Spare the Rod and Save the Child?

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A study just published in the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics has linked physical punishment of children to a host of future problems, including addiction.

Childhood abuse has already been linked to later problems. This study takes it a step further, looking at children who were otherwise in normal households and not subject to what is currently thought of as abuse. Rather, this group received a tolerated level of corporal punishment – mainly spanking. Spanking is considered an appropriate corrective behavior, fairly common in the US.

The difficulty in these types of studies has always been determining whether the correlation between physical punishment and later mental and emotional problems was causative or just coincidence. Do kids who are more rebellious or emotionally mismade simply attract more discipline? In other words, are they already showing signs that they will grow up to be in the “harmed” category and that’s what’s causing more spankings, or is it the spankings that cause the future effects?

These difficulties, along with all the other variables that exist between families, are called confounding factors. In this latest study, attention was paid to eliminate them and tease out just how much risk is added when a child receives physical discipline. This doesn’t have to be formal spanking, but includes other types of hitting, throwing things at the child, pushing and grabbing. The distinguishing feature is that an adult is using their greater strength as a tool of domination.

The results show an increase in future harm, including increased risk of addiction, but not overwhelmingly so. For example, the general thinking is that about 25% of addiction can be attributed to genetic factors. Physical punishment as a child (according to the study) comes in at 2 to 5%. The expectation is that if all forms of physical discipline were stopped, the overall addiction rate among the adult population would fall by up to 5%, about one in twenty.

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