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52 Countries Have Just Banned Spanking Kids: Should the US?

Blog 52 Countries Have Just Banned Spanking Kids: Should the US?

Although views about spanking skew less favorably today than in decades past, the tide is turning slowly, says Ann Lagges, Ph.D., a psychologist at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health. The shift, however slow, likely reflects a growing number of studies finding an association between corporal punishment and negative mental health consequences.


It is now officially frowned upon to spank children in France. Child abuse was already illegal in the country, but shortly before this Christmas, France passed the Equality and Citizenship Bill, which bans any cruel and degrading treatment of children, including corporal punishment (defined by the American Academy of Pediatrics as inflicting pain in response to undesirable behavior, which includes slapping a child’s hand away from a hot stove and physical abuse such as burning, beating, and scalding). The bill’s approval makes France the 52nd country to implement such a ban, now following countries like Israel, Iceland, Sweden, Brazil and Argentina.

French parents won’t face criminal charges if caught spanking kids, but the ban is considered an important symbol of commitment that “encourages positive discipline and education of children through nonviolent means,” read a statement by Marta Santos Pais, the United Nation’s Special Representative to the Secretary-General on Violence Against Children. Some parents in France might be less enthusiastic, considering that two-thirds of them said they have spanked their children, according to a French poll. French parents appear less paddle-happy when you break down the poll results, however: Although a little over 20 percent said they occasionally spank their kids, and only 2 percent said they hand down a spanking punishment “often.” One-third of French parents said they have never spanked their children.

In 2013, a poll found that two-thirds of American parents reported that they had spanked their children and one-third said that they had never done so. But more than 80 percent of parents in the poll expressed the opinion that spanking is sometimes appropriate punishment; only 19 percent said it never is.

Although views about spanking skew less favorably today than in decades past, the tide is turning slowly, says Ann Lagges, Ph.D., a psychologist at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health. The shift, however slow, likely reflects a growing number of studies finding an association between corporal punishment and negative mental health consequences.

In a 50-year study of 160,000 children, for example, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Michigan concluded that spanking kids appears to increase the likelihood of antisocial and aggressive behavior and cognitive difficulties. An earlier study of adults found a correlation between a history of harsh physical punishment with increased odds of mood and anxiety disorders and substance abuse.

In addition to potentially damaging kids’ mental health, spanking could be falling out of favor because it isn’t effective in changing behavior, experts contend. Although it might get kids’ attention the first time you smack, it won’t have as much impact, so to speak, the next time, Dr. Lagges says. And because parents often spank when they’re angry, they don’t have as much control over what they’re doing, she adds, which increases the risk that a child will be hurt more than the parent intended.

Still, spanking is common in many of the families she sees, Dr. Lagges says. Parents often point out that they were spanked as children and turned out fine, and what’s more, they say, “time outs” for bad behavior just don’t work. “Many parents have this fear that ‘If I don’t do this, they’ll never learn or they’ll be spoiled,’” she says. “But there are other ways of making sure a child isn’t spoiled.”

Instead of spanking to correct behavior, reinforce the behavior you want to see, Dr. Lagges says, particularly with smaller children who can’t yet understand reason. When a small child pulls a dog’s tail, you might take his or her hands and say no, then show the child how to pet the dog gently. When the child mimics petting the dog, praise him or her to reinforce the behavior.

With older kids, it helps to tell them “Here’s what I want to see from you,” Dr. Lagges says. If grade-school aged kids stick with you at the grocery store or handle being denied a candy bar without complaining, crying, or making a scene, tell them later how proud you are that they behaved so well, or offer a trip to the park after the groceries are put away.

A common reason time outs aren’t considered by many parents to be effective is because they’re not carried out consistently, according to a discipline guide published by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Parents shouldn’t continue talking to kids during the time out or children might start to see them as a way to get attention, Dr. Lagges says. Such a punishment also needs to be developmentally appropriate; time outs won’t be effective on kids too young to understand why they’re happening.

“The vast majority of children who are spanked won’t be scarred for life, but it does raise the risk of mental health problems,” she says. “We’re learning that there are better ways to manage kids’ behavior.”

-- By Virginia Pelley

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