Spanking appears to make children less likely to do what they’re told, as well as making them more antisocial, according to a wide-ranging study from researchers at the University of Texas and University of Michigan.
The researchers concluded spanking can cause emotional problems similar to — if not to the same degree as — the ones often caused by the kind of striking more commonly associated with physical abuse. And the more frequently children are spanked, the worse their behavior tends to become, according to the researchers.
“We as a society think of spanking and physical abuse as distinct behaviors. Yet our research shows that spanking is linked with the same negative child outcomes as abuse, just to a slightly lesser degree,” said Elizabeth Gershoff, a University of Texas associate professor of human development and family sciences.
The analysis examined 50 years of data from 75 studies of more than 160,000 children and is the most exhaustive ever done, according to Gershoff and her University of Michigan co-author, Andrew Grogan-Kaylor. Their peer-reviewed work is being published in this month’s Journal of Family Psychology.
The results are perhaps unsurprising, as they are built on the same kinds of research that have consistently found spanking to be counterproductive at best, if not harmful. Many public health experts have called for a stop to spanking. Yet it remains a widely debated issue 30 years after Sweden became the first country to formally outlaw it. Much of Europe has followed, but countries such as New Zealand and the United States have not, in part due to a perception that a ban would interfere with parental rights.
As many as 80 percent of families around the world spank their children, according to a 2014 UNICEF report cited by Gershoff and Grogan-Kaylor. A Pew Research Center found that 45 percent of American parents have spanked a child.
Opinions differ on whether spanking — an open-handed strike on the posterior or extremities — should qualify as physical abuse. Texas doesn’t generally consider it to be; it is one of 19 states that permit educators to use corporal punishment, or the deliberate inflicting of pain as punishment or for discipline. Out of more than 1,000 school districts, fewer than 100 prohibit the practice outright (though most Austin-area districts have banned it).
Gershoff and Grogan-Kaylor were careful to note that most people who are spanked as children turn out fine as adults, an assessment shared by Dr. Mike Brooks, an Austin psychologist who works with teens and parents and gives lectures about forming healthy relationships. Brooks also agrees with the researchers that spanking has a significant downside and no clear benefit.
Austin parenting coach Carrie Contey likens spanking to forms of abuse now considered barbaric, such as hitting a spouse.
“It was legal for men to beat their wives for a long time. People thought doing that was a way to teach wives to be better wives. Then we evolved beyond that,” said Contey, who holds a Ph.D. in child psychology.
Contey said there is no scenario under which spanking is effective, even when it is carried out in a calm and clear-eyed fashion. Spanking trains a child’s brain to associate pain with people who should be trusted, undermining the child’s most important relationship, as well as forming a connection between tension and violence that can continue through the rest of the child’s life, Contey said. That assessment is shared by Australian child psychologist Robin Grille, whose widely cited work lists spanking among the formative experiences of bullies.
“That brain is being wired by all of these experiences,” Contey said. “Nothing creates a double-bind in a child’s mind like being hit by someone they should trust.”
To her, though, the issues of utility are inextricably tied to ones of philosophy: “I see it more as a human rights issue versus a parental rights issue. I don’t think someone just has the right to inflict pain on another person because they’re the adult, and the other is a child.”
At the school level, the issue can be muddled. As the American-Statesman reported in 2011, rural communities continue to embrace corporal punishment as a symbol of traditional values. When Donald Madden, a high school principal in the tiny East Texas town of Cumby, was embroiled in a controversy over a paddling he gave an irascible student in 2008, the boy’s own father encouraged the punishment, as other parents often did. The duration of the bruises was the vague criterion used in that case to distinguish between legitimate punishment and abuse.
With spanking, the odds increase that children will be less obedient, both in the short and long term, according to Gershoff and Grogan-Kaylor. They couldn’t definitively prove a cause-and-effect relationship between spanking and the various problems they cite. As a Vox article about the research noted, they couldn’t conduct experiments in which children are randomly assigned to be hit, then tracked through adulthood. But of the 75 studies they reviewed, only one found that spanking was effective, while most of the others found that it was counterproductive. The correlation, they said, was strong.
Their conclusions, they noted, are consistent with a report from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that called for a public campaign to reduce corporal punishment, including spanking.
Brooks, the psychologist, said there are better ways to discipline children: even something as simple as taking a toy away from a child who misuses it. The harder discipline problems, he said, tend to have at their root deeper issues such as depression or family troubles that a spanking will not solve.
“The key” Brooks said, “is not to conflate disciplining a child — which is teaching — with physical pain.”