What do decades of research on spanking really show?
Posted May 1, 2016
Elizabeth Gershoff believes parents spank their children with the best of intentions: They want the youngsters to be better behaved and more compliant.
But it doesn't have that effect and can lead to long-term behavioral, emotional and cognitive negatives, according to Gershoff, an associate professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences at the University of Texas at Austin.
She bases that opinion on an meta-analysis she conducted with Andrew Grogan-Kaylor, an associate professor in the University of Michigan School of Social Work, of "all the high-quality spanking studies we could find." That turned out to be 75 studies conducted over a half-century's time. Their findings, just published in the Journal of Family Psychology, included data on about 160,000 children.
"We found spanking was related to less of all the good things," said Gershoff. "And it was not significantly related to compliance. It did not make children more or less likely to comply. It doesn't achieve what parents want: compliance and acting appropriately in the future."
Instead, spanking — which the researchers were careful to separate from physical abuse and defined as an "open-handed swat on the child's behind or extremities" — appears to be linked to unintended consequences like increased aggression, anxiety and depression, she said. In all, the study looked at 17 outcomes and found links to 13 of them, "all on the negative side," she told the Deseret News.
The researchers said other studies included different types of physical abuse in their analyses; this research is the largest to focus solely on the impact of spanking.
"Our research shows spanking is linked to the same negative outcomes as abuse, just to a slightly lower degree," said Gershoff, who is also a faculty research associate at the UT Austin's Population Research Center and director of its Interdisciplinary Collaborative on Development in Context.
Parents who spank are far from unique. A 2014 UNICEF report said four out of five parents worldwide spank their children.
In the recent American Family Survey, 54 percent of adults at least somewhat agreed that it is "sometimes necessary to discipline a child with a good, hard spanking." The nationally representative poll was conducted for the Deseret News and the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University.
In a 2013 Harris poll, the number of people OK with spanking was even higher. Four out of five Americans said parents spanking their child is sometimes appropriate, compared to 19 percent who said it never is. The approval for spanking represented a slight drop from when the question was asked in 1995; Harris suggested that was perhaps driven by lower approval of spanking by younger generations.
Further, in 2013, 86 percent of adults said they'd been spanked as a child and most thought that was appropriate. Only a third agreed that "there were times their parents were quite wrong to spank them."
The Harris poll also showed that three-quarters of parents who had been spanked when they were kids had at some point spanked their own child. Of adults who had not been spanked as a child, one-fourth said they'd used spanking as a form of correction at least once.
Gershoff and Grogan-Kaylor took into account the common statement by pro-spanking individuals that "my parents spanked me and I am just fine." They looked specifically for long-term effects in adults who said they were spanked as children and found that "the more they were spanked, the more likely they were" to have mental health and anti-social behaviors.
And similar to the findings in the polls, their analysis showed the adults who'd been spanked were also most apt to believe spanking has value as they raise their own kids, the researchers said.
Gershoff said one finding may particularly surprise parents: The more children were spanked, the lower they scored on achievement tests. "We're not sure why that would lead to lower cognitive ability, but it did," she said.
Asked if that finding reflects a greater likelihood that some kids are both more likely to have lower scores and exhibit behaviors for which parents would spank them, Gershoff said it's difficult with questions like spanking to sort out cause and effect.
Researchers can't randomly assign children to parents or place children in situations with different parenting styles, such as whether or not an adult believes in spanking children to examine cause and effect. What researchers could do was look for relationships between two variants — in this case, spanked or not spanked.
But their findings have been supported in nearly all the research on spanking, she added.
"What I hope people will get out of this is that the findings are very, very consistent," she said. "It's one of the most consistent findings in psychology. "
She said just one of the high-quality studies they identified found positive effect of spanking, while all the rest showed spanking has negative effects.
"Spanking may not be doing what parents think it's doing. It might have the opposite effect and they might want to think about doing something different."
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