Canada's top medical journal has called for the repeal of that country's 120-year-old "spanking law." In a strongly worded editorial published on September 4, John Fletcher, the editor-in-chief of the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ), called physical punishment an "anachronistic excuse for poor parenting." The editorial accompanies a meta-analysis of 20 years of research about the ill effects of spanking, led by Joan Durant PhD of the University of Manitoba, first published in February and reprinted in the current volume of the CMAJ.
An estimated fifty percent of Canadian parents spank their children, and Canada, like the United States, protects parents' right to physically discipline kids. Section 43 of the Canadian Criminal Code states, "A parent is justified in using force by way of correction…if the force does not exceed what is reasonable under the circumstances." Worldwide, more than 30 countries prohibit corporal punishment in the home including Austria, New Zealand, and Sweden.
Fletcher and Durant argue that current research shows that spanking is an ineffective tool and that there is substantial evidence linking it to mental health issues including depression, substance abuse as well as to an increase aggressive behavior. "Surely any bias should be toward protecting children, who are the most vulnerable," writes Fletcher. "To have a specific code excusing parents is to suggest that assault by a parent is a normal and accepted part of bringing up children. It is not. While section 43 stands, it is a constant excuse for parents to cling to an ineffective method of child discipline when better approaches are available."
Spanking is a controversial issue in Canada and Section 43 been contested a number of times. Most recently, in 2004, the Supreme Court upheld it in a 6-3 ruling. A United Nations panel on children's rights has called on the country to repeal the law. In response to the CMAJ, a spokesperson for Minister of Justice Rob Nicholson told the National Post, "Parents are in the best position to raise their children. We believe it is up to them, not the government, to decide what is best for their children so long as it is within reason."
Spanking is also a hotly contested topic in the United States. While more than 70 percent of mothers admit to having hit their kids at least once, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) discourages the practice. A July report by the Journal Pediatrics, which backs up the CMAJ's findings, concluded, "Harsh physical punishment in the absence of child maltreatment is associated with mood disorders, anxiety disorders, substance abuse/dependence, and personality disorders in a general population sample."
In his editorial, Fletcher asserts that, "Parents need to be re-educated as to how to discipline their children." Durant, who is also the author of popular free online parenting guide, 'Positive Discipline,' says that she hopes doctors will look at spanking as a medical issue and do more to advise parents on alternatives. "If we had two or three studies that showed that if you took 500 mg of vitamin C a day you could reduce cancer risk," she said in a statement emphasizing the breadth and depth of scientific research on the negative effects of physical punishment, "we would all be taking 500 mg of vitamin C a day."
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