Spanking: Should you or shouldn't you? Recent study says no

Spanking as a discipline tactic has been linked to mental illnesses later in life, according to a new study. But it also showed that cross-ethnic and international research found that when a culture views spanking as normal, then spanking does not cause later harm.

John Nordell/The Christian Science Monitor
Spanking, according to a new study, is linked to mental illness later in life. Critics say it's not the spanking, but how it is done. In this 2004 file photo, Deborah Lindeman plays with her children Noah (left) and Evan in the playground outside their school. She attended a town meeting to discuss a proposal that encouraged parents to refrain from spanking their children.

There’s a new study out this week in which researchers claim physically punishing kids – hitting, shoving, grabbing or pushing them – leads to an increased likelihood of mental illness later in life.

It’s the latest shot in the “should you or shouldn’t you” debate over spanking, a parental controversy that has gotten increasingly emotional in the United States.

In this new research, published in the journal Pediatrics, a group of Canadian academics analyzed data collected from nearly 35,000 adult Americans who reported whether they were physically disciplined as children. Among those adults who reported harsh physical discipline – but not abuse – conditions such as depression, anxiety disorders and alcohol dependency were between 2 and 5 percent more common than among those who did not experience harsh corporal punishment; more complex psychiatric illnesses were 4 to 7 percent more common.

The researchers said that pediatrician groups should adopt a position that “physical punishment (ie, spanking, smacking, slapping) should not be used with children of any age.”

But that conclusion is already under fire.

First of all, some other experts have pointed out, those adults who remember “harsh physical punishment” made up only 6 percent of the study – in part because the authors defined this as physical discipline that rose beyond simple spanking. Moreover, the researchers based their conclusions on what adults remembered happening as children, which can be a bit tricky. (Someone who is depressed, for instance, perhaps remembers harsher physical punishment.)

Also of interest in the study – but almost entirely buried – is that researchers found that the small number of adults who remember harsh physical punishment actually had greater income and education levels than average. (You could see how the study might have come up with a different headline.)

And overall, the study didn’t delve into a phenomenon that authors Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman explore in their influential book “NurtureShock:” That it’s not necessarily the fact of the spanking that matters, but how the spanking is done.

Bronson and Merryman looked at cross-ethnic and international research into spanking and found that when a culture views spanking as normal, then spanking does not cause later harm.

It was in those situations where spanking is atypical that it causes longer-term damage like that described in the recent study.

Scholars hypothesized that this could be that the parents who didn’t usually spank their kids ended up using corporal punishment when they lost their tempers. Parents who lived in a spanking culture used physical punishment as a consistent method of discipline.

Another way to put it is that perhaps it is the violent anger of parents that traumatizes children; not the actual spanking.

Now, I write this as someone in the non-spanking camp.  There are tons of child development experts who also believe that hitting children is unhelpful at best, harmful at worst. The American Academy of Pediatrics, for instance, “strongly opposes striking a child.”

But according to some polls, as many as two-thirds of Americans approve of spanking children.

So the “should you or shouldn’t you” debate, I imagine, will continue.  New studies and all.

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