Sound journalism, grounded in facts and Biblical truth | Donate

Bad science on spanking

Critics argue the nation’s largest pediatrics group based a new policy statement on biased studies


Bad science on spanking

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) issued an updated policy statement on spanking last week, calling it a harmful and ineffective disciplinary tool.

The position paper, the official opinion of the AAP and guidance for its 67,000 pediatrician members, cites studies suggesting spanking may affect normal brain development and increase aggression in young children. “There’s no benefit to spanking,” concluded Robert Sege, a pediatrician at Tufts Medical Center in Boston and an author of the policy statement. “We know that children grow and develop better with positive role modeling and by setting healthy limits. We can do better.”

But critics argue the updated statement from the AAP relies on poorly designed, correlation-based studies to defend its claim that spanking is counterproductive and inappropriate.

The AAP has been on an anti-spanking trajectory for decades. In 1996, the organization held a conference on corporal punishment with key doctors and experts. Den A. Trumbull, a private pediatrician in Montgomery, Ala., and past president of the American College of Pediatricians (ACP), a socially conservative physician advocacy group, attended that conference. He told me the co-leaders of the meeting concluded better studies on corporal punishment were needed but noted that spanking in and of itself was not harmful. Despite this, two years later the AAP released a policy statement discouraging spanking in response to misbehavior in children.

Last week’s statement is the first official AAP update since 1998, and Trumbull, who has spent nearly 30 years pushing for good science on spanking, argues the new policy has no better backing than the first.

“[The AAP] has issued a prohibition against spanking by parents without thoroughly and objectively testing its effectiveness in young children, failing to use specific methods, and failing to specify the behavioral situations,” he said. “No medical treatment would ever be studied using the techniques they’ve used. … You would never study the effectiveness of a medication without first specifying the dosage, the patients it will be used on, the duration, the frequency—all these things.”

But that’s what these studies do, said Trumbull. Instead of prescribing a specific method, setting, and age group for spanking, researchers instead rely on finding families who say they are spanking: “Oh you spank? I’m going to study you.”

Defending any form of corporal punishment can prove difficult in today’s secular society, and discouraging it across the board would, of course, counter the very real abuse some children face at the hands of parents who claim they are “just spanking.” But, in light of the AAP statement, what should parents do when redirection and mild consequences fail? How should parents spank their children?

Last week the ACP released a statement pushing back against the new AAP policy. The ACP argues that spanking can be used effectively under very specific guidelines: for children ages 2-6, with a forewarning, in private, never in anger, never causing physical injury, and always followed by a verbal review of what happened and a reassurance of unconditional love. When used that way, the ACP argues the highest-quality studies have found it can be a helpful enforcer of milder measures, like timeouts, strengthening the milder measures and diminishing the need for spanking later.

Instead, the AAP leaves parents “empty-handed with a noncompliant child who fails to respond to timeouts or the limited amount of reasoning a parent might attempt,” said Trumbull.

Although spanking at home is legal in all 50 states, support for the practice among U.S. parents is dropping—the AAP statement cited research showing younger parents are less and less likely to support corporal punishment.

When asked why spanking has fallen out of favor despite a lack of good science to show its harms, Trumbull said we live in a more permissive and busy society, where parents increasingly rely on pacifiers or electronic screens to entertain their children. It appears children are well-behaved when they are just distracted. He also said society has embraced the assumption that children will find the right way if left to their own devices. “But research has shown that children are self-centered and self-focused … and they need correction,” Trumbull said.

The Bible has said so all along, affirming that children are born sinful and need correction, and that corporal punishment is one of the tools of Biblical discipline: “Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him” (Proverbs 13:24, ESV).

To love children also means affirming them, and Trumbull said that is a key to a parenting relationship based on love and affection: “Acts of affirmation should outnumber your acts of correction.”

The headquarters of the Human Rights Campaign in Washington, D.C.

The headquarters of the Human Rights Campaign in Washington, D.C. Wikimedia Commons/RightCowLeftCoast

Business pressure

More than 100 major U.S. businesses have signed a statement condemning any action by the Trump administration to establish a legal definition of “sex” based on biology for federal statutes. A who’s who of big tech companies—Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, IBM, and Microsoft—as well as large finance, retail, service, and manufacturing companies like Bank of America, Coca-Cola, Marriott, and Uber signed the “Business Statement for Transgender Equality,” released on Nov. 1.

“We oppose any administrative and legislative efforts to erase transgender protections through reinterpretation of existing laws and regulations,” the statement said. “We also fundamentally oppose any policy or regulation that violates the privacy rights of those that identify as transgender or gender non-binary, or who are intersex.”

The LGBT activist group the Human Rights Campaign, one of two major backers of the statement, said this week that the companies that have signed so far represent more than 7 million employees and have a collective annual revenue of more than $3.2 trillion.

But what about the likely thousands of employees in those companies who hold Biblical convictions?

Al Miyashita, a former IBM employee who now works as the New York City director for The Navigators, a Christian discipleship ministry, said this progressive push within some companies means Christian employees will likely feel pressure to keep their Biblical views of gender and sexuality quiet for fear of being persecuted.

His recommendation as he disciples Christians working for businesses with progressive positions: Be a Daniel. “Daniel and his friends did not compromise on any of their beliefs,” he told me, noting the Old Testament heroes stood by their faith even when it meant imprisonment and punishment.

“Christians can continue to be faithful employees with high integrity where they work,” said Miyashita, adding that Christians in business must call on the Lord for wisdom and grace: “Wisdom to know what to do, and the grace to have the ability and courage to do the right thing.” —K.C.

A bold bishop takes a stand for marriage

An Episcopal bishop in upstate New York issued a directive over the weekend barring same-sex marriages in his diocese just weeks before a resolution establishing liturgy for same-sex marriage goes into effect for his denomination across the country.

The Rev. William Love said the new policy “turns upside down over 2,000 years of Church teaching” about marriage. “The Episcopal Church and Western Society have been hijacked by the ‘Gay Rights Agenda,’ which is very well organized, very strategic, very well financed, and very powerful,” he wrote in the eight-page letter.

The Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Michael Curry said on Monday he is reviewing the situation and will soon decide on “appropriate actions.” —K.C.

Kiley Crossland Kiley is a former WORLD correspondent.


Please wait while we load the latest comments...


Please register, subscribe, or login to comment on this article.

Bob R

It's always good to be reminded that those who oppose Christian values are not the "Enemy"!  In fact, as believers, we have no right to consider anyone as our enemy, though recognizing that there are many who consider us to be theirs; these are the ones Jesus admonishes us to love.  

Having said that, however doesn’t preclude actively opposing the efforts of those who would transform our society away from the godly principles on which it was founded, replacing them with a neo-paganism that replaces freedom with license, and responsibility with narcissism.

This opposition is often played out in the realm of politics.  The problem with politics is that it has changed with the extreme polarization of our culture; in earlier times, there was a general agreement as to what America was about, what the future should be; just differing opinions about how to get there.  Political positions were considered either “right” (correct) or “wrong” (incorrect).  Today, those who agree with our political views are considered morally “good”, and those who oppose us are “evil”.  Not surprising, given that opposing worldviews have become so incompatible.  What one side considers morally “right” is considered morally repugnant by the other.

So what’s the answer?  History reveals that the trajectory we are on, the utter absence of a generally accepted set of moral values, and the accelerating slide into decadence can only lead to destruction.  The only hope would be for God to pour out on us a totally undeserved awakening of faith in Christ; this should be the prayer of every Bible-believing Christian.

Steve Shive

I'm not sure what this comment adds to an article about the science regarding spanking vs not spanking. I don't doubt your report, Brendan, but I'm sure you know that anecdotal reports, esp when self reported, have little weight in proving a point. Someone reporting an abusive parent or a witnessed incident where a child is spanked in anger, or worse, beaten, is equally anecdotal and of little value in regards to the science as discussed in this article. Additionally, your anecdotal report when the child is still just 6 has even less practical, let alone scientific, value.  However, we can check back in 20 or 30 years and potentially then they could use your child/family as one data (datum) point in a retrospective analysis.

In the meantime we know that reports masquerading as "science," such as the one from the AAP, will continue to be used by organizations to support whatever agenda they hold dear.  They will also use anecdotes about physical abuse, masquerading as loving instruction, to support their agenda and ignore wise use of spanking.

I'm thankful for organizations, such as the ACP, but realize that their statement and recommendations will likely be ignored or marginalized. I also applaud the ACP for their statement that gives sound guidance for parents and pediatricians. I encourage everyone to follow the embedded link to ACP’s statement. It is insightful and wise. But better yet it has some research science to back it up. Meanwhile I suspect that we will only hear or read about the AAP report.

Fortunately we have scripture to also help parents stand on solid ground. Thanks WORLD for this report!

West Gramma

Dear World,

I love your articles. Your viewpoint is Christian, and yet you don't equate "Christian" with politically conservative. What you write is news, not sermons or Bible studies. I believe we as Christians err tremendously when we equate our faith in Christ with a certain political stance. The weapons of political warfare and the spiritual weapons of Christian warfare are distinctly different. Politics pits "Christians" against "them" and political conservatives proceed with as much wrath and animosity as the "dems." The New Testament pits Christians against spiritual forces of wickedness, rather than Christians against pagans. When one's focus is on winning political struggles in order to shape the outward, worldly society in which we live, the main focus of Christ in loving our enemies, preaching the gospel, and making disciples is lost. Think about Paul in Corinth. Liberal people are not the Christian's enemy; the spiritual beings who rebelled against God are a Christian's enemies. The Right has injured the cause of Christ enormously by equating being Christian with joining a certain political party and holding certain political views. I do wish so many consevative Christians would quit equating their political stance with having faith in Christ. Politics is politics and by its very nature pits one group against another in all out warfare that only strengthens hate. Believing in Christ for one's eternal salvation leads to love. I'm certainly not saying that one should not be politically consevative. Just quit saying "Christian" when you mean "conservative." It's not politics for which Christ died. Christ died for people, all people.