Pediatricians Say, ‘Don’t Spank Your Kids!’ Here’s Why + What to Do Instead

Spanking linked to later behavioral and emotional problems

It’s time for parents to abandon the old adage that kids “deserve a good spanking” every once in a while, health experts say.

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The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recently issued a strong statement advising parents not to spank their children, based on a growing pile of studies showing that the disciplinary technique does more harm than good.

Research over the last 20 years has demonstrated that spanking increases aggression in young children and is ineffective in changing their undesirable behavior, the AAP says. Studies have also linked spanking to an increased risk of mental health disorders and impaired brain development.

The AAP is an influential professional association that represents some 67,000 pediatricians across the country. But this evolution in thinking about parental discipline isn’t just limited to medical professionals – fewer parents raising children today seem to support spanking. In a 2013 poll, about half of parents under the age of 36 reported having spanked their own children. Among all of the older generations, that number was 70% or higher.

Does spanking work? What the science says

“The new AAP statement includes data that show that kids who were spanked in their early years were more likely to be more defiant, show more aggressive behavior later in preschool and school, and have increased risk for mental health disorders and lower self-esteem,” says pediatrician Karen Estrella, MD.

While spanking may create a sense of fear in the child in that moment, it will not improve behavior over the long term, experts say. In fact, regular spanking normalizes the act of hitting and can lead to aggressive behavior that encourages continued conflict between the parent and child.

“Children view their parents as role models,” Dr. Estrella says. “Aggressive behavior will only generate more negative behaviors in a child.”

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In its statement, the AAP also condemned verbal abuse, explaining that yelling in a way that insults, humiliates or shames a child also has negative effects on brain development.

“Research shows that kids exposed to toxic stress have changes in their cognitive capacities later on,” Dr. Estrella says.

More productive discipline strategies

The AAP recommends three steps to effectively disciplining a child:

  • Establish a positive and supportive parent-child relationship that gives the child a reason to demonstrate good behavior.
  • Use positive reinforcement to encourage the child to behave.
  • If necessary, use other disciplinary methods such as time outs or taking away a child’s favorite privileges for a period of time.

Dr. Estrella builds on those and other recommendations from the AAP with these additional tips:

Be a role model. Make it a priority to remain calm, with the understanding that your child looks to you to be an example of how to behave.

Set rules and limits that can be enforced consistently among all caretakers. There should be no good guy/bad guy for a child with multiple caretakers. Make sure that rules are verbalized using age-appropriate language.

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Constantly praise and celebrate good behaviors. Give attention to behaviors that you want your child to repeat. Show that you are observant and proud when she behaves well.

Similarly, know when not to respond. “Ignoring a bad behavior, for example if a child throws himself to the floor because he wasn’t allowed to play on the iPad, is a good way to make that behavior decrease with time,” Dr. Estrella says. “In this case, the child will learn that throwing a tantrum will not get him the iPad.”

Learn from past experience. What triggers your child’s misbehavior? If you can identify a trigger, are there ways to avoid it, or at least better prepare for it? Make sure your child knows what the consequences will be if she doesn’t comply with your requests or misbehaves in a certain situation.

Redirect bad behavior. Turn “don’t do that” into an action that your child can do. If she takes a toy from a playmate, for example, offer her another toy or activity until it’s her turn.

Call a time out when a rule is broken. Remove the child from that situation for a pre-set amount of time, which can be one minute per year of age. Explain in a short phrase why you are doing it. Once the child get older, let him lead the time out by saying, “Go to time out and come back when you are calm and ready.” This can teach the child to understand his emotions, actions and consequences, Dr. Estrella explains.

“Talk with your pediatrician if those behaviors are common at your kid’s age about what strategies to use,” she adds. “If needed, a pediatric psychologist as well as community resources can provide parenting classes for additional guidance or support.”

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