The American Academy of Pediatrics says alternative measures, such as setting limits and redirecting attention, are more effective.

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Doctors say corporal punishment can lead to short-term fears but has few beneficial long-term effects. Getty Images

Spare the rod and spoil the child?

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) would like to change that to “spare the rod and raise a healthier child.”

In fact, the AAP says it has found new evidence pointing to potential damage to a child’s normal brain development from spanking.

It stresses that other disciplinary methods have been found that are safer and more effective in teaching a child the difference between right and wrong.

“Effective Discipline to Raise Healthy Children” will be presented during the group’s 2018 National Conference & Exhibition this week in Orlando, Florida.

The policy statement was published today in the December 2018 issue of Pediatrics.

According to Dr. Robert D. Sege, a past member of AAP Committee on Child Abuse and Neglect, and an author of the policy statement, “The good news is, fewer parents support the use of spanking than they did in the past.”

Corporal punishment, which is understood by many people to mean spanking, is defined more broadly by the pediatric group to include such verbal abuse as shaming and humiliating.

In addition to pointing out the problems, the association also offers some solutions.

“I practice general pediatrics,” Dr. Dane A. Snyder, section chief in the Division of Ambulatory Pediatrics at Nationwide Children’s Hospital and an associate professor of pediatrics at The Ohio State University College of Medicine, told Healthline.

He said he and fellow practitioners can became a resource.

“I know parenting can be hard,” he said. “We can be used to guide our patients.”

Different approaches

Snyder calls parenting the hardest job in the world.

He said the solution starts with understanding that discipline is not a one-size-fits-all proposition.

“We need to make sure parents understand that children’s needs are different, and they change at different stages of development,” he said.

“A lot of behavior is normal,” Snyder added, a fact that sometimes disconcerts new parents.

Asking pediatricians for advice has become more frequent as patients realize what a good source of information they are, according to Snyder.

There’s not much evidence that corporal punishment, whether physical or verbal, really works, he said. He mentioned other, more successful strategies, such as distraction.

“It takes a little time to learn how to do it… and pediatricians have to learn it, too, Snyder said.

“The good news is, fewer parents support the use of spanking than they did in the past,” said Sege. “Yet, corporal punishment remains legal in many states, despite evidence that it harms kids — not only physically and mentally, but in how they perform at school and how they interact with other children.”

According to Dr. Benjamin S. Siegel, FAAP, and co-author of the policy statement, “It’s best to begin with the premise of rewarding positive behavior. Parents can set up rules and expectations in advance. The key is to be consistent in following through with them.”

Downsides to punishment

Research has shown that striking a child, yelling at, or shaming them can elevate stress hormones and lead to changes in the brain’s architecture.

Harsh verbal abuse is also linked to mental health problems in preteens and adolescents.

In one study cited in today’s published paper, the AAP found that corporal punishment and harsh verbal abuse may cause a child to be fearful in the short term, but does not improve behavior over the long term.

In fact, it may cause more aggressive behaviors. Children abused at age 3 were found to be more aggressive at age 5. Those same children at age 9 exhibited negative behaviors and receptive vocabulary scores, according to the research.

The AAP policy paper also pointed to a survey in 2004 that showed that approximately two-thirds of parents of young children said they used some form of physical punishment. By the fifth grade, 80 percent of children had been physically punished.

According to the AAP, few parents expected positive outcomes from spanking, whether by hand or using an implement such as a whip or belt, but they also believed that it took physical punishment to get the child to behave.

What parents should do

The AAP policy paper lists a number of general disciplinary measures the organization says are more effective than spanking.

Among them:

  • setting limits
  • setting expectations
  • enhancing socio-emotional skills
  • reinforcing positive behaviors
  • redirecting attention

The AAP says these alternate disciplinary methods will result in fewer traumatized children, more pediatricians acting as educators, and more parents at peace with their offspring.