A light tap. A spank on the tush. A smack of the hand. A firm grab. Different forms and different degrees of physical punishment are commonplace across many American households.
However, experts now say those disciplinary tactics may not be as harmless as once thought.
New research suggests — despite earlier conversations about its effects on mental health — that physical punishment also affects physical health later on in life.
Other studies have shown a link between traumatic events, such as child abuse, and subsequent health problems, but the data out this week takes a look at this particular parenting practice.
“If we construe physical punishment as traumatic to a child, it is certainly plausible that physical punishment could lead to both mental and physical health problems,” says Dr. Jacqueline Smith, child and adolescent psychiatrist at University of North Carolina Hospitals.
The report looked at physical punishment that was considered harsh (pushing, grabbing, slapping, hitting) but not severe enough to be considered child abuse. It found that those exposed to harsh physical punishment had higher rates of obesity and arthritis in adulthood, and a slight connection with heart disease.
Is spanking cultural?
Despite the fact that more than 30 countries have banned corporal punishment, the United States has not, and the practice spans socioeconomic statuses, race and ethnicity.
But, of all groups, African-American families — the same group who suffers more from obesity and heart disease — have been shown to utilize physical punishment more often than other families. However, there is no clear data that says that physical punishment is the reason for these complicated disparities.
“Some see corporal punishment as the legacy of African-Americans’ violent past as slaves in this country,” says Smith. “Some African-American parents feel that because this disciplinary strategy seemingly worked for them, it will work for their own children.”
For others, the practice is viewed as prescribed by religion, Smith continues, as in Proverbs 13:24: “Whoever spares the rod hates their children, but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them.”
“Other African-American parents feel that the academic, social and legal consequences for their children’s bad behavior are so high, that they must ensure obedience and good behavior by any means, including physical punishment,” says Smith.
Not all bad
Physical punishment might not be all negative.
According to Smith, a light tap, for example, can actually help small children make a connection between bad behavior and consequences when they can’t yet communicate with words.
“However, that potential benefit comes with the risk of instilling fear in your children,” she says. “Further, it can lead to excessively harsh discipline, which has repeatedly been linked to increased aggression, antisocial behavior, physical injury and mental health problems for children. [And it] isn’t particularly effective.”
The researchers of the study recommend that physical punishment be avoided for all children based on their findings and suggest widespread dissemination of its potential harms. Their hope is that parents will find alternate ways of parenting.
Smith frequently suggests such alternatives.
“I emphasize the importance of providing clear expectations, being consistent and swift in the application of consequences, and using consequences appropriate to the situation,” she says.
For example, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry suggests a natural consequence for the teenager that stays up too late: being tired and still having to go to school. Other consequences for problem behaviors could include losing privileges or screen time, time outs or writing repetitive sentences.
Smith adds: “I also strongly encourage parents to reward positive behaviors and spend good quality time with their children to decrease the risk that they’ll have to give consequences in the first place.”
Dr. Tyeese Gaines is a physician-journalist with over 10 years of print and broadcast experience, now serving as health editor for MSNBC’s theGrio.com. Dr. Ty is a practicing emergency medicine physician in New Jersey and clinical instructor of emergency medicine at Yale School of Medicine. Follow her on twitter at @doctorty.