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Why the American Psychological Association says parents shouldn't spank their kids

Corporal punishment doesn't work. Here's what does.

Why the American Psychological Association says parents shouldn't spank their kids

It's 2019 and it's time for American parents to put spanking behind them, say experts. The American Psychological Association (APA) joined the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) this year in taking a strong stance against spanking, telling parents that it is harmful and doesn't work anyway.

The APA's "Resolution on Physical Discipline of Children By Parents" was adopted in early 2019 as "research indicates that physical discipline is not effective in achieving parents' long-term goals of decreasing aggressive and defiant behavior in children or of promoting regulated and socially competent behavior in children."

"The use of physical punishment on children has been declining in the United States over the past 50 years," APA President Rosie Phillips Davis said in a release to media. "We hope that this resolution will make more parents and caregivers aware that other forms of discipline are effective and even more likely to result in the behaviors they want to see in their children."

Back in November the AAP issued it's policy statement telling parents that discipline strategies should "not involve spanking, other forms of corporal punishment or verbal shaming."

The AAP's updated statement came 20 years after a previous policy statement on the subject, in which the AAP simply encouraged parents not to spank. But a body of research compiled over the last two decades has AAP strengthening its position on corporal punishment.

"Aversive disciplinary strategies, including all forms of corporal punishment and yelling at or shaming children, are minimally effective in the short-term and not effective in the long-term," the authors of the AAP statement write, citing multiple studies linking corporal punishment negatives outcomes for kids.

"One of the most important relationships we all have is the relationship between ourselves and our parents, and it makes sense to eliminate or limit fear and violence in that loving relationship," Dr. Robert D. Sege, a pediatrician at Tufts Medical Center and the Floating Hospital for Children in Boston, and one of the authors of the statement, told the New York Times.

When researchers analyzed multiple studies on the impact of spanking, it became clear that children don't benefit from it. One study found that kids "resumed the same behavior for which they had been punished" within 10 minutes after a spanking, while another links harsh corporal punishment with reduced gray matter and lower IQ scores.

Researchers also found that spanking traps kids and parents in a negative cycle. Basically, the more spankings a child gets, the more they act out, which leads to more spankings. It's a no-win situation for everyone.

All of the research points to outcomes that are the opposite of what parents wish for when trying to discipline their children. Experts are pleased to see the current generation of parents is less likely to spank than previous generations, and hope the trend towards positive reinforcement and empathy continues, and that parents move away from using physical force, shame and humiliation (because they don't work anyway).

The AAP suggests the following strategies instead of spanking:

Model appropriate behavior and tell your kids what you expect from them.

Be clear and consistent when setting limits for your kids, and explain them in age-appropriate ways.

Explain that there are consequences for breaking rules, and be prepared to follow through (for example, if a child doesn't pick up their toys when asked, the adult will remove the toys from the room for the rest of the day).

Listen. The AAP notes that this step is important. When we listen to our children's problems, we can talk to them about patterns we are noticing in their behavior.

Pay attention to them. According to the AAP, "the most powerful tool for effective discipline is attention—to reinforce good behaviors and discourage others."

Redirect your child if they're misbehaving out of boredom, and plan ahead for situations when you think behaving will be hard for kids. Talk to them beforehand if such as situation is coming up, and let them know what you need from them (for example: "Mom is going to vote tomorrow and you're coming with me. I need you to be really respectful of others at the polling place, and use your library voice."

Take a time-out when needed. According to the AAP, when a specific rule is broken, a quick timeout (one minute per age of the child) can be effective. The AAP notes times outs work best if we warn our kids before they get a time out, and start the time out without using a lot of words or emotion. (Like, "You broke that item after I asked you not to. Now you'll be in time out for five minutes).

Bottom line: Corporal punishment doesn't work. But love, empathy and attention do.

[A version of this article was published November 5, 2018. It has been updated.]

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