MONDAY, April 12, 2010 (HealthDay News) --Spanking children when they're 3 seems to lead to more aggressive behavior when they're 5, even if you take into account the child's initial level of aggression.
In other words, the old "I'll-give-you-something-to-cry-about" approach appears to backfire, new research suggests.
"We all know that children need guidance and discipline, but parents should focus on positive, non-physical forms of discipline, such as time-outs, and avoid spanking," said study author Catherine Taylor, an assistant professor of community health sciences at Tulane University's School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine in New Orleans.
Corporal punishment, of which spanking is a relatively minor form, can have larger implications as well, according to experts.
"The article emphasizes how critical effective positive parenting is in breaking the cycle of violence and the potential to reduce overall levels of violence in our society," said Dr. Kathryn J. Kotrla, chairwoman of psychiatry and behavioral science at the College of Medicine, Texas A&M Health Science Center Round Rock campus.
Previous studies have also turned up a link between corporal punishment and aggression in children, but none has controlled for as many factors as the new one, published in the May issue of the journal Pediatrics.
Many organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, counsel strongly against corporal punishment. An estimated 35 percent to 90 percent of parents still discipline their children this way.
For the new study, almost 2,500 mothers responded to questions about how often they had spanked their 3-year-old child during the past month. They were also asked about the child's aggression level at age 3, as well as various parental risk factors such as maternal depression, alcohol use and violence among other members of the family.
About half of the mothers said they had not spanked their child in the previous month, while 27.9 percent reported spanking one or two times, and a similar proportion -- 26.5 percent -- said they had used this type of corporal punishment more than twice during that time period.
Three-year-old children who were spanked two or more times in the previous month had a 50 percent increased chance of being aggressive when they turned 5, according to the study.
The study could not prove a cause-and-effect relationship, but it is the strongest research of its kind to date, the researchers said.
"We know that kids learn by what parents do, so if a child is hit for whatever reason, you're really teaching the child that hitting or acting out or being aggressive is OK," said Taylor.
"Another theory," she added, "is that the more frequently children are hit for whatever reason, the more stress they're feeling, which can impact brain development, emotional development and can impact behavior."
Psychologist Robin Gurwitch, program coordinator of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement, agreed. "This study emphasizes in an even stronger way than some previous studies that corporal punishment at a young age is associated with more aggression later," she said. "How do we help parents think through what might be some more effective strategies than corporal punishment, and there are several strategies. Parents need to develop a menu of possibilities."
Kotrla added, "This study further suggests that state and federal policy makers should address the issue of corporal punishment and its avoidance to reduce the cost of societal violence through effective parenting."
For more on child development, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.