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Should parents spank their kids? Probably not, task force concludes

stern parent with daughterTORONTO—Corporal punishment has long been a hotly debated subject, with conflicting study results and opposing ideologies feeding the fire. Now the results of a five-year effort to review the scientific literature are in: a task force appointed by the American Psychological Association concludes that "parents and caregivers should reduce and potentially eliminate their use of any physical punishment as a disciplinary measure."

The recommendation was announced at the APA's annual meeting here today by the task force chair, psychologist Sandra A. Graham-Bermann of the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. In a presentation, she explained that the group of 15 experts in child development and psychology found correlations between physical punishment and an increase in childhood anxiety and depression, an increase in behavioral problems including aggression, and impaired cognitive development—even when the child's pre-punishment behavior and development was taken into consideration.

The task force was not unanimous in its conclusion, however. Representing the minority view, psychologist Robert E. Larzelere of Oklahoma State University argued that the research is flawed and the evidence against spanking is "faulty." In the few studies that have compared spanking to other forms of punishment, such as restriction of privileges, grounding, and "time outs," all the punitive measures tested showed similarly negative outcomes in children, Larzelere said. He recommends parents use spanking as a backup when gentler forms of punishment are not working. "Premature bans against spanking may undermine loving parental authority, " Larzelere said.

Most members of the task force disagree with Larzelere, however, and stand firm in their recommendation against corporal punishment, which is still used by over 90 percent of American parents at some point in time, and condoned by over 60 percent of the population, according to 2007 survey data. Long-time physical punishment researcher Murray A. Straus, a sociologist at the University of New Hampshire who served as a consultant to the APA task force, pointed out that although the evidence against spanking is in the form of correlations (not direct causal proof), the effect is more robust than for the correlations that have served as bases for other public health interventions, such as secondhand smoke and cancer, exposure to lead and IQ scores in children, and exposure to asbestos and laryngeal cancer. "I am confident we will eventually arrive at the same place for corporal punishment," Straus said.

The APA is reviewing the majority and minority positions of the task force and will issue its official recommendation at a later date.

Image ©iStockphoto.com

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