Opinion Spanking is harmful to children. Why do schools still allow it?

(Washington Post staff illustration/Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Joel Warsh is a pediatrician in Los Angeles specializing in integrative medicine.

What decade are we in? A school district in southwestern Missouri has decided to bring back corporal punishment — otherwise known as spanking, in this case with paddles — as a way to discipline students.

Parents in Cassville, Mo., learned recently that spanking would once again be allowed in school, the Springfield News-Leader reported, adding that “each family will be asked to opt in or out.”

Perhaps more shocking than a school district reinstating paddling is that parents would opt in. And they are. Speaking to the Associated Press, one grandparent-guardian of an 8-year-old defended the practice: “The child is getting spanked once; it’s not beatings.”

As a pediatrician and child wellness advocate, I am here to tell schools but especially parents: Written permission or no, reviving this archaic form of punishment is a horrendous idea.

When it comes to parenting, there are few topics with enough data to support one clear, “right” approach: Should I sleep-train “cry it out”-style or try the “fade-out” method? Should I use timeouts or redirection? Based on the available evidence, reasonable people can disagree. But if ever there were a practice with a mountain of research supporting its abolition, corporal punishment is it.

As recently as 20 years ago, physical punishment of children in schools was often accepted by educators as an appropriate method of discipline, distinct from physical abuse. But this perspective began to change as studies found links between physical punishment and child aggression, delinquency and spousal assault later in life. Research has also vividly underscored spanking’s negative effects on children’s social-emotional development, self-regulation and cognitive development.

In 2016, a meta-analysis of 75 of the most rigorous studies on the effects of spanking — representing more than 160,000 children — found that despite its widespread practice, there was no evidence that spanking improved behavior. To the contrary, spanking was associated with an increased risk of negative outcomes, such as aggression, antisocial conduct, mental health problems, negative parent-child relationships, impaired cognitive ability, low self-esteem and risk of further physical abuse from parents.

Researchers also concluded that for adults, prior experience of spanking was strongly associated with not only adult mental health problems and antisocial behavior, but also with positive attitudes about spanking. Spanking is a self-perpetuating cycle. And regardless of force, the brain cannot distinguish it from abuse.

It’s worth noting that the meta-analysis studied only openhanded spanking. The spanking approved by schools involves hitting children with wooden instruments possibly half as large as they are. Hitting an adult with a large wooden board would constitute an assault. There is a reason corporal punishment of adults is banned in U.S. prisons and military training facilities — it is a cruel and unusual violation of an individual’s rights.

For health-care providers, all this has led to clear guidance about spanking. The American Academy of Pediatrics highlights corporal punishment’s potentially deleterious side effects and recommends other methods for managing undesired behavior. You will find similar sentiments from just about every other medical organization.

Yet the practice persists. In addition to Missouri, 18 other states allow corporal punishment of children at school, beginning in preschool. At least 69,000 children were subject to corporal punishment during the 2017-2018 school year (the most recent reported data), according to the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights.

And while the rate of parental spanking has declined to about 35 percent overall, a 2019 survey showed that for children ages zero to 9, 49 percent had been spanked in the past year. It also found that spanking escalated strongly at age 2, peaked at ages 3 to 4 and continued to affect a majority of children until age 8 — not only the ages at which children are most vulnerable but also during the most critical time for their brain development.

In Missouri, the Cassville School District dropped its use of corporal punishment in 2001. So to see it embracing spanking anew is shocking and concerning. Pediatricians, educators and parents everywhere should take a strong stance against the practice. The data demands it. So does our duty to stand up for the care and rights of children.

Discipline should teach, not punish — and its goal should be to build children’s self-discipline, which comes from within, so they are better able to regulate their behavior and become resilient, responsible, respectful adults. Many other forms of discipline — such as enforcing clear, consistent boundaries, using positive reinforcement and modeling desired behavior — do not involve physical harm and have been thoroughly studied as better alternatives.

Schools across the country that allow physical assaults on children must put an end to those policies now, before they cause irreversible damage to their victims — and before they are allowed to perpetuate or greenlight spanking at home. Justifying spanking as “old-school” or “traditional” is unacceptable. Let’s not go back to a time before we knew what was truly best for our children.