Prevent Child Abuse: End Hitting
A research study has circulated in the press with shocking headlines like spanking babies is surprisingly common! Of course this is old news. Dr. Murray Straus published similar research cited in Duke Law Journal, 2010 that about a third of babies are spanked. In a study of 156 families, Dr. Brigitte Vittrup found that 21% percent of the mothers reported slapping their child’s hand once or twice a week, and 14% reported spanking their infants weekly. A much larger study of over 4,800 children, by Dr. Michael MacKenzie, titled “Who Spanks Infants and Toddlers? found that “about 15% of children are spanked at 12 months, with this share rising to 40% by 18 months and nearly 50% for children age 20 months or older.” Redundancy in science is a good thing. It is a double take to our initial shock of “Can that be true?”
Yes, it is true. Many parents are spanking babies, and it is a serious problem.
Some people immediately object saying, “Are we talking about spanking or simply a parent smacking a baby’s hand when she reaches for the stove?” In this study, researchers allowed parents to define spanking for themselves. They simply asked parents if they spanked their baby in the last month. Nearly a third of parents answered yes. Remember, parents generally under-report spanking. Case in point, Dr. George Holden set out to research verbal abuse by audio recording 37 families for about a week every evening. Shockingly, in the first real-time study of spanking, he discovered parents were smacking or spanking frequently for minor concerns – like sucking fingers or turning the pages of a book without permission.
So how serious is spanking babies? Researcher from University of Michigan, Dr. Shawna Lee found that parents who spanked their baby (on average 15 months old) in the past month had a greater chance of being involved with Child Protective Services (CPS). Now that’s pretty serious. “CPS involvement means that authorities have a serious concern about the welfare of the children in that household. Most abuse is not reported, so this is a very conservative way to measure the link between spanking and abuse,” explains researcher Dr. Shawna Lee.
Think of it this way, 29% of all Americans report being physically abused by their parents. That translates to 88,000,000 people. Compare this to the actual number of CPS reports, which are only around 3,000,000.
This research goes beyond the finding that parents spank babies, and asks what would happen if we intervened to end spanking? The research suggests that by eliminating spanking the rate of CPS involvement would also reduce. Dr. Lee wondered, “Hypothetically, if we applied the results to 1,000 families and stopped the occurrence of spanking, what would happen? The calculation suggested that ending spanking could result in a reduction in CPS involvement of 7 families per 1,000.” Wow! That is a lot of children.
There is ample evidence linking spanking to child abuse. Consider Dr. Zolotor’s research that found that parents who believe in spanking are 4-9X more likely to engage in more serious abuse (hitting a child elsewhere than the buttocks, kicking, or shaking a baby). There is mounting awareness of the close link between spanking and overt child abuse, particularly in the field of child abuse and neglect. Delaware modified the child abuse code to include “intent to cause pain,” essentially including spanking as child abuse. Pennsylvania followed, by declaring forcefully shaking, slapping, or otherwise striking a child under 1 year of age as child abuse.
We know that spanking harms children. The research is so alarming that the American Academy of Pediatrics has a formal policy statement warning that parents should never do it. “When we look at the research on the whole, there is not one study that shows any long-term positive effects of spanking – not one. Child pro-social behavior is never improved with spanking,” says Lee.
Some parents heed the warning and find alternatives to spanking their children. But many others do not. In fact, many parents probably haven’t even heard the warnings. In fact, pediatricians and care providers are often unaware of the research. A survey conducted by the American Academy of Pediatrics found that 42% of pediatricians will actually recommend spanking and about as many believe there isn’t enough time to address discipline during a wellness visit! The good news is, the majority of pediatricians would like additional training on how to help parents with discipline issues.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recently issued a policy statement considering spanking the most prevalent risk for child abuse, urging pediatricians to educate parents on healthier and safer alternatives.
Here are some alarming facts:
Over 3,000,000 families become involved with CPS annually involving 6,000,000 children
Up to 68% of parents who become involved with CPS, have recurrent involvement
20% of families, an astonishing number, become chronically involved with CPS
Physical child abuse is a huge problem. This research on spanking babies suggests that early preventative measures can reduce spanking and CPS involvement. The fact is we have done basically nothing to prevent spanking. Little children are spanked most frequently and although spanking has become less popular, there is little decline in the frequency of spanking young children – who are at the greatest risk.
If we are going to get serious about ending child abuse, we need to directly address the risk factors. The most important implication of this research is that early, proactive intervention is key.
Expose parents to the research and offer alternatives. We know that sharing research reduces approval of spanking.
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