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Love your children more — and better

December 3, 2018

On Nov. 5, the American Academy of Pediatrics took a decisive step forward in an effort to assure the well-being of children. In this latest statement, pediatricians warned against the practice of hitting children as a form of discipline. They cited consistent research indicating that physical discipline harms children, does not improve their behavior and eventually makes them more aggressive. It’s a truth we have known for a very long time.

There are more than 1,500 studies on the effects of corporal punishment going back as far as the ’60s, and the overwhelming majority of them directly link physical punishment of children with lower IQ scores, more delinquency, a greater incidence of anxiety and depression, more aggression and more eventual substance use. If you think that children are hit less often these days, you are right — but only barely. The national endorsement of hitting children for disciplinary reasons has decreased from more than 80 percent to around 70 percent over the last 30 years. But is that really something to brag about? In fact, 65 percent of children under 3 are still regularly hit by their caretakers.

Many parents believe that if they surrender the option to hit their children, they might lose control of them altogether. But this is simply not the case. There are any number of better skills to manage young children, and parental authority depends upon love and attachment rather than upon the threat of being hit.

While physical punishment might be more likely to immediately interrupt a child’s misbehavior, it also results in increased eventual behavior problems and defiance. Children fear and resent the caretakers who hit them, and studies document the negative impact of physical punishment on the child-parent relationship. What we should be seeking as parents is not immediate compliance purchased with fear but rather the building of character and the consolidation of attachment.

Over the course of 30 years treating New Mexico children of all ages, it has become clear to me that whether they are seen in a clinic, a hospital or a jail, the reason is more likely than not to be related in some sense to abuse and neglect rather than actual psychiatric disease. Most of this trauma comes at the hands of the primary caretakers.

Even parents who seriously harm their children are, unbelievably enough, frequently trying to teach, correct or discipline them, usually in the same way they themselves were disciplined. Social research proves repeatedly that 75 percent of reported abuse begins with the intention to physically discipline a child or to “teach them a lesson.” The point is to protect our children, not see how far we can take discipline.

In an era when spousal abuse is condemned and even animal cruelty is prosecuted, it’s time that our children had at least as many protections as farm animals. The most common justification given by adults for hitting children is, “I was hit as a child and I turned out just fine.” Except that they didn’t. People who are disciplined physically show nearly the same long-term brain and behavioral changes as those who are outright abused.

A 2009 study in NeuroImage revealed that children subjected to harsh physical punishment had 19 percent less gray matter in brain areas critical for self-control. It’s no wonder that countries with the most physical punishment also have higher rates of adult violence and criminality. In a time when cruelty and violence are prevalent and even accepted as a social norm, you can do something in your own home to change the future. Love your children more and love them better — stop hitting them.

George Davis is a child psychiatrist who is the former director of psychiatry for the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department and the secretary of the board of directors for the U.S. Alliance to End the Hitting of Children.

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