Groundbreaking New Spanking Study

I recently came upon an article in the Scientific American discussing a fascinating new study just out in the Journal of Family Psychology. The study is titled “Eavesdropping on the family: A pilot investigation of corporal punishment in the home.” As the report explains:

We used audio recordings to investigate how parents use corporal punishment (CP). This is a prime topic to study because the extensive literature on the topic relies almost exclusively on self-reports.

As the report goes on to explain, proponents of corporal punishment criticize studies finding detrimental effects of corporal punishment by arguing that such punishment must be used “appropriately” to be effective. I’ve seen this myself—the argument is generally studies of corporal punishment generally lump together all physical discipline, including both angry punishment and and calm punishment. This is how Michael Pearl can argue that hitting children in anger is wrong, but that systematic, calm hitting is effective and appropriate.

The report lays out six “guidelines” promoted by proponents of corporal punishment:

a) it should be used infrequently;

b) it should be used selectively, for serious misbehaviors, such as aggression;

c) it should be used as a last resort;

d) it should be administered calmly, not in anger;

e) it should consist of no more than two hits;

f) the child should be struck on the buttocks; and f) it should be painful.

One goal of the study was to ascertain whether corporal punishment as generally practiced meets these guidelines or violates them. In order to do this, the study recruited the following families, selected randomly, and audio-recorded each mother’s interaction with her children over a period of days. They then analyzed recordings of a total of 33 families. These families were fairly diverse in race, income, and educational background. The study targeted families with 2- to 5-year-old children.

After recording these families for up to six days each, they found a total of 41 incidents of corporal punishment in 15 of the 33 families. Did these incidents meet the guidelines recommend by proponents of corporal punishment? No.

Of the parents who used CP, their behavior commonly violated three of the six “use” guidelines examined: infrequent, serious misbehavior, and last resort. Among the 12 mothers who engaged in CP, the median rate was once every 6.3 hrs of interactions. In about three-quarters of the incidents, parents hit their children for extraordinarily mundane social convention offenses, rather than serious infractions, such as rights or prudential violations (Dunn & Munn, 1987). Most poignantly, one child was slapped for turning pages of a storybook. Parents used CP as their second, not last, resort, on average just half a minute after the conflict began.

With only a few exceptions, parents were abiding with one of the guidelines—hitting only once or twice. The data were equivocal for the last two guidelines. Although the guidelines call for calmly metering out punishment, parents were rated as angry in about half of the incidents. Consequently, these data suggest that the role of negative emotion, while present in many incidents, should not be exaggerated as a determinant (Ateah & Durrant, 2005).The final guideline (making CP painful) was indirectly assessed with a rating how upset the child sounded. In just over half of the cases, the children were heard to be at least moderately upset after the CP. Videos would provide better assessments of children’s emotional response.

When all six guidelines are considered together in one incident, it is clear that parents were rarely, if ever, using CP “appropriately.”

In other words, in violation of the guidelines that are typically used for “appropriate” punishment, spanking was not infrequent, reserved for serious misbehavior, or used as a last resort. Also in violation of the guidelines, corporal punishment was administered in anger in half of all cases. Parents did tend to abide by the last two guidelines, hitting only a few times in an individual incident and causing the child physical pain.

And now we get to the most interesting finding:

A unique finding that must be considered preliminary because of the sample size is that the rate of CP observed far exceeds prior estimations or previously published finding. For example, American parents of 2-year-old children reported they spanked or slapped a mean of 18 times per year (Straus & Stewart, 1999). Here, mothers at the median frequency rate would be striking their children 18 times within one week! Larzelere (2000) concluded that detrimental outcomes can occur when parents are spanking one to three times a week. Every single parent who used CP in this study was at or above that threshold. 

In other words, the parents in this study spanked far more often than parents generally report spanking. Given that current research is largely built on self-reporting, this is a significant finding.

And then, too, there is this:

In the course of investigating customary CP in situ, most of the incidents were fleeting and unremarkable. However, coders were alarmed when hearing a mother hit her child 11 times in a row, the severe emotional distress reaction from four children, and the 7-month-old infant who was hit. These incidents provide a peek into how a disciplinary incident could escalate whereby a young child could be inadvertently injured while being punished or a repeatedly distressed child could be emotionally affected. Although prospanking advocates may acknowledge these incidents as inappropriate uses of CP, evidence indicates that mothers who report their child gets spanked are also more likely to report physical abuse of that child (Zolotor, Theodore, Chang, Berkoff, & Runyan, 2008).

And these were mothers who knew that they were being recorded.

Okay, discussion time.

Michael Pearl, my parents’ childrearing guru, only taught two of the guidelines discussed here—that spanking should not be done in anger and that it should be physically painful—and not the other four—that it should be infrequent, only for serious offenses, a last resort, and consist only of a few smacks. In fact, Pearl taught rather the opposite on all four of these. Still, I think the point made in the study was that these guidelines are a sort of consensus among spanking proponents today, and (presumably) that the general public is fairly aware of them.

In addition to the high frequency of spanking, the study found that the children misbehaved again within ten minutes in 73% of all incidences of corporal punishment. In other words, it was not effective.

Proponents of spanking would likely say this was because spanking wasn’t done correctly. But honestly, discussions of whether or not spanking is effective seem rather beside the point to me. First of all, we know that most parents don’t follow the guidelines laid out by spanking proponents, so whether or not “appropriate” spanking is effective seems rather beside the point. But more than that, when spanking is effective, why is it effective—and what does “effective” even mean? Spanking operates on a child’s fear of pain. I remember being that terrified child, obeying my mother only because the alternative involved stinging, reverberating physical pain. Even when spanking is “effective,” the reason it is effective is sick. And if a child obeying only out of fear of pain is “effective,” that word has been robbed of meaning.

Spanking proponents will likely respond to this study by arguing that it proves nothing beyond the necessity of teaching parents how to spank “appropriately.” But honestly, I feel like that completely misses the point. I am sure that each of these parents used spanking proponents’ insistence that spanking can be appropriate and effective to justify their actions.Whether they realize it or not, spanking proponents create the rhetorical space ordinary parents use to justify hurting and traumatizing their children.

My question to spanking proponents is this: Is it worth it? Is it worth defending spanking and keeping it legal if the majority of parents who spank do so inappropriately and ineffectively? Is it worth defending spanking and keeping it legal when parents use that defense to justify hurting and traumatizing their children? All of that pain, all of those scared little children—is this worth it?

Parenting is exhausting and emotionally taxing enough without giving parents carte blanche authority to hit their children. Do you really think anyone is responsible enough to use that power wisely? There are times when I’ve gotten so frustrated with my children that I’ve, put myself in a “timeout” so that I can cool down and we can start fresh. Am I supposed to believe those situations would be better if I could hit my children when they don’t do what I want them to do? Is it any surprise that so many parents who spank do so in anger? Parents need tools, not weapons.

One last thing I want to mention. I’ve had people argue that my parents’ calm, systematic way of spanking is wrong and sadistic, but that simply smacking a child in the moment to “get their attention” is appropriate and just fine. I think this study, which looks at parents who do just that—smacking a child in the moment—ought to be enough to set that to rest. Hitting children is not appropriate, it is not actually effective, and it can be traumatizing. Take a moment to listen to the spanking incident included at the beginning of the recording at the top of the Scientific American article.

Hitting a child never helped anything.

About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.


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