This week, the American Academy of Pediatrics strengthened its policy on spanking in part because of the 20 years of research that University of Texas Professor Liz Gershoff has done.
The policy reads like this:
"Parents value pediatricians’ discussion of and guidance about child behavior and parenting practices.
Parents, other caregivers, and adults interacting with children and adolescents should not use corporal punishment (including hitting and spanking), either in anger or as a punishment for or consequence of misbehavior, nor should they use any disciplinary strategy, including verbal abuse, that causes shame or humiliation.
When pediatricians offer guidance about child behavior and parenting practices, they may choose to offer the following:
guidance on effective discipline strategies to help parents teach their children acceptable behaviors and protect them from harm.
information concerning the risks of harmful effects and the ineffectiveness of using corporal punishment; and
the insight that although many children who were spanked become happy, healthy adults, current evidence suggests that spanking is not necessary and may result in long-term harm.
Agencies that offer family support, such as state- or community-supported family resource centers, schools, or other public health agencies, are strongly encouraged to provide information about effective alternatives to corporal punishment to parents and families, including links to materials offered by the AAP.
In their roles as child advocates, pediatricians are encouraged to assume roles at local and state levels to advance this policy as being in the best interest of children."
The new policy comes after decades of cumulative research, some of which Gershoff collected, that revealed that spanking doesn't work and actually causes harm.
The academy's introduction of the new policy reads:
"Aversive disciplinary strategies, including all forms of corporal punishment and yelling at or shaming children, are minimally effective in the short-term and not effective in the long-term. With new evidence, researchers link corporal punishment to an increased risk of negative behavioral, cognitive, psychosocial, and emotional outcomes for children."
One of the things Gershoff found in her research is that "spanking always predicts worse behavior for kids," she says.
What spanking does accomplish in the short-term is that it does make kids stop doing what they are doing and makes them have a reaction — typically crying.
"They think it's working in the moment, but all it did was get the kid to cry," Gershoff says. She teaches in the department of human development and family sciences. "The dirty secret is that parents are an, and they feel better when they get a reaction out of their child."
In her research, parents have not been shy to tell her that they spank, but they usually say it's a couple of times a year. She wonders if they might be undercounting that.
Often who spanks is cultural. Her research has found that African American parents and religious groups with a conservative reading of the Bible tend to spank more than Latino, Asian or white parents or those with a more progressive view of the Bible.
The hope is that with this new policy more pediatricians will be talking to their patients about why you shouldn't spank and what alternatives they can use. "Parents trust pediatricians," she says.
"Everyone with a young child has to visit a pediatrician once a year," she says. "If every parent gets this message, that can be huge."
Gershoff likens it to the Back to Sleep campaign that got doctors telling parents of infants to place their children on their backs in a crib rather than on their stomachs, and the follow up campaigns to take out blankets, stuffed animals and bumpers from the crib.
If years of research shows that spanking doesn't work and actually makes kids worse, what does work?
"We want kids to do the right thing when we are not around," Gershoff says. "The way to do that is to have kids develop the sense that they want to do the right thing."
That means talking to them about consequences that are related to the act such as having them clean up the wall they wrote on or losing the use of video games if they were playing those games instead of doing homework.
It also means using positive parenting techniques such as praising kids when they make the right decision. "Kids thrive on that positive attention," she says.
Gershoff still has more questions to research when it comes to spanking. She's working on ruling out the argument the parents who spank are naturally aggressive and have children who are aggressive. Those making that argument say genetics might explain why kids who are spanked have worse behavior.
She's also looking at identical twins who have experienced different levels of spanking as well as spanking in private schools, which hasn't been studied.