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Canadian medical journal urges national ban on spanking children

A new Canadian study on corporal punishment reviewed two decades of research on spanking and found that physical punishment has no positive long-term effects and many negative effects.
A new Canadian study on corporal punishment reviewed two decades of research on spanking and found that physical punishment has no positive long-term effects and many negative effects.

An editorial in Canada's top medical journal Tuesday called for an outright national ban on spanking of children. It's part of a national effort to remove spanking as a legally allowed "corrective" physical punishment in Canada's criminal code.

The editorial in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, written by editor-in-chief John Fletcher, is part of a growing movement to strike down Section 43 of the Criminal Code of Canada, according to The Globe and Mail.

Fletcher called spanking an "anachronistic excuse for poor parenting."

"I'm not sure the message has got out that regular physical punishment isn't a good way to get kids to behave properly and can lead to later problem," he told the Globe. He described regular physical punishment as more than twice a month.

Fletcher also cited analysis by Joan Durrant and Ron Ensome that looked at 20 previous studies on corporal punishment. Their analysis said physical punishment doesn't work better than other disciplinary methods and can cause harm, including aggression and emotional problems, as well as substance abuse.

Durrant is an associate professor at the University of Manitoba who created a guide to discipline, "Positive Discipline." It was sponsored and distributed by Save the Children Sweden and the Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children. The brochure talks about children being a parent's responsibility but not property, and offers suggestions on challenges from postpartum depression to parent moods, a child's temper, anger, reasoning and the impact of criticism, among other things.

Not everyone agrees parenting should be totally hands-off. A study reported in Newsweek a couple of years ago by one of the authors of the book "NurtureShock," Bo Bronson, considered cross-ethnic and international research on spanking by Drs. Jennifer Lansford and Ken Dodge. "Their data suggested that if a culture views spanking as the normal consequence for bad behavior, kids aren't damaged by its occasional use," wrote Bronson for Newsweek.

Bronson also outlined one of the big challenges to spanking research: In the past, most kids had been spanked at least once, so it has been hard to find study controls to compare that form of discipline against. That is beginning to change.

A new study, Portraits of American Life, is a long-term project including interviews with 2,600 people and their adolescent children every three years for at least two decades. Among the first bits of data that are now being analyzed are interviews with teens, one-fourth of whom have never been spanked.

But a researcher working with that data, Dr. Marjorie Gunnoe, told Bronson she didn't find that kids who had never been spanked were better off. She cross-referenced spanking information with data on the bad outcomes that spanking is feared to cause, including antisocial behavior, early sexual activity, physical violence and depression. And she looked at it against good things like academic rank, hope for the future, confidence and other factors.

"What she discovered was another shocker," wrote Bronson. "Those who'd been spanked just when they were young — ages 2 to 6 — were doing a little better as teenagers than those who'd never been spanked. On almost every measure."

Gunnoe said those who were last spanked between ages 7 and 11 didn't fare badly, either. They were slightly worse off on bad outcomes, but also mildly better off on good ones. The only group faring poorly were the teenagers who were still being spanked as teens. They did considerably worse on the bad outcomes.

Bronson's guess is that consistency of discipline is what counts.

The American Academy of Pediatrics, in the meantime, reported this summer that physical punishment, including spanking and hair yanking and slapping, can lead to later mental illness. "Harsh physical punishment in the absence of child maltreatment is associated with mood disorders, anxiety disorders, substance abuse/dependence and personality disorders in a general population sample," it said. "These findings inform the ongoing debate around the use of physical punishment and provide evidence that harsh physical punishment independent of child maltreatment is related to mental disorders."

It said harsh physical punishment when one was a child could be responsible for as much as 7 percent of mental disorders later.

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