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 family services division of the American Psychological Association (APA) concludes that “parents and caregivers should reduce and potentially eliminate their use of any physical punishment as a disciplinary measure.”

Psychologist Sandra A. Graham-Bermann of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, who chairs the task force, announced the recom­mendation in August at the APA’s annual meeting. 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 prepunishment behavior and development were taken into consideration.

The task force was not unanimous in its conclusion. Psychologist Robert E. Larzelere of Oklahoma State University argued that the research is flawed and that the evidence against spanking is “faulty.” In the few studies that have compared spanking with other forms of punishment, such as restriction of privileges, grounding and time-outs, all the punitive measures examined resulted in similarly negative outcomes in children, Larzelere said. He recom­mended that 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 more than 90 percent of American parents at some point and condoned by more than 70 percent of the population, according to 1995 and 2005 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 association is more robust and stronger than the correlations that have served as bases for other public health inter­ventions, such as secondhand smoke’s relation to 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.

Note: This story was originally printed with the title "To Spank or Not to Spank"