In from the nippy October weather, Phoenix Brown, 3, is playing with a toy train at a neighbor's house when it's whisked from his hands by his younger playmate. His screams are futile, but the bite marks Phoenix leaves in her little arm are not. His mother, speechless by his sudden belligerence, is apt to give him the standard spanking. But she withholds, realizing that this form of discipline is not helping. As his spankings increase, so will his aggression, say experts presenting the strongest evidence yet that physical discipline can be a catalyst for mental health problems later in life.
A recent survey, led by researchers at Tulane University in New Orleans, followed nearly 2,500 youngsters in 20 cities at ages 3 and 5 over two years. The study found that the odds of a child being more aggressive — defiant, physically violent, prone to temper tantrums — at age 5 increased by 50 percent if he had been spanked more than twice a month. In lieu of conversation on "Good Morning America" and online parenting sites, the study has peaked the interest of parents wondering what disciplinary action, outside of spanking, can be most effective.
"Children need guidance and discipline," Catherine Taylor, community health sciences professor and co-author of the study, told the Deseret News. "However, parents should focus on using positive, non-physical forms of discipline that are appropriate to the child's age."
The study was the first of research regarding the effects of physical discipline to control other factors — including parents' use of drugs or alcohol, depression, stress levels, or spousal abuse — that can contribute to a child's aggression. The association still remained.
"The findings of the study are not surprising," said Ron Ensom, with the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario in Ottawa. "They are consistent with the growing body of research that has demonstrated that physical punishment has enduring — actually lifespan — consequences that include poorer mental health."
A cultural frame
Notwithstanding the recommendations of the American Academy of Pediatrics against spanking, most parents in the U.S. approve of and have used corporal punishment as a form of child discipline, the study found.
For Lisa and Ken Brown, spanking had become a daily part of discipline in their home in North Ridgeville, Ohio, because that was how she and her husband grew up. "We had been conditioned to think it was what you were to do to be a good parent," Lisa Brown said.
The survey found that 45.6 percent reported not spanking their 3-year-olds in the previous month, 27.9 percent reported spanking once or twice that month, and 26.5 percent reported spanking more than twice.
Many countries outside of the U.S. have taken legal action to change parenting tactics. Since Sweden's first corporal punishment ban in 1979, spanking has been outlawed in 32 countries, including Spain, Israel and Scandinavia.
For many of these countries, it has, more than anything, helped engender a mindset. "If we as parents cannot convince our children with words, then we shall never convince them with violence," said a member of the Swedish Parliament when the bill on the anti-spanking law was put forward.
Spanking, however, remains controversial as critics find the results of these studies difficult to evaluate. "You can't assess its effects like you would a drug, in a randomized controlled clinical trial, because it's unethical for researchers to instruct a random group of parents to spank their kids and a second group not to," science writer Melinda Wenner Moyer wrote in an article for Slate.
Discipline as a tool
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