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Does Spanking Lead to Trouble Later?

Early Spanking May Increase Chances of Problem Behavior

WebMD Health News

May 3, 2004 -- Spanking kids younger than 2 years old greatly increases the chances of problem behavior when they reach school age, a Johns Hopkins University study shows.

The report, by Eric P. Slade, PhD, and Lawrence S. Wissow, MD, appears in the May issue of Pediatrics.

"For white, non-Hispanic children, those spanked at least once during a particular week were twice as likely as children not spanked to need parent-teacher meetings when they reached school age," Slade tells WebMD. Children that were spanked were 40% more likely to be ranked by their parent in the top 10% of behavior problems.

"This is the very high end of behavior problems," he says.

The findings come from a huge number of interviews with mothers collected in a Labor Department-funded study from 1979-1998. Women in this national sample were interviewed every two years. Slade and Wissow's study included data on about 2,000 children followed for four years.

Spanking Common Form of Child Discipline

At the age of 3 to 4 years, 19 out of 20 U.S. kids get spanked at least once a year. But would anyone spank a child younger than 2? Yes. According to a 2001 survey, parents report spanking:

  • 11% of kids 6 to 11 months old
  • 36% of kids 12 to 17 months old

  • 59% of kids 18 to 23 months old

If so many parents do it, can it be wrong? Yes, says child discipline expert J. Burton Banks, MD, assistant professor of family medicine at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City.

"Spanking is typically inappropriate at any age, but particularly for children younger than 18 months," Banks tells WebMD. "Kids that young don't understand the implications of their actions or cause and effect. Spanking doesn't change their behavior."

That's the behavioral issue. But Banks says there's an even more important physical issue.

"In younger children there is a greater chance of injury," Banks says. "The more frequently spanking is practiced, the less effective it comes. So the tendency of the parent is to escalate the severity -- often to the point of injuring the child, whether it's intentional or not."

Spanking, Banks says, is the form of punishment most likely to cross the fine line between child discipline and child abuse.

Cultural Context of Child Discipline Important

Interestingly, Slade and Wissow found no link between early spanking and later behavior problems in black and Hispanic children.

"Spanking may have very different consequences for children depending on the family circumstances in which spanking is used," Slade says. "And those circumstances may differ depending upon racial and ethnic background."

In white families, Slade notes, frequent spanking was linked to unfavorable family situations: lower family income, parents who did not complete high school, and mothers with symptoms of depression. This was not the case in black or Hispanic families.

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