The debate on spanking reflects a deep chasm in our society and its views on discipline. A 1999 study found that 94 percent of 3 and 4 year olds had been spanked at least once by a parent in the last year. In deciding how to discipline their children, parents often look to pediatricians and psychologists for advice. It is something parents are clearly using, so guidelines might be helpful. A reader recently challenged me to find research that an occasional spank on the rear end is effective and not harmful. It turns out, the volume of research finding that spanking is both effective and not harmful is so vast, it needs to be broken into a four-part essay.
My goal in writing this is educational; please keep my intent in mind while reading. Many of you might object to spanking children altogether on moral grounds, the depravity of causing pain to another human being, or the double standard of a society that does not condone hitting others, yet does tolerate the hitting of a child by its parents. Your moral objections have validity, however my job as a physician and scientist is not to preach morality, rather to inform or educate using empirical evidence.
The bottom-line is this: The question as to whether or not spanking is beneficial or detrimental has not definitively been answered by science. The one thing expert psychologists on both sides of the debate agree upon is the data is not conclusive. I will present the research, opinions, and conclusions from four of the foremost experts on spanking over four blog postings. I stand by my assertion, as a parent, you should trust your instinct and make the best decision for you and your child. NO scientific proof exists to the contrary. My goal for you after this journey is to feel better informed, more confident in your decisions regarding discipline, and comfortable with the different perspectives and opinions of others.
Overall, the experts are split 3-1 with the belief occasional spanking does indeed have benefit, when guidelines are in place. Dr. Robert Larzelere is the most well-known research psychologist in spanking and discipline techniques. Dr. Diana Baumrind is another psychologist renowned for delineating the authoritative, authoritarian, and permissive parenting styles. Dr. Elizabeth Gershoff, is a research psychologist who is cited most often by 100% anti-spanking advocates and I will present her data in post 3. Finally, Dr. Mark Roberts is the author of the ONLY four randomized clinical trials of spanking and discipline alternatives ever done in clinically defiant 2-to-6 year old children.
I would like to start off with a clear definition. Spanking is defined as “physically non-injurious, intended to modify behavior, and administered with an open hand to the buttocks.” Spanking is recommended as a back-up method to other discipline strategies, such as time out, barrier, reasoning, and removal of privileges.
The best type of study is a meta-analysis, which is a review of many scientific studies on a particular subject, in this case, child outcomes of corporal punishment. The next best type of study is a randomized controlled trial, where there are two groups and an intervention. Data is gathered moving forward from that time. Prospective studies (following subjects forward over time as well) is the next best, however it is difficult to draw conclusions regarding causation. Cross-sectional and retrospective case studies are subject to inherent biases in collection of information that do not allow for definitive conclusions to be drawn. Many of the studies on spanking are not high quality and the majority done properly by scientific standards show there is a benefit to non-abusive spanking, which has made interpretation of the data even more troublesome.
One study that I came across and found interesting was conducted by Ray Guarendi at the Childrens Hospital in Akron, Ohio, who was interested in the secrets of highly successful families who reared extraordinary children. 50 state winners of the teacher-of-the-year award were asked to name the most outstanding children they had taught over the course of their careers. The parameters were not to select the highest academic achievers, but those who exhibited the most self-motivation, empathy for others, morality, and strength of character. The families of these students were thoroughly evaluated and spanking was among the many aspects of parenting studied.
The findings were 70% of parents utilized some physical punishment with their children. Some relied upon it often while others only used it rarely. “Spanking was considered to be one tool in a parent’s discipline repertoire.” Most began spanking at 18-24 months and phased it out after 6 years of age. Spanking was not the primary method nor the last-ditch intervention. Spanking was used for situations such as teaching a child to avoid danger, punishment for deliberate defiance, and in response to disrespectful behavior. Spanking was not used for accidents, childish behavior deemed developmentally appropriate, or impulsiveness.
This retrospective study was based on parental recall, so there are limitations when drawing a definitive conclusion. A majority of parents with outstanding children were willing to spank and considered it a healthy discipline option. Spanking does not in and of itself lead a child to be aggressive nor is it abusive according to many parents participating in this study. The youngsters in these families were identified as emotionally mature and capable. They neither viewed spanking as the psychological dark side of discipline nor as a form of brutality. Spanking is not required to be a good parent or raise outstanding children and a significant minority of parents chose not to spank for personal and practical reasons.
These numbers will lay the stage for my next few posts. I would like to mention that no one is “pro-spanking” per se; in general most feel it is not harmful and is a useful tool in the toolbox to have for a defiant child or as a back-up to alternative discipline methods. A third post will cover how most anti-spanking recommendations evolved then I will conclude with my own suggestions based on the science and endorsed by most pediatric experts and psychologists. Please feel free to comment if you have questions or clarifications, but for now please hold off on judgement as we embark on this journey. Together. Thank you for reading.