Toronto Star

October 5, 1999

Spanking linked to substance abuse

Study released as discipline law to go before courts

By Rita Daly
Toronto Star Health Reporter

Children who are spanked are twice as likely to develop alcohol and drug abuse problems and engage in anti-social behaviour when they grow up, a powerful new Ontario study warns.

The study, published today in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, is bound to heat up one of the most hotly contested issues on child rearing: to spank or not to spank.

It comes at a time when a children's rights group has launched a constitutional challenge in the Superior Court of Justice against Section 43 of the Criminal Code, which allows parents to physically discipline children. The case is scheduled to be heard in early December.

The group has brought the challenge under Section 15(1) of the Charter of Rights, which says everyone has the right to equal protection under the law without discrimination based on age, among other factors.

``My opinion is that Section 43 should be repealed because I believe it sanctions physical discipline of children,'' Dr. Harriet MacMillan, lead author of the study, said in an interview yesterday.

She and five other researchers at McMaster University in Hamilton found a direct link between spanking and slapping children and increased rates of anxiety disorders, alcohol abuse, drug abuse, anti-social behaviour and, to a lesser extent, depression.

Unlike other studies, they excluded those respondents who reported being physically or sexually abused as children so they could more accurately link the psychiatric disorders to spanking and not to more aggressive forms of abuse.

``That's a strength of our paper, we think, that we were able to do that,'' MacMillan said.

But critics were quick to question the data's validity.

``We're always very suspicious of studies that come from the other side that predictably are looking for anything that could be construed as saying spanking leads to abuse,'' said Jim Sclater of the traditionalist group Focus on The Family (Canada) Association, which is intervening in the court case.

The study found those who had ``rarely'' been slapped or spanked were still 50 per cent more likely to develop drug dependence or anti-social behaviour than those who had ``never'' been spanked.

Researchers also took into account the parents' education during childhood - considered a measure of socio-economic status - and current family income. They did not, however, distinguish between single-parent and two-parent families.

The study, the largest on the subject in Canada, began by looking at the prevalence of spanking. It surveyed the approximately 10,000 respondents in a supplemental section of the Ontario health ministry's 1990 population health survey. Half of these people were surveyed on the relationship between spanking and psychiatric disorders.

It found 41 per cent of those surveyed had been spanked ``rarely'' as children, 33 per cent were spanked ``sometimes,'' while only 5.5 per cent of respondents had been spanked ``often.''

The survey also showed that people 65 and older were more likely than those in other age groups to say they had never been spanked or slapped. And a greater proportion of females than males reported never being slapped or spanked - 24 per per cent compared to 16.4 per cent.

In an accompanying editorial, Murray Straus, a leading American researcher on family issues, said actual spanking has declined, ``but not to the same extent as people's attitudes have changed toward it.''

A majority, including physicians, still thinks spanking is sometimes necessary, despite McMaster University's research, which provides much more definitive evidence on the potential risks of spanking, he wrote.

In a 1996 policy statement, the Canadian Pediatric Society's position seems unclear. However, Sclater said he believes the society supports spanking as a reasonable discipline.

His group is against repealing Section 43 of the Criminal Code because it interferes with parents' rights, he said, adding, ``We think the present laws will prevent (parents) from hurting their kids,'' he said.

Section 43 allows using force on a child ``if the force does not exceed what is reasonable under the circumstances.''

Cheryl Milne, lawyer for the Canadian Foundation for Youth and the Law, which is launching the court challenge, said this newest study won't be entered as evidence at this point.

But if the group wins, the study will go a long way toward helping people understand why the law was changed.

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