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Is Spanking Harmful?

What the Latest Research Says

Stress concept - angry frustrated man with exploding head

Raising kids is one of the more challenging responsibilities that many of us take on in our lives. I know this from personal experience. My wife and I raised two rambunctious boys, and I’d be lying if I claimed I never once lost my temper.

I remember one particular incident when one of our boys was about ten. I had a pretty rough day at work, it was late, and I was pretty exhausted. Our son began making a great deal of noise in his room. I called up to him to quiet down. He got louder. I screamed again. When he still didn’t listen, infuriated, I rushed into his room and found him lying on the floor with a smirk on his face. I flung my foot back and then forward, kicking him in his thigh while screaming, “You think this is funny!”

I was barefoot, and I’m pretty sure I hurt my toes a heck of a lot more than his thigh, but my point is that from time to time, in a fit of anger, I went off the “ideal father” script. discipline-1So, that said, in what is to follow, I’m not suggesting that the first time you lose your temper with your kids you have suddenly turned them into a future serial murderer, or anything of that sort. Both of my boys are now fully grown, and they are wonderful. Nevertheless, I do think it is worthwhile for parents to think about the most helpful approaches for bringing up their children, and to be guided by the best information available.

What about Spanking?

spanking-4According to the most recent UNICEF study, 80% of children are spanked or otherwise physically punished by their parents. Is this a wise way to be raising children?

Over the years, hundreds of studies have been conducted that looked at the effects of this form of discipline on children’s behavioral, emotional, cognitive, and physical outcomes. Taken together, they provide evidence that physical punishment is associated with negative outcomes.

spanking-1As this body of work on spanking and physical punishment has accumulated, supporters of spanking have argued that the current studies do not clearly distinguish spanking from more serious physically abusive parenting behaviors. They claim that it is probably only “real physical abuse” that leads to harm. Additionally, spanking, they have argued, has only been linked with detrimental outcomes in methodologically weak studies.

The New Study

Now, a brand new study has come out that aims to address the criticisms launched at the earlier ones. Titled, “Spanking and Child Outcomes: Old Controversies and New Meta-Analyses,” the researchers Elizabeth T. Gershoff and Andrew Grogan-Kaylor took a more up to date and sophisticated look at the research on this topic.

spank-8First, they looked separately at studies of parents’ behaviors labeled as “spanking” defined as noninjurious, open-handed hitting on the buttocks or extremities with the intention of modifying child behavior. This definition therefore excluded the use of objects, the use of methods that have a reasonable expectation of causing harm or injury (e.g., beating, burning, choking, whipping), and the use of methods that are gratuitous expressions of parent displeasure without a clear disciplinary component (e.g., pulling hair, shaking, shoving). In this way, the researchers were able to determine the extent to which ordinary spanking is linked with child outcomes.

physical-abuseThen they examined the ways in which the strength and direction of the associations between spanking and child outcomes compare with the strength and direction of the associations between clearly abusive methods and child outcomes.

To deal with the issue of poorly designed studies being included in previous analyses, these two researchers selected only peer-reviewed journal articles, and subjected them to a more advanced random effects meta-analyses. Finally, they were able to incorporate several dozen new, particularly well done, up to date studies not included in previous meta-analyses.

The Findings

discipline-5Spanking was associated with more aggression, antisocial behavior, externalizing problems, internalizing problems, mental health problems, and negative relationships with parents. Spanking was also significantly associated with lower moral internalization, lower cognitive ability, and lower self-esteem.

Another finding strongly suggested that even for parents who do not intend to go beyond spanking as a form of punishment, the more children are spanked, the greater the risk that they will, in a fit of temper, end up physically abusing their children. Physical abuse was defined in the various studies somewhat differently. For example, one study referred to it as, “hitting with fist or object, beating up, kicking, biting, or beaten to injury.” Another defined it as “physical abuse leading to bruising.”

spanking-3As expected, although spanking was associated with negative outcomes, physical abuse was found to have even greater negative outcomes. Said in a more technical manner, weighted mean effect size for spanking was d .25, while for physical abuse it was d .38. Both were significantly different from zero and both were positive in sign, indicating that both spanking and physical abuse were associated with greater levels of detrimental child outcomes. The magnitude of the mean effect size for spanking was 65% of the magnitude of the mean effect size for physical abuse.

spanking-5Four of the studies compared adults who were spanked as children to those who were not. In three of the four, adults with a history of spanking from parents had more difficulties with controlling antisocial behavior, had more mental health problems, and came to believe physical punishment was a proper discipline strategy for their children.

It is important to point out that the researchers in these studies explained:

“While these findings suggest that there may be lasting impacts of spanking that reach into adulthood, they are only suggestive, as adults who engage in antisocial behavior or who are experiencing mental health problems may focus on negative memories of their childhoods and report more spanking than they actually received. The finding that a history of received spanking is linked with more support for spanking of children as an adult may be an example of intergenerational transmission of spanking, or it may be an example of adults selectively remembering their past as a way of rationalizing their current beliefs.”

Conclusions

The above research did not find any support for the contentions that spanking is only associated with detrimental outcomes when it is combined with abusive methods or that spanking is only associated with such outcomes in methodologically weak studies. The weight of the best evidence available indicates  spanking has been linked with detrimental outcomes for children, a fact supported by several key methodologically strong studies that isolate the ability of spanking to predict child outcomes over time.

spanking-2Now, as consistent as these findings are, they could very well have been far stronger if they had looked separately at a group of parents who not only didn’t use any form of physical punishment, but also didn’t use other forms of harmful approaches for raising kids. Said another way, within the group of non-spanking parents there may have been some who don’t spend much quality time with their children, or most frequently interact with them by screaming whenever they catch them misbehaving. If those parents were eliminated from the group of non-spankers, the difference between non-spankers and spanking parents probably would have been even far more impressive. Why do I say this? For several reasons.

In one study, for example, caregivers whose eyes wander during playtime due to distractions such as smartphones or other technology had babies with shortened attention spans when compared to parents who were more fully engaged with their babies. discipline-2In another study, parents who had children already beginning to have discipline problems received some parenting training that involved such skills as catching their children doing some positive actions and praising them. By learning to do this at least three times for every one time they provided negative criticism when their child misbehaved, there was a distinct improvement in their child’s behavior when compared to parents who had been placed on a wait list to get parenting skill training.

In my view, one of the best ways to raise children is to have parents anticipate what types of problems might arise, and then discussing with their children how best to deal with them. By doing this at times when the child has not already begun to behave in the problematic manner, it is easier to have these discussions without a great deal of defensiveness interfering with reasoning processes. a-hero-grows-pictureThis is one of the reasons I’ve written a novel called A Hero Grows In Brooklyn. It can be downloaded on a computer or any of the popular electronic readers for free HERE. Parents can read a little of it each night with their children. Most children tend to identify with the hero, Cool Steve, along with his friend, Mysterious Jane. After each chapter, during a time that is pleasant and free of discord, parents can discuss with their children some of the issues that come up and the kindness that the two lead characters display.

Well, those are some thoughts for this week. Until next time, may you find life filled with wonderful opportunities to grow.

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Some people will enjoy reading this blog by beginning with the first post and then moving forward to the next more recent one; then to the next one; and so on. This permits readers to catch up on some ideas that were presented earlier and to move through all of the ideas in a systematic fashion to develop their emotional intelligence. To begin at the very first post you can click HERE.

On Slamming Insubordinate Student Down
William James on Child Discipline

About the Author

Jeffrey Rubin grew up in Brooklyn, received his PhD from the University of Minnesota and has taught conflict resolution there as well as at a psychiatric clinic, a correctional facility and a number of public schools. He has published articles on anger and conflict resolution and has authored three novels.

7 Comments

  1. I was raised with a parent who spanked. It helped teach me to be devious.

  2. I was extremely abused by hordes of adults the time (I was 5) I called that idiot Santa by his real name but couldn’t care less and mocked that language challenged clown (ho ho ho) year after year anyway.

    And that’s just one example of all the terrible things done to me when I was a kid. Another one? I hated it when someone began yelling: “It’s bedtime now!” Bedtime at 7.30 pm? I tell you…….mega traumatic! And then homework! Mama mia, how sadistic can parents be?

    And I won’t even mentioned all that lying! Very harmful that. Just picture me, always on the lookout for that stork carrying a newborn baby to its warm and cozy destination. Never saw one doing that, though!

    Is spanking harmful? Ugh, I almost forgot. OK, here goes: No need for all them studies. It’s quite simple. If you spank your kid, you teach the little one that problems can be solved by violence. Time to get rid of that, no?

    • Thanks, Roald, for sharing with us your deeply upsetting experiences. And I’m with you about advocating getting rid of spanking.

  3. A social justice issue – human rights for vulnerable persons.
    Well done.

  4. >> “Our son began making a great deal of noise in his room. I called up to him to quiet down. He got louder. I screamed again. When he still didn’t listen, infuriated, I rushed into his room …”

    So the author admits to being a lazy jerk regarding communication?

    Why didn’t he just walk into the room calmly the first time, to find out what was up, and communicate like an adult to sort it out.

    Instead of shouting and screaming from another room, with no care for what was actually going on, and then, only after it “infuriates” him, does he make the physical journey into the room.

    If you respect someone, then be in the same room as them to talk to them.

  5. There are very few instances when a child should be disciplined, and frankly, I always regret spanking my relatives, never having had children of my own. Nevertheless, if a child is incorrigible, physical violence is not the answer but stern discipline where the child “gets the picture loud and clear” may be necessary. Reformatories are also less satisfactory, from my naive perspective.

  6. In the book “Let’s get well” by Adelle Davis we find the following information:
    “The great medical genius Dr Hans Selye of the University of Montreal
    found that the body reacts to every kind of stress in the same
    way.Under stress the adrenal cortex hormones prepare the body to meet
    an emergency as follows: Proteins are broken down to form sugar, blood
    pressure increases, minerals (including calcium) are drawn from the
    bones and so on.
    If stress is prolonged the following eventually occurs: Proteins from
    the blood plasma, liver, kidneys and other parts of the body are used.
    Stomach ulcers may occur because of increased hydrochloric acid and
    because proteins are stolen from the stomach walls. In ulcerative
    colitis there is destruction of the lining of the intestine.
    One needs good nutrition to combat the bad effects of stress.
    In one stress experiment with adrenal exhaustion, men became
    quarrelsome, hot tempered and were easily upset. They developed low
    blood pressure, extreme fatigue, muscle weakness and other problems.
    Dr Selye found that under stress, after calcium has been withdrawn
    from the bones, calcium can be deposited in the soft tissues if these
    tissues are harmed in any way (by being hit, etc).
    By varying the type and location of harm in experimental animals, Dr
    Selye produced the counterparts of such human diseases as arthritis,
    hardening of the arteries and many other illnesses.”
    The above agrees with psychological findings that physical (corporal)
    punishment often causes people to have decreased negotiation skills
    and be more violent or withdrawn, etc. Corporal punishment can weaken
    a nation.
    NOTE: Dr Selye found that under stress, after calcium has been withdrawn from the bones, calcium can be deposited in the soft tissues if these tissues are harmed in any way (by being hit, etc). Therefore it corporal punishment can cause permanent harm (permanent calcium in tissues).

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