment of children and youth. ↩
- Durrant, J., & Ensom, R. (2012). Physical punishment of children: lessons from 20 years of research. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 184(12), 1373-1377. ↩