This is the fourth and final installment of Spanking and Science, if you missed the others or would like the hyperlinks for studies, please look back to parts 1,2, and 3.
Dr. Mark Roberts at Idaho State University has conducted the only four randomized controlled clinical trials of physical discipline ever done. His goal was to determine the single best intervention for reinforcing discipline after a child’s escape from time-out. A spank method (similar to the other researchers) was tested against 3 other interventions, barrier (room time out), holding, and release (allowing escape from time-out).
The most effective methods were the spank and the barrier methods. The spank procedure involved two open handed swats to the rear end and then returning the child to time-out. The barrier method involved taking the child to a small 4x5 carpeted room and barricading them inside with a sheet of plywood for a brief period of time, then placing the child back in time-out. The other two methods, holding and release were far less efficacious.
Though spank and barrier were clearly the most effective measures used, parents preferred the spank method in the home environment (64%.) The room requirement for the proper barrier punishment was not as practical for parents. Others have attempted to repeat portions of these randomized clinical trials and have reproduced the results: “mild spanking is the most feasible back-up for the child who leaves time-out” according to Forehand and McMahon (1981.)
Roberts’s studies are significant for many reasons. They are the type of study that enables definitive conclusions to be drawn. Furthermore, they compared spanking to other methods of discipline thus answering the million dollar question as to the effectiveness of spanking in a specific situation. Spanking is clearly effective in changing problem behavior.
Non-compliance with time-out is similar to other defiant behaviors a child may initiate such as biting, refusing to comply, hitting, or running away. Spanking strengthens compliance with time out, a crucial part of its effectiveness, and reduces the need for spanking as primary punishment method in the long-run.
In conclusion, the question as to whether it is beneficial to spank or not to spank a child has not been definitively answered and additional studies would be helpful. Currently, across the country, pediatricians and psychologists are split 50-50 on the value of spanking as are parents meaning there are no easy answers. The main studies reviewed over my four posts included those conducted by Drs. Larzelere, Baumrind, Gershoff, and Roberts as they are considered to be experts; all with differing opinions of their own.
Parents need MORE disciplinary options, not less, to maximize the flexible use of non-abusive alternatives. Personally, after reviewing the literature extensively, I would suggest a few nuances to my original article. Parents should switch disciplinary tactics when the initial one is not working, rather than increasing the intensity of the first tactic as there is solid science to support this very important recommendation. Spanking is most effective when used between the ages of 2-6 and should begin phase out as a child turns 7. It is strictly defined as two swats to the buttocks with an open hand. A good benchmark if using spanking as discipline would be less than three times per week. Finally, it is not a recommended tactic for use with teenagers (not surprising.)
Research does not support the use of an object and in general, that would not be my automatic recommendation for everyone. However, I do use a wooden spoon and would like to comment on that specifically. For me, picking up the wooden spoon is my signal to calm down and not strike in anger. This action makes me stop, take a deep breath, and think about whether or not a spank is truly necessary and warranted given the circumstance. Often, I simply put it down and try something else.
All four of my children are 7 and under at the present time, so I am literally in the thick of the very age group covered by most studies on physical discipline. I learned a great deal delving into the scientific details and I sincerely thank all of you for joining me on this journey.
My recommendations unknowingly echoed what the research already supports by trusting my instincts, and I believe it is vital for parents to trust themselves and do what feels appropriate. All of us can learn more about parenting, this pediatrician included. I hope as a parent yourself, you feel more confident in whatever discipline decisions you do make.