Spanking Children Can Hurt Development of Social and Language Skills

Spanking may seem like a vestige of parenting from yesteryear, but it is still legal in the United States to spank children at home. Additionally, only 31 states have banned spanking and other forms of corporal punishment in schools.

Spanking is not physical abuse, but the distinction between what constitutes corporal punishment as opposed to bodily harm can be vague, varying on a state-by-state basis. In many cases, the terms that define the moment that legal, physical punishment crosses over into illegal abuse can be something as simple as whether a caregiver strikes a child with a closed or open fist.

While spanking remains legal in this country — it’s worth noting that last year, France became the 52nd country to make spanking illegal — a mounting body of evidence suggests that corporal punishment does more harm than good. Spanking inflicts significant emotional trauma on children and failing to be a constructive form of discipline.

The latest study on the topic of spanking reveals how disciplinary practices can even influence a child’s well-being from a permanent, developmental standpoint.

Published in the Annals of Global Health, the study analyzed growth-monitoring data from nearly 75 caregiver-child pairs who sought care at a clinic in the city of La Romana, Dominican Republic. This facility has diagnosed almost one in every ten people aged 64 or younger with a developmental disability. Within the study, nearly two-thirds of the children involved, aged five or under, had at least one developmental delay.  

Developmental delays describe skills that children don’t attain by expected time.

Corporal Punishment, Developmental Consequences

The researchers found that approximately 43 percent of the caregivers in their study reported scolding their child as a mode of discipline, and about the same proportion of caregivers said they spanked their child. Both of these forms of negative reinforcement made it more likely that the child would experience developmental delays, impairing language and socio-adaptive skills.

The investigators found spanking to be especially harmful to a child’s wellbeing. Spanked children were five times more likely to experience delays in language development than children who weren’t. In contrast, less than half of the caregivers reported using positive reinforcement as a reward for good behavior.

Low- and middle-income countries are home to over 200 million children who experience developmental delays. These developmental delays can also be traced back to diet, environment, and to the health of the parents.

Progressing Beyond Physical Forms of Discipline

The authors of the study cited previous evidence that harsh punishment can cultivate antisocial and fearful behavior in a child as well as behavioral issues like aggression that may perpetuate a cycle of abuse or corporal punishment.

Even within a child’s lifetime, spanking can create a sort of feedback loop where the child acts out as a consequence of his or her caregiver’s disciplinary practices, leading to more situations in which a caregiver feels corporal punishment is necessary.

As such, the American Academy of Pediatricians strongly recommends against ever striking or spanking a child. Instead, they suggest concepts like “time out” or just the removal of privileges. Experts are careful to point out that caregivers can also abuse these forms of discipline if they don’t apply such tactics appropriately.

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