Letter to the AAP Board about Discipline Policy

January 21, 2002

Dear President and AAP Board

It has been over three years since the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) issued its policy on parental discipline entitled, “Guidance for Effective Discipline.”  We petitioned the AAP Board then and, with additional evidence, we petition the Board again to direct a revision of this policy.

To review the history behind the policy, in 1992 a state resolution soliciting the Academy to condemn all corporal punishment by parents prompted the AAP board to enlist the Committee on Psychosocial Development of Family and Child (CPDFC) to develop a policy statement.  After much debate among the AAP membership, the Academy cosponsored a scientific symposium in 1996 on corporal punishment. The goal was to develop consensus statements regarding the scientific evidence on the long-term and short-term effects of corporal punishment on children.   After two days of presentation and discussion the Committee (of which Den Trumbull was a member) concluded that current research was insufficient to condemn a parent’s use of disciplinary spanking. The conference Co-chairpersons, Drs. Stanford Friedman and Kenneth Schonberg, concluded “Given a relatively ‘healthy’ family life in a supportive environment, spanking in and of itself is not detrimental to a child or predictive of later problems…[T]here is a lack of research related to the use of corporal punishment.”[i]

Two years after the corporal punishment conference, and armed with no additional substantial evidence, the CPDFC developed the AAP policy “Guidance for Effective Discipline” which describes spanking as harmful, ineffective and morally wrong.  This statement, issued six years after the resolution, is fatally flawed by its reliance upon philosophical, not scientific, evidence.

Since 1998 two research pieces have been released that seriously conflict with the AAP policy.  In 2000 Dr. Robert Larzelere published a literature review[ii], building upon his earlier review presented at the AAP Corporal Punishment Symposium in 1996.  He reviewed over two hundred sixty recent studies on the effects of corporal punishment on children.  In an effort to discover the beneficial versus detrimental outcomes of customary disciplinary spanking, he excluded studies that focused on abuse or overly severe physical punishment, or the use of physical punishment with teenagers.  Dr. Larzelere concluded, “Research on spanking does not support an unconditional anti-spanking position at this time.”(p. 218) Furthermore, he found that “the stronger the causal conclusiveness of the [study] design, the more likely a study was to find beneficial child outcomes.” (p. 201)

In August of last year Dr. Diane Baumrind of the University of California at Berkeley presented her much-publicized findings on disciplinary spanking of young children.[iii]    This is the first prospective longitudinal study to examine the effects of disciplinary spanking used with preschool children who were followed into adolescence. Dr. Baumrind, working from the unbiased Institute of Human Development at Berkeley, collected her data from direct observation of patients who used spanking to varying degrees over a twelve-year period.  After in-depth statistical analysis of her high quality data, she found “no evidence for unique detrimental effects of normative physical punishment.” (p. 1) With the clarification that she is not an advocate of spanking, Dr. Baumrind concluded, “a blanket injunction against disciplinary spanking is not warranted by causally relevant scientific evidence.” (p. 12)

In their respective research writings Dr. Baumrind and Dr. Larzelere have commented on the evidence promoted by spanking opponents, such as Murray Strauss.  They point out that these anti-spankers defend their philosophical view with studies that are riddled with methodological flaws:

  1. The inclusion of outcomes related to overly severe or abusive physical punishment.
  2. The exclusion of parents using non-abusive, customary spanking.
  3. The inclusion of physical punishment with adolescents.
  4. The failure to account for baseline child misbehavior, referred to as “intervention selection bias.”
  5. The reliance upon questionable responses from a single reporter.
  6. The reliance upon adult recall of childhood experiences.

Dr. Larzelere and Dr. Baumrind each discovered that normative, or ordinary nonabusive, physical punishment administered in a lovingly firm and nurturing fashion to preschool children by their parents produced neutral or beneficial outcomes.  Dr. Baumrind writes that the success of any disciplinary practice is largely dependent upon the child’s perception of the “parent as loving and responsive and committed to the child’s welfare.”

Since the majority of American parents and physicians regard disciplinary spanking as an appropriate form of punishment for children, and since the available research reveals no detrimental effects from its use, and since parents need a myriad of disciplinary techniques with young children, the AAP should not promote a position against all use of disciplinary spanking.  Rather, the position should be one of openness to a parent’s use of disciplinary spanking with young children in a non-harmful manner, as evident in the current research (not current political correctness).  In a position of complete neutrality, the AAP could caution against the use of harmful physical punishment, without promoting the specific use of spanking.

Enclosed you will find our analysis of the current discipline policy and its many flaws.  The Board should direct the CPCDF to reevaluate its policy in light of the unsupportable claims made about the specific use of physical punishment.  If a complete rewriting of the policy is not immediately possible, then, at minimum, the CPCDF should delete the nonscientific, highly opinionated, supplemental statements that follow the statement.  As mentioned in our analysis, eleven of the thirteen citations used in the “supplemental information” section concern individual presentations of anti-spanking participants at the Consensus conference, not original research.  The inclusion of these statements is flagrantly irresponsible and ashamedly philosophical.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has been an unwavering advocate for the child and a respected source for scientifically founded positions about the child.  May the Academy not fail to take the same scientific approach to its core recommendation of childrearing.


Den A. Trumbull, MD, FAAP

DuBose Ravenel, MD, FAAP


[i]   Friedman, Stanford B., MD, Schonberg, S. Kenneth, MD, & Sharkey, Mary (eds). “The short and long term consequences of corporal punishment.” supplement to Pediatrics, 1996; 98 (4):857-858.

[ii]   Larzelere, Robert. “Child outcomes of nonabusive and customary physical punishment by parents: An updated literature review.” Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 2000;3(4):199-221

[iii]   Baumrind, Diana. “Does Causally Relevant Research support a blanket injunction against disciplinary spanking by parents?” Address at Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association.  August 24, 2001 Transcript pp. 1-12