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Health & Pregnancy

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The 'Bottom Line' on Spanking

Corporal Punishment Increases Risk of Aggression, Other Negative Behaviors; Experts Disagree


Robert E. Larzelere, PhD, who co-wrote the commentary, tells WebMD that the main issue is not whether parents use corporal punishment, but how they use it. Severe physical punishment by out-of-control parents is extremely harmful and can never be justified. But a swat or two on the bottom by a parent who is not overly angry can be useful, he says.

His own research suggests that spanking is most effective in 2- to 6-year-olds when it is used to back up milder disciplinary methods, such as reasoning and time out. After the age of 5 or 6, when reasoning becomes an important part of socialization, spanking should be abandoned, he says.

"Mothers who combined reasoning with negative consequences had the most success in changing negative behaviors," Larzelere says. "Such usage is not only effective in reducing defiance and fighting, but children then cooperate better with the milder discipline methods, rendering further spanking less necessary."

National surveys suggest that 94% of parents acknowledge spanking their children by the age of 3 or 4, and most say they do it because it is more effective than any other means of discipline.

But Gershoff contends that any form of physical punishment sends the mixed message to a child. When loving parents model aggressive behaviors by spanking, she says, they reinforce the idea that physical aggression is the way to get what you want.

"This research also showed that spanking is associated with a poorer relationship between the parent and child," she says. "Children who were spanked felt less attached to their parents and less trusting of them, and the more they were spanked the less close was the relationship."

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