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    CHILD ABUSE/NEGLECT: Alternatives to spanking

    Part of Contemporary Pediatrics’ coverage of the 2015 AAP Annual Conference. For more coverage, click here.

    Sparing a child the rod of corporal punishment can circumvent a lifetime of adverse health consequences, said Victor Vieth, JD, in his presentation “Spanking: The Why and How of Counseling Families on Alternative Discipline Measures.”

    Recommended: Cutaneous signs of abuse

    Pediatricians must not only be cognizant of the medical literature and understand that corporal punishment raises risks for poor medical and mental health outcomes but they must also be able to articulate this fact and provide parents with appropriate alternatives in words they will understand.1 The research shows that most parents would discipline their children in a way other than hitting them if they knew what those alternatives were and if there were a parenting or other program that could model those alternatives.

    Research also tells us that certain cultures and religious communities exhibit higher levels of corporal punishment than the national average. A pediatrician must be sensitive to that and be able to explain these concepts in a way that is culturally sensitive. In the United States, for example, some conservative Protestant communities are more likely to use corporal punishment than many others. However it is possible to work with these communities and try to move them past this practice.

    Parents in such groups often cite scripture, specifically certain sections of the Book of Proverbs, in arguing that their belief system requires corporal punishment. Pediatricians may counter, however, by pointing out that several conservative Protestant theologians disagree. Proverbs contains many more verses about corporal punishment for adults than for children, yet there are no whipping posts at churches, and corporal punishment is not advocated for adults.

    Phrasing such ideas in common-sense language and pointing parents to resources within their own culture may help change their behavior, as can making better use of hospital chaplains to engage parents who use corporal punishment for religious reasons.

    For more suggested strategies, pediatricians may consult a set of proposed guidelines for working with conservative religious groups.2 According to pediatricians and others who deal with children’s health and abuse issues, these guidelines are proving helpful. If more pediatricians follow them, many parents will do something other than hit their children. This can be a primary means of preventing physical abuse in the United States.


    1. Gershoff ET. Report on physical punishment in the United States: what research tells us about its effects on children. Columbus, OH: Center for Effective Discipline; 2008.  http://www.nospank.net/gershoff.pdf. Accessed October 5, 2015.

    2. Vieth VI. From sticks to flowers: guidelines for child protection professionals working with parents using Scripture to justify corporal punishment. William Mitchell Law Rev. 2014;40(3):907–942. http://web.wmitchell.edu/law-review/wp-content/uploads/Volume40/documents/2.pdf. Accessed October 5, 2015.

    NEXT: Commentary and the need for alternative approaches

    John Jesitus
    John Jesitus is a medical writer based in Westminster, CO.


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