A spanking may hurt a child’s bottom now, and their mind later on.
Childhood spanking and other forms of harsh physical punishment can increase the chances of developing mental health disorders in adulthood, according to a newly released Pediatrics study conducted at the University of Manitoba.
“It contributes to the growing body of literature that indicates there are harmful consequences to the use of physical punishment,” said the study’s lead author, Tracie Afifi, an assistant professor at the University of Manitoba in the department of community health sciences. The study accounts for many of the confounding factors in past research, she said, like having a history of family dysfunction.
The authors estimate that eliminating childhood physical punishment could reduce the incidence of some mental health disorders in adults by up to 7 per cent.
They defined corporal punishment beyond the traditional spank on the bum to include pushing, grabbing, shoving, slapping and hitting, but excluded all forms of severe child abuse.
“This is what most of us would consider within the realm of ‘okay,’ and I think parents really, really have to start looking at how they teach their children,” said Diane Sacks, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Toronto and former president of the Canadian Paediatric Society.
Researchers used data collected between 2004 and 2005 in a national, representative U.S. survey of nearly 35,000 adults.
They found that harsh physical punishment, in the absence of child abuse and after accounting for socio-demographic variables and a history of family dysfunction, increased the odds of having mental health disorders like major depression, mania, and alcohol and drug abuse or dependence.
Though spanking is illegal in more than 30 countries, including Sweden and Costa Rica, it is still legal in Canada and the U.S.
Section 43 of the Criminal Code of Canada states that a parent or guardian is justified in using force toward a child between the ages of 2 and 12 years old to educate or correct, if the force is reasonable under the circumstances. It’s considered abuse if an instrument is used, the head is struck or if it leaves any marks, said Sacks.
People often need clarification on what’s legal, said Mary Birdsell, a lawyer with Justice for Children and Youth legal clinic.
“Typically the questions are youth inquiring about their rights and the rules of corporal punishment,” she said. The clinic is part of a committee looking to repeal Section 43.
That might be difficult, given that about 70 per cent of Canadian parents approve of or use spanking to discipline, said Gary Walters, a retired psychology professor at the University of Toronto specializing in child abuse, development and parenting.
“Most parents have a menu of disciplinary techniques,” he said, citing time-outs, sending kids to their room or withdrawing privileges. He said spanking can sometimes be an effective disciplinary technique if the child “can connect the cause and effect,” adding children react differently to it.
But Sacks doesn’t believe physical punishment teaches children the lessons intended by caregivers.
“If it imparts knowledge or a skill, the skill it teaches is how to smack,” she said.
Given this new study, Sacks said the Canadian Paediatric Society will look into changing its statement to say physical punishment shouldn’t be used.
“It’s not necessarily politically correct: people want to be in charge of their own kids . . . but we now have evidence that it’s not right,” she said.