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To Spank or Not to Spank?

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In 1998 the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) weighed in on parental spanking with a policy statement, designed to assist pediatricians in advising parents on the issue. The statement stops short of saying that parents shouldn't spank, but it concludes spanking is no more effective than other behavior modification activities like time-out or removal of privileges.

"Corporal punishment is of limited effectiveness and has potentially deleterious side effects," the statement reads. "The AAP recommends that parents be encouraged and assisted in the development of methods other than spanking for managing undesired behavior."

Barbara Howard, MD, who helped write the policy statement, says she had hoped to draft a stronger antispanking statement, but ran into opposition. An assistant professor of pediatrics at Baltimore's Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Howard now travels the country speaking to pediatricians about the issue. Many still condone spanking, she says, but she has noticed a shift in attitudes away from it in recent years.

"Many parents say they only spank to stop a child from engaging in dangerous behavior," she says. "But in those situations, parents get children's attention in other ways. If a child runs out into the street, for example, the parent is going to run after that child screaming, red faced, and extremely agitated. At that point the swat on the butt is not needed. The point is made."

Murray A. Strauss, PhD, who is co-director of the Family Research Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, has devoted more than 30 years to studying the prevalence and consequences of parental spanking. His 1995 national survey found that about one-third of children under the age of 1 are spanked, and more than 90% of 2 to 5 year olds are hit by one or both parents.

"Spanking is virtually universal for toddlers," he says. "Even parents who say they don't believe in spanking appear to resort to it because they think it is the only thing that works. What they don't realize is that the [relapse] rate for any crime committed by a toddler is about 80% over the course of a day, and about 50% within two hours, no matter what the punishment."

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