Laying down the wooden spoon:
By Jyll Walsh, DrPH, Assistant Director of PCA Georgia & Melissa Cameron, MPH, Graduate Research Assistant
In 2018, the American Academy of Pediatrics as well as Prevent Child Abuse America took a strong stance against the use of physical discipline on children, calling for the abolition of physical punishment (PP).
PP, also known as spanking, slapping, popping, whooping, or smacking is defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as “the intentional use of physical force against a child that results in or has the potential to result in physical injury” and is often used with the desire to modify a child’s behavior1,2.
The use of PP among children is banned in 65 nations beginning in 1979 with Sweden and includes other countries such as Japan, Colombia, and Greece.
PP is legal in every state in the United States, and there are 16 states, such as Georgia, that even permit the use of PP in schools. Mandated reporter laws in Georgia specifically uphold the right of caregivers to use PP if it causes no bodily injury3. However, the evidence is clear that PP does in fact physiologically harm children immediately with repercussions throughout their life.
Evidence from decades of research confirms the detrimental effects of PP, and it has recently been considered an adverse childhood experience (ACE) by the CDC since its impact is similar to that of other ACES such as physical abuse4,5,6.
Moderate PP has been associated with numerous short-term negative outcomes in children, including increases in aggression and antisocial behavior, impaired cognitive ability, and decreased self-esteem6,7,8.
Studies have also demonstrated that there are long-term impacts for adults who report being spanked as a child, including an increased percentage of suicide attempts, moderate to heavy drinking and substance abuse, and violence in romantic relationships2,9. Moreover, exposure to frequent and harsher PP reduces gray matter volume by 14-19% in the prefrontal cortex of a child’s brain10. When this area of the brain is altered, a child may struggle to regulate their own emotions and behaviors and to interpret the behaviors of others.
Despite the consequential outcomes of PP, the continued use of PP is greatly influenced by perceived social norms and the belief there is an overall benefit to the child (e.g. increase in parental respect, decrease in misbehaviors)11,12.
Contrary to these beliefs, research has shown parents who spank report the same or higher frequencies of misbehaviors by children and that spanking is damaging to the parent-child relationship6,12,13.
The use of PP is also likely to be intergenerational, as individuals who were physically punished as children are more likely to endorse and use PP as adults8.
Although discipline is an integral part of child-rearing, complexities deriving from cultural norms, personal experiences, and beliefs make it challenging to discuss, let alone address directly with programming6,12,14.
Given the potential negative impact of PP, it is important to understand the current social norms and practices to better inform education efforts.
Prevent Child Abuse Georgia Surveys Georgians’ Attitudes and Use of Physical Punishment
In 2020, Prevent Child Abuse America conducted a national survey using random sampling and weighted measures to assess the current behaviors, attitudes, and norms associated with the use of PP. Within the national sample, Prevent Child Abuse (PCA) Georgia analyzed responses from 507 adult Georgians and constituted the following key findings based on their responses.
Key Finding 1. Social Norms and Attitudes Toward Physical Punishment Remain High
- When asked about their own experiences with PP, 81% of Georgians reported experiencing some form and frequency of PP during their childhood.
- Most respondents believe that PP instills discipline, and moral and social conduct.
- Half (50%) of Georgians strongly or somewhat agreed that “it is sometimes necessary to discipline a child with a good, hard spank” compared to 45% of respondents from the national sample.
Table 1. Georgian Adults’ Response to “I believe sometimes it is necessary to discipline a child with a good, hard spank” by Ethnicity (N=507)
Even when broken down by ethnicity, as seen in Table 1, the majority of Georgian’s believe it is sometimes necessary to discipline a child with a good, hard spank, except for Hispanic respondents who had the lowest approval of spanking. This demonstrates how normalized and accepted the use of spanking is across various cultures in Georgia.
Key Finding 2. Although the Use of Physical Punishment is on the Decline, Current and Future Use Persists
- Of Georgians with children, 35% reported using PP at least monthly compared to 31% of respondents from the national survey.
- Of caregivers who spank, 46% “don’t feel okay about it.”
- Among Georgian’s who weren’t yet parents but planned to have children (Table 2):
- 38% did not intend to spank their child,
- 19% felt neutral, and
- 38% intended to spank their child compared to 28% from the national survey.
- However, 61% of future parents said they would use spanking as a last resort.
Table 2. Future Parents’ Intentions to Use Spanking (n=206)
Key Finding #3. Georgians Uphold the Right of the Parent to Use Physical Punishment but Do Not Support It’s Use in Schools
- Only 21% of Georgians surveyed would not support a law prohibiting personnel from paddling or spanking children in educational settings.
- Over half (54%) of Georgians surveyed said they would not support a law prohibiting all spanking that occurs, even amongst parents.
- The majority (66%) of respondents believed it is a parent’s right to spank their children if they think it necessary.
Big News for Prevention Efforts
The results from this survey demonstrate promising trends in the reduction of PP. In the 1980’s, 77% of caregivers reported using PP compared to 35% of Georgian caregivers surveyed in 2020. However, PP is still broadly used, believed to be of benefit to the child, and viewed as an acceptable practice and right of a parent.
Considering nearly half of the caregivers who use PP “don’t feel okay about it,” this is an opportune time for prevention efforts that provide education and promote positive parenting practices.
- PCA Georgia offers training to equip family-serving professionals with the skills and tools needed to have difficult conversations surrounding the use of PP. Family-serving professionals report having difficulty discussing PP with caregivers due to favorable social norms and intergenerational and religious practices15,16. Messaging research shows that education and programming directed at parents should include the consequences associated with PP, research showing PP to be ineffective, and recommended alternative discipline methods17. Strong communication skills that support not shame, are necessary to motivate behavior change in families18.
- Organizations can change social norms and create safe spaces for families by implementing No Hit Zones. No Hit Zones are a national initiative that helps organizations develop policies and practices to stop PP from occurring at their offices. For example, in waiting rooms at pediatrician’s offices or child advocacy centers. It provides signage, policies, and resources for staff to address the use of PP when they see it occur and provide supportive parent education. The advice of trusted providers, such as pediatricians or home visitors is shown to influence parental attitudes toward PP, a critical factor in changing behavior19.
- PCA Georgia is encouraging everyone to lay down the wooden spoon in favor of positive discipline strategies that support the healthy development of children. Bans or laws aren’t needed to change people’s use and attitudes toward PP. In fact, engaging parents through trusted professionals is a more family-centered and effective approach. Georgia’s higher rates of approval and use of PP in comparison to Prevent Child Abuse America’s national survey highlight the greater need for awareness and education in our state.
- Straus, M. A. (2000). Corporal punishment and primary prevention of physical abuse. Child Abuse & Neglect, 24(9), 1109–1114. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0145-2134(00)00180-0
- Afifi, T., Ford, D., Gershoff, E., Merrick, M., Grogan-Kaylor, K., Ports, K., MacMillian, H., Holden, G., Taylor, C., Lee, S., and Peters Bennet, R. (2017). Spanking and adult mental health impairment: The case for the designation of spanking as an adverse childhood experience. Child Abuse and Neglect, 71: 24–31. doi:10.1016/j.chiabu.2017.01.014
- Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2019). Definitions of child abuse and neglect. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children’s Bureau. Retrieved from https://nic.unlv.edu/pcan/files/define.pdf
- Ma, J., Lee, S., Grogan-Kaylor, A. (2021). Adverse childhood experiences and spanking have similar associations with Early behavior problems. J Pediatr, 235:170-177. doi: 10.1016/j.jpeds.2021.01.072.
- Heilmann, A., Mehay, A., Watt, R. G., Kelly, Y., Durrant, J. E., van Turnhout, J., & Gershoff, E. T. (2021). Physical punishment and child outcomes: a narrative review of prospective studies. Lancet (London, England). https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(21)00582-1
- Gershoff, E. & Grogan-Kaylor, A. (2016). Spanking and child outcomes: Old controversies and new meta-analyses. Journal of Family Psychology, 30(4), 453-469.
- Berthelon, M., Contreras, D., Kruger, D. & Palma, M. (2020). Harsh parenting during early childhood and child development. Economics and Human Biology, 36 https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ehb.2019.100831
- MacKenzie, M., Nicklas, E., Brooks-Gunn, J. and Waldfogel, J. (2014). Spanking and children’s externalizing behavior across the first decade of life: Evidence for transactional processes. J Youth Adolesc. 44(3): 658-669 1007/s10964-014-0114-y
- Schwartz, J. P., Hage, S. M., Bush, I., & Burns, L. K. (2006). Unhealthy parenting and potential mediators as contributing factors to future intimate violence: A review of the literature. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 7(3), 206–221.
- Tomoda, A., Suzuki, H., Rabi, K., Sheu, Y. S., Polcari, A., & Teicher, M. H. (2009). Reduced prefrontal cortical gray matter volume in young adults exposed to harsh corporal punishment. NeuroImage, 47 Suppl 2(Suppl 2), T66–T71. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2009.03.005
- Taylor, C., Fleckman, J., Lee, S. (2017). Attitudes, beliefs, and perceived norms about corporal punishment and related training needs among members of the “American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children”. Child Abuse & Neglect, 71, 56-68.
- Holden, G., Miller, P., & Harris, S. (1999). The instrumental side of corporal punishment: Parents’ reported practices and outcome expectancies. Journal of Marriage and Family, 61(4), 908-919. doi:10.2307/354012
- Holden, G. W., Williamson, P. A., & Holland, G. W. O. (2014). Eavesdropping on the family: a pilot investigation of corporal punishment in the home. Journal of Family Psychology: JFP : Journal of the Division of Family Psychology of the American Psychological Association (Division 43), 28(3), 401–406. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0036370
- Bornstein M. H. (2012). Cultural approaches to parenting. Parenting, Science and Practice, 12(2-3), 212–221. https://doi.org/10.1080/15295192.2012.683359
- Michalopoulos, C., Lee, H., Duggan, A., Lundquist, E., Tso, A., Crowne, S., Burrell, L., Somers, J., Filene, J., & Knox, V. (2015). The mother and infant home visiting program evaluation: Early findings on the MIECHV program. OPRE Report 2015-11. Washington, DC
- Monteiro, M. (2016). The four challenges of home visitation programs: Alcohol and substance abuse, intrafamilial violence, and mental disorders. Home visitation programs (pp. 9–11). New York: Springer.
- Porzig-Drummond, R. (2015). ‘Help, not punishment’: Moving on from physical punishment of children. Children Australia, 40(1), 43-57. doi:10.1017/cha.2014.47
- Frankel, R. M. (2001). Cracking the code: Theory and method in clinical communication analysis. Health Communication, 13(1), 101–110.
- Taylor, C., Fleckman, J., Scholer, S., Branco, N. (2018). U.S. pediatricians attitudes, beliefs, and perceived injunctive norms about spanking. J Dev Behav Pediatr, 39(7), 564-572.