Does spanking lead to a cycle of misbehavior?

This study says it ends the age-old debate about which comes first — the spanking or the misbehavior?

Being a parent is not an easy job. To me, it’s the toughest job in the world that requires no prior experience or four-year degree. And it’s certainly a test of a parent’s patience when a child is fussy, angry, defiant or just generally “difficult.”

When I was a kid I got a spanking when I did something my parents told me not to do. Sometimes it was a swat on the bottom, but it also could be dad’s belt or a switch from a bush out front. Fortunately, I didn’t get too many spankings — but they left a lasting impression.

That’s why I was especially interested in a new study that says parents who spank “unruly” children often get caught up in a vicious cycle that leads to more spankings and more misbehavior. The people who wrote this study say it ends the age-old debate about which comes first — the spanking or the misbehavior?

The study, published in March in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence, involved 1,900 families from 20 large American cities. Researchers from Princeton and Columbia universities interviewed parents from the time of their children’s birth until they were 9 years old. They asked questions like whether they spanked their children and if their children behaved aggressively, broke rules or acted surly or antagonistic, i.e., “unruly.”.

About one-fourth of the parents reported spanking their children as youngs as under the age of 1. This figure  rose to close to 50 percent of the parents when their children were ages 3, 5 and 9. Researchers also found that at each age the children who acted out more often got spankings that led to more acting out and, in turn, resulted in more spankings.

Researcher Michael MacKenzie, an associate professor at the Columbia University School of Social Work in New York City,  stated that “Some children are eliciting higher levels of physical discipline from their parents, and high levels of physical discipline are in turn associated with later higher levels of parental use of physical/corporal punishment.”

What I found particularly interesting is that investigators discovered even stronger evidence that spanking children before the age 1 year may be a “catalyst that starts the cycle.” Who wants that?

So what’s a parent to do, especially when we learned growing up, “to spare the rod is to spoil the child”? I asked Bryan Carter, Ph.D., a pediatric psychologist and professor in  the U of L Department of Pediatrics/Bingham Clinic, and director of the Pediatric Consultation Service at Norton Children’s Hospital, for his advice. He wholeheartedly agrees that spanking a young child is highly misguided and likely results in the parent modeling exactly what you don’t want your children to do.

“We usually discipline our children with the intent to teach them to control their emotions and behavior,” he said. “When we use physical discipline (spanking), and particularly in a heightened emotional state (anger), what the child witnesses is an adult modeling poor emotional regulation (spanking/hitting in anger).”

Dr. Carter added, “While spanking may give the child a signal as to what NOT to do, it fails to teach the important skills of problem solving and decision making, that is,what TO DO.”

He says toddlers, in particular, need to be “guided” and “taught” acceptable behaviors as opposed to relying heavily on punishing them when they do something wrong.

That’s essentially the conclusion of the Princeton/Columbia study. It suggests that parents who have especially challenging or willful children get help or advice so thay can avoid relying on physical punishment. For children under one year of age, that may involve  removing them from the situation that is associated with the bad behavior. For older children, it could be time out or loss of privileges. Of course, easier said than done, especially when you’re tired and frustrated. But based on what this study says and what our experts tell us, spanking isn’t likely to  lead to well-behaved children.  “Parenting is a long-term commitment for which there are relatively few short-term solutions,” according to Dr. Carter!


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