Child discipline (or training) is essential to healthy child development. Parents need effective methods to discipline their young children, and research shows that appropriately applied disciplinary spanking can be one of them. Recent studies, however, claim that all disciplinary spanking is harmful to children. This research has been used to ban disciplinary spanking in many countries, and activists are preparing to lobby US legislators to follow suit. The American College of Pediatricians has reviewed this conflicting research and identified significant flaws in those studies that assert universal harm. See our critique of this research here.
The College urges all parents to rely first upon non-physical forms of corrective discipline, such as redirection, time out, explanations and acceptable compromises. However, when these methods fail, scientific evidence supports the limited use of a narrowly defined disciplinary spank. A recent meta-analysis identified an optimal type of back-up spanking, which led to less defiance or aggression than 77% of alternative disciplinary tactics. This same study found that outcomes of disciplinary spanking were worse than outcomes of other disciplinary responses only when used too severely or as the primary disciplinary response. Back-up disciplinary spanking can be used non-abusively when a child refuses to comply with milder corrective techniques, such as time out. Back-up spanking teaches a defiant child to cooperate with the milder disciplinary technique, thereby reducing the need to use disciplinary spanking in the future. Parental discipline that uses this form of disciplinary spanking has been associated with long term reductions in behavioral problems in children.
Research opposing all forms of corporal punishment neglects the findings of these better designed studies in which disciplinary spanking is well defined, employed only for defiance, and distinguished from abusive punishments. Spanking should only be used when children fail to respond to milder disciplinary tactics (e.g., time out) or fail to stop harmful misbehavior (e.g., running into a street). Parents should ensure that their children know that disciplinary actions are motivated by love and concern for their well-being. Parents need a full range of non-abusive disciplinary options to guide their children toward achieving their full potential, rather than having effective options eliminated on the basis of inadequate evidence. Further information on disciplinary research can be found here on the College website.