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Most parents know the proverb “spare the rod, spoil the child.”

But many people have decided today against physical discipline such as spanking or smacking. To spank or not to spank has become a real debate.

Parents now have advice that will further cloud the issue.

The American Academy of Pediatrics, the professional association of pediatricians, is taking a new and stronger stand against corporal punishment.

The new policy, “Effective Discipline to Raise Healthy Children,” from the Council on Child Abuse and Neglect and the Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health is published in the December issue of Pediatrics magazine.

The new advice: Parents and other adult caregivers should use effective discipline strategies for children that do not involve spanking or other forms of corporal punishment or verbal shaming.

The policy summarizes new evidence published in the 20 years since the release of a1998 clinical report on effective discipline, which discouraged the use of corporal punishment. Other AAP policies already call for the abolition of corporal punishment in schools and suggest the use of alternatives to corporal punishment to prevent child abuse.

According to Dr. Robert E. Sege, lead author of the new policy statement and a member of the former AAP Committee on Child Abuse and Neglect, parents rely on pediatricians for advice on a variety of parenting matters, and most routine health care visits involve a discussion of child behavior and discipline. The new policy follows the opinions of the vast majority of U.S. pediatricians, who do not recommend corporal punishment.

The purpose of discipline is to teach children good behavior and support normal child development, Sege writes. “Effective discipline does so without the use of corporal punishment or verbal shaming.”

The use of corporal punishment among U.S. parents has been declining during the 21st century. Young adults, regardless of race and ethnicity, are far less likely to endorse the use of corporal punishment than were parents in past generations.

In the updated policy, the AAP defines corporal punishment as the “non-injurious, open-handed hitting with the intention of modifying child behavior.”

The change in guidance is brought about by an increasing awareness of the risks of corporal punishment for normal child development, Sege states. “Corporal punishment can bring on a vicious cycle of escalating poor behavior and more severe punishment.”

Children who experience repeated use of corporal punishment tend to develop more aggressive behaviors, increased aggression in school, and an increased risk of mental health disorders and cognitive problems, Sege says. “In cases where warm parenting practices occurred alongside corporal punishment, the link between harsh discipline and adolescent conduct disorder and depression remained.”

Sege says there are alternatives to spanking and pediatricians can help parents develop effective discipline strategies appropriate to the child’s age, developmental status and other individual factors. Alternatives include taking toys and privileges and the age-old technique of timeout.

Whether to use alternatives only is what responsible parenting is about. Spanking remains an option, as corporal punishment is still lawful in the home in all states.

But spanking differs from violence against children, which is not legal.

It is vital that every parent take particular note of that.

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