May 5, 2010

Parenting Expert Warns Against Physical Punishment

Questions for Alan E. Kazdin, PhD, on the physical punishment of children.

Corporal punishment of children has long been a topic of controversy in the United States. According to some studies, more than half of all U.S. parents condone spanking as a regular form of punishment for small children. Other studies have shown spanking to be harmful to children. So when children misbehave or act out, what should parents do? APA spoke with Alan E. Kazdin, PhD, John M. Musser professor of psychology at Yale University and director of Yale's Parenting Center and Child Conduct Clinic. He was APA’s 2008 president and is the author of many professional-audience books on child psychology and behavior.

APA: Some parents spank their child not only to punish him or her but to change their child’s behavior. Does spanking have that effect?

Dr. Kazdin: Spanking is not a very effective strategy. It does not teach children new behaviors or what to do in place of the problem behavior. It is also not useful in suppressing the problematic behavior beyond the moment. Research indicates the rate of misbehavior does not decline, in fact, the problem behavior returns, even if the parent escalates the punishment.

APA: What other types of physical punishment do some parents use?

Dr. Kazdin: The task is to help children change their behavior, and physical punishment is not needed to accomplish that. Developing positive opposite behaviors, i.e., the desired behaviors that the parent wants, is much more effective.

APA: What are some of the alternative methods for disciplining children that parents would be well-advised to employ? How do these alternative methods work? Why are they more effective? Where can parents find resources to learn these alternative methods?

Dr. Kazdin: Positive reinforcement for alternative behaviors is extremely effective. This is not just rewards or points but the use of antecedents (what comes before behavior), behavior (shaping and gradually developing, repeated practice), and consequences (e.g., specially delivered praise).There is a whole area of research (applied behavior analysis) devoted to this and some parenting books, too. Visit Dr. Kazdin's website.

APA: What is the difference between physical punishment and child abuse?

Dr. Kazdin: Child abuse is defined individually by the states in the U.S. and the definitions vary — some focus on where on the body the child is hit; others focus on whether objects are used, and so on. The key issue is that moderate-to-severe physical punishment has all sorts of long-term negative consequences for the child including in the areas of academic performance and mental and physical health. One need not abuse a child to achieve those very unfortunate effects.

APA: Are there social, environmental or economic stressors that may cause a parent or caregiver to be more likely to use physical punishment with children?

Dr. Kazdin: Yes, stressors can contribute to abuse; parent expectations for what the child can and ought to do can contribute, too. I have worked with parents who abused their infants because they would not stop crying. Another parent beat a 10-year-old boy because he forgot one item on a grocery list when he was sent to the store by himself. Both the crying and forgetting something have a technical name in psychology: They are called “normal.”

APA: What are the effects on children who are disciplined with physical punishment? For instance, are they more likely to be aggressive with their siblings, peers or others?

Dr. Kazdin: Research on very mild, infrequent spanking (e.g., one time/month) is inconclusive. When a parent moves beyond that to moderate or severe physical punishment, there are all sorts of untoward consequences — educational delays, psychological disorders and physical disorders, too.

APA: What do you say to the parent who says, “My parents spanked me, and I turned out OK”?

Dr. Kazdin: There are people who smoke cigarettes and live to be 100 but that does not refute the findings that smoking is likely to lead to early death. Exceptions are interesting (some people who contract HIV do not get AIDS) but they do not alter the finding and it would be foolhardy to think that one is an exception.

APA: What kinds of research would provide more conclusive evidence on the effects of physical punishment of children and provide insight into alternative forms of discipline?

Dr. Kazdin: There is a good deal of research that has already been conducted that shows that anything beyond very mild physical punishment does not work in the long term and has negative consequences. While not all child development experts agree, my advice to parents is to avoid physical punishment altogether; there are simply more effective ways to teach and discipline your child.

The American Psychological Association, in Washington, D.C., is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States and is the world's largest association of psychologists. APA's membership includes more than 152,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 54 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 60 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance psychology as a science, as a profession and as a means of promoting health, education and human welfare.