By now, you’ve probably heard about the new spanking study published in last month’s Journal of Family Psychology.
AUSTIN, Texas — The more children are spanked, the more likely they are to defy their parents and to experience increased anti-social behavior, aggression, mental health problems and cognitive difficulties, according to a new meta-analysis of 50 years of research on spanking by experts at The University of Texas at Austin and the University of Michigan.
“Our analysis focuses on what most Americans would recognize as spanking and not on potentially abusive behaviors,” says Elizabeth Gershoff, an associate professor of human development and family sciences at The University of Texas at Austin. “We found that spanking was associated with unintended detrimental outcomes and was not associated with more immediate or long-term compliance, which are parents’ intended outcomes when they discipline their children.”
I’ve sometimes seen spanking advocates respond by arguing that studies of spanking include corporal punishment that crosses the line into child abuse, and thus do not actually show the outcome of spanking specifically. There are a variety of problems with this response—different people put that line in different places, for instance—but this study went out of its way to answer that criticism by looking only at “what most Americans would recognize as spanking” and not abuse.
Both spanking and physical abuse were associated with the same detrimental child outcomes in the same direction and nearly the same strength.
“We as a society think of spanking and physical abuse as distinct behaviors,” she says. “Yet our research shows that spanking is linked with the same negative child outcomes as abuse, just to a slightly lesser degree.”
When, then, do so many American parents—the vast, vast majority of them—still spank their children? I’ve come up with three primary reasons.
1. It’s how things have always been done
“I was spanked and I turned out fine.” Can I say how many times I’ve heard this? You know what I’ve never heard anyone say? “I ate lead paint and I turned out fine.” At least I hope no one says that. My point is that just because we went through something research shows to be harmful and survived does not mean (a) that we did not suffer any harm from it or (b) that we should subject our children to it. Isn’t wanting our children to have a better life than we did part of the American dream?
To quote Rebecca Watson of Skepchick:
I WAS spanked, and I DID turn out great. But maybe if I wasn’t spanked, I would have turned out even greater — I know, it’s so hard to imagine — but maybe I’d have less generalized anxiety or I’d be more pleasant to play board games with, or I wouldn’t cancel so many social engagements at the last minute because I’d rather stay inside and play video games. “I’m sorry I can’t come to your birthday, Amy, but when I was six my parents smacked my ass with a yardstick and now I have slight anti-social tendencies.”
I suspect a lot of Americans feel that giving up spanking with their children would be some sort of indictment of their parents or some sort of admission that they were mistreated. It doesn’t have to be. There have been lots of parenting practices that we as a society have given up over time because we’ve recognized that they are not good for children. See dosing fussy children with opium, for instance.
We as parents generally operate on the knowledge that we have, and that knowledge has changed. We now know that spanking is bad for kids. Our parents and grandparents did not have the same conclusive evidence showing that that we have today, and there is no shame in that.
And once again, as already noted, the evidence is clear.
Not one major study has provided evidence that spanking is beneficial for children. Instead, hundreds show findings to the contrary: the practice is associated with a large range of negative outcomes for those subjected to it.
While there has been a rise in literature on gentle parenting, spanking does not appear to be going away. In fact, the evidence suggests that Millennials believe in spanking more strongly than their parents. We need to find a way to override societal inertia and encourage parents to do what science conclusively suggests is best for children rather than simply what’s always been done.
There are also many people who spank their children because they believe their religion—generally Christianity—demands it, and they quote scripture verses to prove it. But here’s an interesting question. What does the New Testament say of spanking? Zip. Nada. Nothing. Instead, it says things like this:
Colossians 3:21—Fathers, do not exasperate your children, so that they will not lose heart.
Huh. That seems to imply rather the opposite of corporal punishment.
The word translated “discipline” in the above verse can also be translated nurture, training, or education, and once again there’s the admonition for fathers. Given that this was written at a time when corporal punishment was common, it reads rather like a dialing back on social mores in that area than it does like a cheery “carry on!”
Ephesians 6:4—Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
There’s also this verse on the characteristics of church leaders:
I Timothy 3:4—He must be one who manages his own household well, keeping his children under control with all dignity.
Note the use of the word dignity, and that the word translated “well” is also translated good or rightly. Again, interesting.
And that’s it. There are no hidden pro-spanking verses in the New Testament that I’m leaving out here. What about Proverbs, you ask? Well if you’re relying on Solomon’s warning about sparing the rod and spoiling the child, you’ve got some rather troubling passages to contend with, like these:
Proverbs 23:13-14—Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you strike him with a rod, he will not die. If you strike him with the rod, you will save his soul from Sheol.
Proverbs 19:18—Discipline your son, for there is hope; do not set your heart on putting him to death.
Children have died from being struck by rods, including in cases where parents honestly thought they were simply applying reasonable, Biblical discipline. What’s more, the second passage’s mention of not setting your heart on putting your child to death brings to mind the fact that the Old Testament metes out the death penalty for rebellious sons. Finally, the word translated “rod” here can also be translated club or staff, so we’re actually talking about hitting a child with a big freaking hunk of wood, something that’s very definitely considered child abuse today.
In other words, except for those who are in fact legal abusers, Christian parents are already not following the prescriptions laid out in Proverbs vis a vis child discipline, even if they spank their children. Of course, if someone is convinced that their religion commands them to spank their children, I can’t change their minds. They have to be the ones to do that. Still, suffice it to say that there is a Christian case to be made against spanking, and it is one that many Christian parents are in fact now making.
The other day, as I was driving to the store with my two children fighting like cats and dogs in the back seat, I had a sudden urge to reach back and smack my younger child, a preschooler and the aggressor in this case. I just had to get to the store and the fighting was making me nutty and I just wanted it to stop and I couldn’t for the life of me understand why he was behaving like this. For a moment, smacking him felt like the most effective and convenient option. It would make him stop, right? In actuality, it would probably have made him cry—loudly—out of a feeling of injustice, and it could have damaged my later attempts to talk to him about what had happened, because he would now see me as the aggressor and himself as a victim.
Instead, I announced that getting a free sample cookie at the store was contingent on good behavior, and there was sudden silence in the backseat. Knowing this was only a temporary fix and that it didn’t get at the underlying reasons for what was going on back there, I resolved to spend some time with Bobby later, connecting with him, building bridges, and talking with him about his interactions with his sister (and about appropriate behavior in the car). The actual work of parenting—teaching children social mores, proper societal behavior, and life skills—takes real time and effort. Parenting is not convenient.
But in fact, the idea that spanking will improve a child’ behavior is false:
“Spanking makes children’s behavior worse,” lead author Elizabeth T. Gershoff told me. “It has the opposite effect than what parents want: It doesn’t make children better-behaved, and it doesn’t teach children right from wrong. It’s not related to immediate compliance, and it doesn’t make children behave better in the future.”
I remember this, actually. I remember being spanked as a child and feeling wronged, feeling angry, feeling unheard, and bottling it all up inside. I can’t say for certain spanking “worked” in terms of buying my compliance—it’s hard to remember just what was enforced and how—but it certainly didn’t change anything inside. All it taught me was to avoid getting on the wrong side of my mom, and to not get caught if I did something wrong. There’s also the problem of escalation. I remember cases where spanking didn’t seem to work on my younger brothers, and it had to be dialed up and up in an effort to buy compliance, when getting at the root of the problem—the reasons for the behavior—would almost certainly have been more effective.
None of the reasons Americans still spank—tradition, religion, or convenience—justify continuing to engage in a practice we know to be harmful. Of course, parents need more than admonitions not to spank. They need to be given other tools and replacement methods. I’m in a variety of parenting groups, and I often see young parents who don’t want to spank but simply don’t know any other way express surprise and absolute relief when other members of the group give them positive parenting techniques that work. We need to condemn spanking while at the same time coming alongside parents and giving them alternative tools.
I believe change can happen.