SALT LAKE CITY — When kids bring home their report cards on a Friday, reported child abuse injuries go up on Saturday, according to a new study in JAMA Pediatrics.
It's yet another finding that supports a plea from the American Academy of Pediatrics that parents stop using physical punishment, including spanking, to discipline children.
Hitting a boy or girl hoping they’ll behave better or earn higher grades doesn’t work, and there is evidence that it actually harms the parent-child relationship,” says Dr. Antoinette Laskey, chief of the Division of Child Protection and Family Health at the University of Utah’s Health Sciences Center and medical director of the Center for Safe and Healthy Families at Primary Children’s Hospital.
She wants parents to stop physically disciplining children and instead try positive parenting techniques. And she feels so strongly about it that she penned an editorial for JAMA Pediatrics to accompany the study.
Corporal punishment causes “lasting harm to a developing child. No studies have shown that the use of harsh physical discipline or corporal punishment had the desired effect of positive behavioral change in children,” Laskey wrote.
The study was prompted by rumors — which turned out to be valid — that parents are more apt to harshly discipline children when report cards come home right before the weekend, said lead author Melissa Bright, a researcher in the Anita Zucker Center for Excellence in Early Childhood Studies at the University of Florida.
The researchers looked at child abuse reports across Florida where person-caused physical injury occurred, she told the Deseret News. While it's been billed in headlines as a spanking study, spanking was just one possible form of physical discipline. Bright said potential injuries also included being hit, broken bones and burns.
The study “didn’t parse out” what types of injuries were seen, just that they occurred.
The children involved were ages 5-11. The study found a nearly four-fold increase in abuse with Friday report cards compared to other days of the week. A report sent home on a Tuesday or Wednesday, for example, doesn't spark the same increase in abuse the following day.
Nor was it just an any-weekend uptick, Bright emphasized. Spikes were only seen on Saturdays the day after report cards came home.
“We don’t know for sure that bad report cards were responsible,” she said, “though one could imagine they played a role in what could be corporal punishment gone too far.”
Nor did they figure out why the weekend increase in abuse, though Bright said they considered some possibilities: Perhaps parents were less restrained because kids were less likely to come in immediate contact with people required to report suspected abuse, like teachers. Or maybe parents were tired and stressed from the work week and that impacted discipline. They also considered whether parents might be more likely to use drugs and alcohol on the weekend, changing how they discipline children.
There is also some speculation that the holidays are a prime time for child abuse as families spend more time together and may also feel more pressure, but studies are inconclusive.
While most explanations for the weekend increases are also speculation, Bright said there's no speculation about corporal punishment hurting kids.
A JAMA editor invited Laskey to editorialize on the study in her role as a pediatrician expert in child abuse. He wondered if a policy change regarding report card release days would erase the problem, she said.
“I wish it were that easy. The core issue is that if someone feels that a child should be physically punished due to their performance in school, changing the day is unlikely to change the behavior of the parent.”
Laskey said there’s “an abundance of research demonstrating that corporal punishment has negative consequences for children and does not cause positive behavioral changes.” Besides that, typically, over time, it requires escalated force to get a child’s attention, which increases the chance of physical abuse, she added.
Parents and others argue over the effectiveness of corporal punishment as a tool. The 2018 American Family Survey, a nationally representative poll conducted by YouGov for the Deseret News and the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University, found that 54 percent of Americans agree at least a little that "it is sometimes necessary to discipline a child with a good, hard spanking." Just 29 percent disagree. That's not, of course, the only form of corporal punishment.
Laskey wrote that 19 states still allow corporal punishment in schools, even though 112 countries ban it. It’s banned at home in 24 countries, too.
Regardless, Laskey wonders why parents would choose that over other, proven disciplinary techniques.
Laskey advises parents to consider a child’s developmental age and adapt positive strategies when kids are very young.
“Praising young children for good behavior, demonstrating behaviors we want our children to exhibit (not hitting, yelling, swearing), setting limits and boundaries are positive parenting tools when kids are little,” she notes.
“Older children very much need to hear about the things they do right and the good decisions they make,” Laskey said. “Talking with children about why their actions are not what you would have wanted them to be and what they could have done instead allows them to learn from an episode and apply the knowledge to the future.”
She said parents may want to put themselves in time out if they are getting too frustrated by a child’s actions. It’s easy to blow up, so hitting pause allows parents to cool down. As a tool, it “allows you to be a more effective teacher and model the kind of behavior you’d like to see in your child.”
Parents who believe the child can’t be handled without physical force should ask for help and advice. “Your child may need a referral to a specialist to help you,” she said.
Correction: This story referred to the American Association of Pediatrics. The correct title of the group is the American Academy of Pediatrics.