Does spanking a child cause harm later in life? According to news reports, you’d certainly think so.
I looked at my own behavior as a parent and wondered. Then I looked at my 25-year-old daughter. She’s happy, healthy, with a positive outlook. Yes, I spanked her. At least twice that I can think of. And hard enough to get her attention, but not hard enough to leave a mark. So I did what I do for you at Fresh Views on Health News. I looked further into the study.
The Study Says…
News reports said that spanking and other forms of physical punishment cause mental illness later in life. The authors actually looked at “harsh physical punishment, i.e. pushing, grabbing, shoving, slapping, hitting.” (Notice there’s no mention of spanking.) The authors were careful to leave out cases of outright abuse.
The mental problems included depression, phobia, anxiety, paranoia, and alcohol or drug dependence. According to the study, somewhere between 2 and 7% of mental disorders in adults are connected to physical punishment as a child.
Here’s what’s wrong with the study:
- Data was from a survey based on the memories of adults. Nobody tried to verify the memories.
- The survey asked about “harsh punishment,” but the results section compared “punishment” and “no punishment.”
- Subjects were asked how often they had received harsh punishment. Those who said “seldom” were included in the “not punished” group. Those who said “sometimes” were put in the “punished” group. The results might have been different if the subjects were grouped differently. The authors didn’t say, so we’ll never know.
Here’s what’s wrong with the news reports:
- The authors were careful to say spanking could be “customary” punishment, not “harsh.” Reporters somehow skimmed right over that fact.
- The study said there’s a connection. That’s not the same as a cause. You’d never know the difference from the news.
- The “punished” group tended to have more education and higher income. That wasn’t on the news.
Not a single report I saw—not even in the medical press—pointed out the problems with the study.
Other studies have looked at spanking. Some look at how well spanking works. Other looked at the later effects of spanking. All the negative studies I read about spanking had major flaws. The biggest one was lumping all kinds of corporal punishment together. Spanking, holding, shoving, and striking with a fist or object are not the same.
One British study showed that spanking 6- to 9-year-old children led to increased “anti-social behavior” two years down the road. But these kids were being spanked an average of more than twice a week. That’s not about the kids, it’s about the parents.
A New Hampshire study showed that spanking increased antisocial behavior and impulsiveness in children. But then the parents were asked whether they thought about what they were doing. Did they just reach out and swat? When the researchers took out the cases of impulsive behavior, the negative effect of spanking went to almost zero.
What About Spanking?
Kids know when they’ve done something they shouldn’t. As they grow they develop a sense of right and wrong. (Or at least they will if you’ve been showing them, not just telling them.)
Sometimes you just need to get their attention. Between about ages 3 and 6, all it took for my daughter was a loud smack on the back of her hand. (I practiced on myself. I could make a nice loud noise without actually hurting her.)
There are plenty of arguments both for and against spanking. The pro-spankers say that kids need discipline. It’s a parent’s right to discipline their child as they see fit. Mom wants to spank, so spank she will.
Anti-spankers say that spanking violates a child’s human rights. It’s violent and teaches the wrong lesson. It creates more bad behavior later. It plain doesn’t work.
The antis are gradually winning the day—at least legally. Sweden banned spanking or any other form of corporal punishment in 1979. Since then 31 other countries have banned spanking. And 103 countries have banned spanking in school.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has a view on spanking. Their policy statement says, “The only way to maintain the initial effect of spanking is to systematically increase the intensity with which it is delivered, which can quickly escalate into abuse.”
When Does Spanking Go too Far?
All that I’ve said above isn’t permission for parents to go whaling away on their children. As a friend and mentor told me, “Everything in moderation.” Here are some signs that a parent has gone too far.
Spankings become a regular thing. If you find yourself spanking your child regularly—more than, say, a couple times a month—that’s too much. The spankings aren’t doing what you want, which is to change the behavior.
The spanking leaves a mark. “Discipline” doesn’t mean “pain.” It’s all about getting your child’s attention. There’s a difference between a spanking and a beating.
There’s an object involved. Using a belt, or a switch, or a hairbrush doesn’t help. It just makes the spanking more painful.
The spankee is too young to talk. If the child is too young to speak clearly, they’re also too young to make the connection between the spanking and their behavior.
You’re angry or frustrated when you spank. People who are angry aren’t thinking clearly. They’re more likely to go overboard with their own behavior. How can you tell? If you raised your voice, then you’re angry or frustrated. That’s a clue that you need to cool off before doing anything about your child’s behavior.
What Else Can I Do?
If spanking isn’t right, then what else can you do?
First, don’t beat yourself up if you have spanked your child occasionally. The AAP statement above goes on to say, “…at best, spanking is only effective when used in selective infrequent situations.” That sounds like they admit that spanking isn’t all bad.
If spankings aren’t changing the child’s behavior, it’s time to try something different. If you don’t know any other way, find out. Ask a family member or friend who has children. Read a book. Search for “parenting tips” on the Web. Talk to your spiritual leader. Check with your child’s pediatrician.
Think before you act. That says it all.
I’ve seen comments about how the “liberal media” has picked up on this story. The “nanny state” is trying to take over. I don’t believe that. I do believe that the media is hooked on sensationalism—and this story is about as sensational as it gets. The truth is often found in the fine points. Somehow those fine points got lost here, so the truth got lost. Stick with me here at Fresh Views on Health News. I’ll give you the fine points, and the truth.