Courtesy of Dirty adult humor unlimited, with over 400 likes and 5,100 shares. This meme insinuates that with more spanking there would be less misbehavior among youth. It’s a popular notion among some that spanking results in better behaved kids, or instills discipline. Many defend it on anecdotal grounds, like “my parents spanked me and I turned out fine”, but what does the science say? Is there evidence more spanking creates better behaved kids?
Around the world, an estimated 80% of children are spanked, or otherwise physically punished by their parents. It turns out that spanking and physical punishment is one of the most studied topics in the area of parenting.
A recent meta-analysis of spanking studies was performed by researchers Elizabeth Gershoff of the University of Texas at Austin, and Andrew Grogan-Kaylor from the University of Michigan. It’s considered and cited as one of the definitive analyses of the subject, as they attempted to correct what many regarded as methodologically weak studies in the past. For instance, some researchers pointed out that studies condemning spanking often lumped parents who used more severe physical abuse with spanking. The Gershoff-Grogan analysis attempted to clarify some of these areas.
In their meta-analysis they found that spanking was significantly correlated with harmful outcomes:
Thirteen of the 17 child outcomes examined were found to be
significantly associated with parents’ use of spanking. Among the
outcomes in childhood, spanking was associated with more aggression,
more antisocial behavior, more externalizing problems,
more internalizing problems, more mental health problems, and
more negative relationships with parents. Spanking was also significantly
associated with lower moral internalization, lower cognitive
ability, and lower self-esteem.
In 3 of the 17 areas (immediate defiance, child alcohol or substance abuse, and low-self regulation) spanking was not significantly associated with harmful behaviors. They also noted that most of the studies were highly consistent in linking spanking with detrimental outcomes. In fact, only one study found beneficial outcomes. It had a unique sample of U.S. Army soldiers stationed in West Germany in the early 1970s. This made it unusual enough to be considered an outlier, in their opinion.
The Gershoff-Grogan analysis concludes that spanking children to correct misbehavior is correlated with detrimental effects, and found no evidence that it’s associated with improved child behavior. Additionally, most experts in the field appear to side against spanking.
There is some dissent from the majority view among scientists that spanking is harmful. For example, the American College of Pediatricians questions and regards the Gershoff-Grogan analysis as flawed in this article. Some of their arguments seem to have merit.
They point out that of the 75 studies the Gershoff-Grogan analysis used, only 4 ensured that spanking was used “appropriately”, meaning:
“physically non-injurious, intended to modify behavior, and administered with the open hand to the extremities or buttocks”
In these 4 studies, disciplinary spanking was actually found to be at least as effective as the three alternatives with which it was compared. The remaining 71 studies, the College of Pediatricians argues, suffer from 3 fallacies, as it doesn’t separate “appropriate” spanking from other more severe forms of punishment. Here’s a brief explanation of the 3 fallacies:
- Correlational Fallacy- we’ve all heard “correlation doesn’t equal causation”, and this applies to spanking studies. Even Gershoff-Grogan admit that their analysis doesn’t causally link spanking to harmful child outcomes. Yet, there’s even a further correlational problem with most spanking studies as they correlate to adverse behavior. Was it the spanking that caused kids to misbehave more, or were some kids spanked more because they were inherently naughtier? This is a fair question, and one that isn’t answered by the meta-analysis, and could result in a correlation error.
- Extrapolation Fallacy- the meta-analysis recommended that parents never use spanking, despite the fact that only one study they used compared never spanked kids to a spanked group. In that study, there was actually a beneficial outcome to the spanked group. However, it was declared an “outlier” since it was a group of Army Soldiers in Germany. The College of Pediatricians warns that it’s improper to extrapolate that because more severe punishments correlate to worse behavior, that no spanking results in better behavior. They compare it to chemotherapy. While lesser doses correlate to better outcomes than higher doses, that doesn’t mean no chemotherapy is a better treatment for cancer.
- Lumping Fallacy- since the Gershoff-Grogan analysis “lumped” together studies that didn’t distinguish between “appropriate” and “inappropriate” spanking, it calls into question its results. While their meta-analysis took big strides compared to previous studies that lumped spanking in with severe punishments, they still included studies where “spanking the face, hitting on the head or back” were lumped together with “appropriate” spanking.
The College of Pediatricians’ critique also pointed to other meta-analyses they thought were higher quality, that concluded the adverse effects of spanking are trivial or non-existent.
What to Make of the Science?
It appears that no causal effects, and therefore no conclusive advice can be given on spanking yet, although the field leans heavily toward the no spanking recommendation. Certainly, there is little to no evidence that encouraging parents to spank more will result in beneficial results (as this meme claims). Common sense (and some science) would tell us this:
- Loving, involved parents with a structured form of “appropriate” spanking will likely have better results than apathetic parents who don’t spank and “let their kids run wild”.
- If parents do choose to spank, it should be done “appropriately” (as defined above). It should also be done in a highly structured way. This would mean milder punishments, like time-outs, should be used first. If the child doesn’t comply with those, the “back-up spanking” technique includes several criteria. Among these, the parent must be in emotional control, it should be done privately, and primarily from ages 2-6.
- Parents who spank must be extremely careful that it doesn’t escalate. Dr. Gershoff warns that there is a body of research that shows parents who spank will tend to use harsher methods later. Particularly if the spanking doesn’t solve the behavioral problems, which it often doesn’t. This alone should make anyone weary of condoning spanking to all but the most restrained and responsible parents.
- Since the science seems to be on the side of not spanking, why spank at all? After all, spanking is resorting to aggression and violence, even if restrained. There are many other techniques and methods to teach kids to behave and instill discipline, so why not use those primarily, or exclusively? If a child is unresponsive to those and continues to act out, chances are that therapy and/or a medical assessment would be more effective than spanking.
This meme claims that with more spanking there would be less misbehavior among youth. There is no evidence to support this, and much evidence against it. At best, it could be argued that careful, “back-up spanking” is as effective as other disciplinary methods, but there is no sound evidence for this either, particularly if compared to loving parents using sound non-spanking methods. While there is no causal link between “appropriate” spanking and misbehavior, the majority of studies and experts in the field do not recommend or advocate for it.