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Child and Infant Development and the Problem of Physical (Corporal) Punishment

It is difficult to imagine anything more important than understanding infant and child development. One could make the case that understanding the internal psychological world of human beings allows us to improve as a global family — and the foundation of that process involves increasing the knowledge of infant and child development.

It has become fashionable of late to trash the “parenting market” — that is, the books and magazines and TV shows which deal with parenting. Yet, much of this “parenting market” is a response to well-intentioned parents who are trying their best with their children to prevent problems and enhance potential. And, in fact, much progress has been made, with sophisticated explorations of the inner world of children and adults beginning in the early 1900’s via psychoanalysis and child psychoanalysis. The pioneers writing for the lay public back then had their hands full: they were struggling just to get parents to stop threatening their children with castration and to understand that masturbation did not cause serious mental illness!

So, progress is being made, and part of the purpose of the last few articles has been to show how much better we understand feelings (motivations) and the actions (behaviors) which result. Many people have contributed to these advances; a few of them are noted here, with some names being more familiar than others: Sigmund Freud, Anna Freud, Klein, Piaget, Spitz, Winnicott, Mahler, Fraiberg, Tomkins, and Stern.

But, of course, there is still progress to be made, and this ushers in the discussion of physical (corporal) punishment. Physical punishment is a major public health problem in the United States, and it is still underemphasized and largely unaddressed.

Physical punishment is associated with an increase in delinquency, antisocial behavior, and aggression in children, and a decrease in the quality of the parent-child relationship, mental health, and the child’s capacity to internalize socially acceptable behaviors; adults who have been subject to physical punishment as children are more likely to abuse their own child or spouse and to manifest criminal behavior (see the Readings below). Internationally, there is increasing consensus that physical punishment of children violates international human rights law.

The American Academy of Pediatrics concludes:

“Corporal punishment is of limited effectiveness and has potentially deleterious side effects. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents be encouraged and assisted in the development of methods other than spanking for managing undesired behavior.”

A marvelous recent report summarizing the research in this area has been written by Elizabeth Gershoff, Ph.D., and is titled Report on Physical Punishment in the United States: What Research Tells Us About Its Effects on Children.

Readings

  • American Academy of Pediatrics – Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health (1998).  Guidance for Effective Discipline. Pediatrics 101: 723-728.
  • Fraiberg S, Adelson E, and Shapiro V (1975). Ghosts in the nursery: A psychoanalytic approach to the problems of impaired infant-mother relationships. Journal of the American Academy of Child Psychiatry 14 (1975): 387-421.
  • Gershoff ET (2008). Report on Physical Punishment in the United States: What Research Tells Us About Its Effects on Children. Columbus OH: Center for Effective Discipline.
  • Gershoff ET (2002). Physical punishment by parents and associated child behaviors and experiences: A meta-analytic and theoretical review. Psychological Bulletin 128: 539-579.
2018-01-18T14:46:46+00:00

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