To Spank, or not to Spank?

I was spanked as a child, albeit fairly rarely. I’ve gone into the research behind this article as a believer that it’s a viable and necessary method of discipline for parents to use. Like many others, I believed it was OK to use only as a last resort, for particularly terrible behavior.

I think most of us have this belief that spanking works, right? Not everyone of course, there will be readers that do not agree with it, but for those – like me – is there really much evidence to show that its good?

The problem is, you can’t really see the long-term effects of your disciplinary actions. It’s not like you can check 5 years in the future to see (via comparison) whether your spanking actually had any positive or negative effects.

So therefore, because we aren’t prophets, we must rely on the data and studies we have available to us. All the studies I’ve gathered this data from will be linked as sources at the bottom.

So we are on the same page before we begin, lets start with a definition of spanking.

I’m not referring to physical abuse. By spanking, I refer to striking a child with an open hand on the bottom or extremities with the intent of modifying behavior without causing physical injury.

STATISTICS

For a bit of a background, here’s some interesting statistics I’ve found among various studies conducted by universities across the US. Funnily enough, these studies seem to reflect almost exactly what Australia thinks also. Even our own (ex) PM Tony Abbott said that children need a gentle smack from time to time. (http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-12-12/abbott-says-gentle-smack-can-be-good-for-children/5151798).

Prevalence

  • Over 90% of Australian, US and UK families report using spanking as a means of discipline
  • 25% of parents begin spanking at 6 months’ old
  • 62% of parents spank their 12-month old

*Note: Between 6-12 months, children cannot predict consequences to behavior

  • 93% of mother’s report spanking their 2-4 year olds an average of 3.6 times a week (or 187 times a year)
  • Around 12.8% of mothers spank their children 7 times a week.
  • 52% of 13-14 year olds are being spanked an average of 8 times per year
  • 20% of 15-17 year olds are still being spanked
  • 68% of US parents report they think it’s essential to child rearing

Implements (Belts, stick, etc)

  • At age 7, ~91% of boys are either hit or threatened with implements
  • At age 7, ~62% of girls are either hit or threatened with implements
  • By the age of 11, 17% of kids are being hit once or more a week (15% of boys) with an implement

Emotion

  • In 44% of those surveyed, corporal punishment was used ~50% of the time because the parent had “lost it”.
  • Approximately 85% of parents expressed moderate to high anger, remorse and agitation while punishing their kids.
  • A Canadian study showed that 80% of physical abuse cases began with physical discipline.
  • While 93% of parents justify spanking, 85% say they would rather not if they had an acceptable alternative.
  • Parents are more likely to spank when they are angry, irritable, depressed, fatigued and stressed.

Personal Take on Statistics

Early on into researching these statistics and studies, the evidence was quite clear that many parents cross the line from spanking to abuse due to frustration. There’s also no doubt that in most cases, the parent’s intentions were good. However, children get tougher and resistant to spanking, and therefore escalations occur – but at what point should the escalations stop?

At what point does spanking become abuse? If your hand hits your child’s bottom at 10km/h, is that spanking or abuse? What about 15km/h? What about 30km/h? What about 100km/h? Give me a number.

I could not find a definitive number at which it crossed the line. What does Tony Abbott mean when he says “gentle”? Would that be different from Dwayne ‘the rock’ Johnson’s “gentle”? And interestingly, would it be acceptable for him to “gently smack” his wife as a means of discipline? Why does he hold different standards for different people?

From day dot, children will learn how to deal with the world via their parent’s actions, so let’s take a look at what all the outcomes of the studies were.

STUDY DATA

Dr Elizabeth Gershoff conducted a meta-analysis of 88 studies over a 62-year period covering over 160,000 children, to determine the effects of spanking on child behaviors.

In nearly every study included in the meta-analysis, spanking was linked strongly with many negative outcomes, and was not linked with pro-social or moral behavior.

Social and IQ Outcomes

Spanking actually results in a higher likelihood of antisocial behaviors, such as fighting, lying and bullying.

Children in punitive environments at age 2-3 scored 39% higher on a scale of aggressive behavior than children in non-punitive homes.

Children who had been spanked at ages 8-9 years scored 83% higher on a scale of aggressive behavior in comparison to children who weren’t.

Studies show links between childhood aggression and poor outcomes later in life, such as delinquency, crime, poor school results and unemployment.

Please bear in mind, these are just links – smacking isn’t proven to be 100% causal of these outcomes. The outcomes listed in this section just highlight risks. As a parent, you don’t know ahead of time whether spanking will cause problems. You can only use what data you have available to you.

Not only was spanking linked with an increase in aggressive and antisocial behavior, but it was also linked with several unintended consequences.

Research from Duke University shows that children who are spanked as 1-year olds are more likely to perform worse on cognitive tests as toddlers than children who are spared. Elizabeth Gershoff, associate professor in human development and family sciences says the study adds to a growing body of research showing negative effects of spanking. Almost all the studies point to negative effects – it makes kids more aggressive, more likely to be delinquent and to have mental health problems.

The University of New Hampshire conducted a study that shows it can significantly damage a child’s IQ. Kids who were physically punished had up to a 5 point lower IQ score than kids who weren’t. The more the children were spanked, the lower their IQ’s. As a side project, the team also looked at corporal punishment in 32 countries, and found a lower average IQ in countries in which spanking was more prevalent.

graph

“Less is known why spanking could inhibit cognitive development. One possibility is that parents who spank are less likely to use reasoning with children, something that is good for development.” – Elizabeth Gershoff

It was shown in many studies that corporal punishment was linked to slow development of mental ability, particularly in younger children ages 2-6.  As mentioned before, many studies showed that the fall in cognitive ability was “dose dependent”, meaning that the more children were spanked, the more they fell behind in cognitive development.

McMaster University in Canada found that spanking is linked to increased rate of anxiety disorders, alcohol abuse, drug abuse, anti-social behavior and depression. The study found that kids who were spanked through childhood are twice as likely to develop alcohol addiction and other drug abuse problems later in life.

Surveys of 23,000 parents and children finds that parenting styles had a bigger impact on child’s behavior than any other factor. Children who did not have positive interaction with parents were twice as likely to have persistent behavioral problems as those who had positive interactions. Almost 27% of the children surveyed had a clinically defined behavior or learning problem.

Relationship Outcomes

Other outcomes of these studies shows that kids who were spanked have a;

  • Higher likelihood to be physically abused by the parents
  • Higher likelihood to physically abuse other people
  • Higher likelihood to use aggressive conflict resolution strategies with peers and siblings
  • Higher likelihood of tolerating and/or causing physical violence in other relationships
  • Higher likelihood of experiencing sexual problems later in life, such as;
    • Greater chance of physically or verbally coercing a sexual partner
    • Engaging in risky sexual behavior
    • Engaging in masochistic sex, including sexual arousal by spanking

Unfortunately, many studies also demonstrated that some people will associate violence with love and trust, and therefore see that forward. When spanking is used frequently in a person’s childhood, and that person views spanking as loving and necessary, violence then becomes part of an “internal working model” of how relationships work in that child’s mind.

It’s clear that if violence is worked into that model, people will seek it out in relationships as either the aggressor or the victim. Violence and love become mentally melded together.

Learning Outcomes

It was discovered that children do not internalize any learning or moral standards that are attempted to be taught by spanking. One particular study used audio recordings which mothers voluntarily kept on themselves, and it demonstrated that in nearly all cases, kids repeat bad behaviors within 10 minutes of corporal punishment.

If the learning is not internalized, the learning will not continue when the parent is absent, and unfortunately, many of the studies mentioned that spanking teaches kids to avoid parents in order to avoid pain. This indicates that spanking provides quick results for the parent, but the child does not learn anything other than to avoid the parent. On top of this, in some cases parents lose their moral authority – they are not being consistent with their own morals and teachings to their kids.

Parent: “Johnnie, do NOT hit that other child!”
Parent: *Spank’s Johnnie*

I feel that we must accept that spanking is a form of violence. The studies all show that spanking is more than halfway toward the negative effects of physical abuse. Its outcomes are certainly not the opposite to the outcomes of physical abuse, but rather they are on the same continuum. They are both about hitting and hurting. Spanking is a little less bad, but the outcomes are still the same.

WHY WE DO IT

Like most of the things we do – it’s learned behavior

And I hate to say it (but it’s true) – it’s the quick and easy way out. “Yep, I’ve spanked my kid, my job as a parent is done”. Also, some punishments for the child have negative consequences to the parent and therefore the easy punishment is chosen. (e.g no ipad as a consequence means kids aren’t distracted later, which means parents will have less free time later).

Guys, parenting isn’t easy. It requires time, patience and repetition for any real learning. It’s a slow process and smacking bypasses the effort for immediate results.

Also, why should you do things, just because parents did those things with you?
My own parents allowed me to not wear a seatbelt on occasion when driving. Will I allow my daughter to do this? Of course not.

You don’t use a rotary phone, you use a mobile. You don’t use a pass book, you use a EFTPOS/Credit card. You are perfectly willing to upgrade other parts of your life, view parenting as the same.

Decide for yourself what is good, based on evidence, data and independent thinking.

REFUTATIONS

There were also many people that refuted this data to continue down the “spanking is good” path. I’m sure there will still be people that, having read this, will still go ahead and spank their kids.

It’s a natural behavior for people to double-down on their belief’s when presented with evidence that contradicts them. It avoid’s having to unlearn things you thought were good.

I’ll list some of the common arguments here and my responses to them in advance.

“Some kids are born less compliant and more aggressive than other children, therefore harsher discipline is required, and that explains why they get hit more”.

  • Studies have proven that spanking is strongly correlated with increased aggression and increased defiance. Spanking will only extrapolate these initial bad behaviors, and will cause a downward spiral of “aggression from child, leading to more aggression from parent, leading to more aggression from child, leading to more aggression from parent” etc. This increased aggression and defiance also explains why 20% of kids are being spanked going into adulthood. Spanking does not re-mediate bad behavior long term, it only exacerbates it.

“Spare the rod, spoil the child. The lack of spanking these days has resulted in a generation of snowflakes that require safe spaces and can’t handle disagreement, even verbally”.

  • An argument to this is that peaceful parenting (utilising negotiation) leads to children being better equipped to resolve issues through language. Another argument is that it’s simply not true. If you refer to the statistics, most parents are still spanking. And just because some parents don’t spank doesn’t mean they aren’t disciplining their kids, or holding them to high standards.

“I was spanked and I turned out fine”.

  • I’m guilty of thinking this myself before researching this topic. I’ll refute it with one statement. Smoking kills only a third of long-term smokers – you don’t know ahead of time whether it will kill you or not, which is why it’s wise to quit.

“Spanking is necessary for good behavior”.

  • In most studies, children that were not spanked were, on average, the best behaved and had the lowest rates of psychological problems.

“You can’t reason with a 3-year-old, spanking is the only option”.

  • But is it? If you say “I have to spank my 3-year-old because I can’t reason with him”, then you should at least be open and accepting of reason yourself right? You can’t hold a 3-year-old to a higher standard of reasoning than yourself, can you? Expecting reasoning from a child but rejecting it yourself would be hypocritical. Take in the evidence and change your behavior.

Let’s also look at it in a similar situation. Your child has a cough, and you have the option of giving her some cough syrup, or some honey tea. The cough syrup gets instant results, your child will sleep better and you as the parent will get good sleep too. You are unsure if the honey tea will work. 

There has been a scientific study that shows very strong evidence that this cough syrup will lower your child’s IQ by up to 5 points and will have negative psychological effects on the child’s entire life. 

Will you choose the cough syrup for a quick fix? Or the honey tea and sacrifice of your sleep to avoid the harmful effects of the syrup?

SUMMARY

Spanking leads to;

  • Increased child aggression
  • Increased delinquent and antisocial behavior
  • Decreased quality of parent-child relationships
  • Decreased child mental health
  • Increased physical abuse
  • Increased adult aggression
  • Increased adult criminal behavior
  • Decreased adult mental health
  • Increased risk of abusing own spouse or child

WHAT WORKS

Much of the research I came across is only on what doesn’t work so far. Many parents will claim that being warm, responsive, positive, creating trust, negotiation and peaceful parenting is the way to go. It doesn’t have to be like a war, where there is a winner and a loser.

However, being too permissive also doesn’t teach anything, a happy medium is where it’s at.

Give children practice with choices, to help them learn how to make choices on their own.

It’s better to learn problem solving and negotiation skills early, than learning that it’s OK to hit your co-worker, wife, or husband when things don’t go your way.

HOW TO CHANGE

In the words of Shia, “Just do it”.

The purpose of this article was to provide you with info on spanking.

There is no single technique that works for all children in all situations at all times. What we can do is just look at our toolkit, and maybe drop one of these tools.

Maybe take parenting classes, there’s no shame in that. Look up positive discipline. You’ll find the trick in most cases is not learning new tools, but using the tools you already have – more.

You can change, at any time.

One hopeful bit of data that came from these studies is that when the use of spanking stopped at ages 2-3, the previously spanked children scored just as low in aggressive behavior as those in a non-punitive environment.

CLOSING NOTE

Most of these studies relied on parents “self-reporting”, but as mentioned briefly before, another study had parents voluntarily wear recording devices. These studies showed parents spanking their 7-month-old to 3-year-old children as much as 18 times a week! This study indicates all the data we have at the moment on frequency is likely underestimated.

7 months old! Wow. Here is a picture of a 7-month old baby.

baby

Could you hit this child for not conforming to your directions?

After reading this, if you are planning to make changes to your own parenting style, then that’s great and I salute you. However, even if you don’t have kids, we can all collectively shift toward a society where spanking is socially unacceptable. If you’ve been convinced as I have, that spanking is bad, I suggest we become advocates for peaceful parenting and become advocates for children (especially those that can’t even speak themselves). Share this article around and tell others you don’t agree with violence against children.

Be good to yourself,

Mathew.

Sources

http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/101/4/723.full-text.pdf
http://web.archive.org/web/20120229200126/http://stopspanking.com/#Statistics%20You%20Need%20to
http://www.themoneytimes.com/node/85300
http://www.repeal43.org/research/
http://www.utexas.edu/know/2009/09/21/elizabeth_gershoff
http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/booster_shots/2009/09/spanking-iq.html
http://www.nospank.net/johnson2.htm
http://www.neverhitachild.org/unspar.html
http://nospank.net/straus15.pdf
http://web.archive.org/web/20140602102230/http://www.stophitting.com/index.php?page=factsvsopinions
http://www.naturalchild.org/jan_hunt/spanked.html
http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1926222,00.html
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ONNRfflggBg
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N3iw0py_PL8
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27055181
 

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