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Posted: May 7, 2010 12:30 a.m.

Spare the rod and save the child?

People have been arguing about the value of corporal punishment of children for a very long time. Fanning the flames of this debate has been conflicting research supporting the opposing ideologies. Recently, however, a five year effort to review the scientific literature by the family services division of the American Psychological Association has reached a conclusion, "parents and caregivers should reduce and potentially eliminate their use of any physical punishment as a disciplinary measure."

Sandra Graham-Bermann, a psychologist at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor was the chair of this APA task force. In presenting the finding of their studies at APA’s annual conference this past August, she announced that 15 experts in child development and psychology found that physical punishment tends to increase childhood anxiety and depression, increase behavior problems such as aggression, and impair cognitive development.

Not everyone on the task force agreed with Dr. Graham-Bermann’s conclusions. Psychologist Robert E. Larzelere of Oklahoma State University argued that the research was flawed and that the evidence against spanking was "faulty." In comparing spanking with other forms of punishment, such as restricting privileges, grounding and time-outs, all the punitive measures examined similarly lead to negative outcomes for in children. His recommendation is that parents use spanking as a back up when less stringent forms of punishment don’t work. According to Dr. Larzelere, "premature bans against spanking may undermine loving parental authority."

The rest of the APA task force disagrees with Larzelere and strongly recommend not using corporal punishment. They also stand in opposition to the beliefs of most Americans. According to surveys conducted in 1995 and 2005, 90 percent of American parents use physical punishment at some point, and 70 percent of Americans condone spanking.

Murray Straus, a sociologist and researcher at the University of New Hampshire was a consultant to the APA task force, pointed out that the evidence against spanking is correlational, not showing a direct cause and effect. He reports that this association, however, is much more robust and stronger than the correlations in other public health interventions, such as the relationship of second hand smoke to cancer, exposure of lead and IQ scores in children, and exposure to asbestos and laryngeal cancer. He concludes, "I am confident we will eventually arrive at the same place for corporal punishment."

After reviewing the majority and minority positions of the task force, the APA will issue its official recommendation at a later time.

Dr. Kirven Weekley is a clinical psychologist with offices in Covington and Norcross. He specializes in the evaluation and treatment of adults for depression, anxiety, relationship problems and medical issues. He can be reached at (770) 441-9244.

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