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To spank or not to spank: Is it still a question?

In 2002, Elizabeth Gershoff published the first-ever meta-analysis of research on the effects of corporal punishment on children. Now an associate professor in the School of Human Ecology, Gershoff continues to delve into the impact of spanking (and other, more severe forms of physical punishment) on children. She also looks more broadly at the impacts of poverty, community violence and neighborhoods on child and youth development over time.

Is spanking still a common practice in the U.S.?

Most parents still spank, but they do it a lot less frequently than their parents did. Most parents who do spank do it once a month or less, maybe only a couple of times a year. So the prevalence of spanking is still very high (i.e., most parents do it) but the incidence is not (i.e., they don't do it very often).

Is it still the case that the vast majority of children in the U.S. are spanked by their parents at some point?

By the time American children reach middle and high school, 85 percent have been physically punished, either with a spanking or something harsher.By the time American children reach middle and high school, 85 percent have been physically punished, either with a spanking or something harsher.

Can you sum up what research has to tell us about the effects of spanking on children?

There's been a lot of research on spanking, going back all the way to the early 1900s, and almost all of it has showed that spanking is associated with negative outcomes for children. It is associated with more aggressive and anti-social behaviors in children. The more frequently or severely children are spanked or hit, the more likely they are to have symptoms of depression or anxiety, both at the time they're punished and later. There is evidence to suggest that it erodes the connection between children and their parents, making children less likely to trust their parents. There's even evidence that it is linked with lower child IQ scores.

Several years ago, I published a research meta-analysis, which statistically summarized the outcomes associated with spanking across 89 studies. I found that the only positive outcome linked with corporal punishment was immediate compliance. The more children were spanked, the more they complied in that moment. Over the long term, however, and when their parents weren't there, spanking did not increase compliance. Even just two weeks later, it didn't seem to make a difference.

So spanking isn't good, even when it's pretty rare?

Right. It doesn't increase the likelihood of outcomes parents want, but does increase the chance of ones they don't.

Is there a relationship between spanking and physical abuse? Are parents who spank more likely to escalate that to something more abusive?

Yes, absolutely. There's a very strong relationship between whether and how often parents spank their children and whether or not parents at some point physically abuse their children. There have been several studies on this issue, and they nearly all find that a majority of incidents of abuse – 60, 70, 80 percent – begin as some form of physical punishment.

Most physical abuse, in other words, isn't inflicted by sadistic parents who are indiscriminately abusing their children. Rather, most abuse begins with a parent wanting to 'teach the child a lesson' but then escalates to the point of injury.

That's part of the argument for getting people to stop altogether, because if you never hit your child, then you won't do it when you're too angry to control yourself. When parents who have abused their children are in parenting classes, that's what they teach them: "You can never hit your child." Just take that out of your repertoire.

Why are so many people still spanking? Aren't people getting the message?

A few years ago, there was an article on the CNN Web site that summarized some of my research findings, and right next to the article was a poll asking readers whether they thought spanking children is bad for them. Eighty-some percent said no. And that was right next to the article summarizing all the research saying that it was bad. I realized at that point that it was going to be harder than I had thought to change people's beliefs about this, because the research goes against their own experience and their own beliefs so they just don't believe it.

That said, I think parents' attitudes are changing, as we get more and more parenting experts who are out there saying we should try other things. Folks like Oprah and Bill Cosby have publicly discouraged people from spanking. There are so many more books and experts out there than even a generation ago. For a long time there was Dr. Spock and that was about it – and even he changed his mind. In the original edition of his book, Dr. Spock said it was OK for parents to spank, but in subsequent editions he changed dramatically and strongly discouraged parents from spanking. I think many American parents are similarly conflicted, but still resort to spanking their children once in a while.

Why do you think it is that spanking seems to have such a negative effects?

To really answer that question, you would have to talk to children in depth about being spanked, and you'd have to follow them over a very long period of time, and for a variety of reasons it is hard research to do. So it is a great question, but one for which we don't have a precise answer.

One hypothesis is that when bad things (like spanking) happen to children it makes them more likely to attribute what we call 'hostile intent' to other people. They begin to think that people in general are out to get them, to harm them. If you go through life expecting that kind of response then you're much more likely to aggress, to preemptively protect yourself.

There's a social learning explanation which suggests that children are, in a sense, imitating their parents. They're not spanking other people, of course, but they might be learning that if you hit someone else than you can get what you want. So when the parent hits the child and the child complies in order to get the hitting to stop, they've just seen that it works. They go on to imitate their parent by using aggression to get what they want.

Another mechanism could be that children feel estranged from parents who hit them.

There have been a handful of studies that have really talked to children about what it's like to be hit, and almost always the children talk about how painful and scary it is.There have been a handful of studies that have really talked to children about what it's like to be hit, and almost always the children talk about how painful and scary it is. One result of that might be that children will be less likely to listen to their parents in the future. They may want to spend as little time at home as possible, and so the parents won't have the opportunities to socialize them well.

An additional problem is that parents who spank often may be doing less of the forms of discipline we know are good at teaching children how to behave. For example, if a parent hits their child rather than taking the time reason and explain things to them, then the child may end up poorly behaved because she doesn't understand what she's supposed to be doing.

What do you say to people who say, "My parents spanked me, and I turned out fine"?

I can't tell you how many times I've been told that. People believe their parents loved them and did the right thing, so they don't want to question that. They don't want to feel like they're rejecting their parents, or condemning their parents. What I tell people, in response to that argument, is that we have an evolving sense of what's good for children.

When I was young, my parents' first few cars didn't have seatbelts. I was never in a carseat. My brothers and sisters and I bounced around in the back of the station wagon. Parents would be horrified by that now, but do I think less of my parents for doing that? No, because that was the norm then. Now we know children will die if you get in an accident and they don't have a seatbelt or a carseat to protect them.

In the same way, our knowledge about what promotes children's positive development has grown dramatically over the last few decades, and we now know that there are much better ways of teaching children right from wrong than hitting them. We don't need to condemn what our parents did in the past in order to recognize that we know more now and can act on that knowledge.

So do you think the practice of spanking will end in the U.S.?

It might take generations, but I think spanking children will become increasingly unacceptable as a means of disciplining children and will effectively end. Maybe states will pass laws that ban spanking, as 29 other countries have done. Those countries have done so because they have recognized that spanking violates children's rights to protection from physical harm. I think that a combination of recognizing that spanking physically and emotionally harms children, and that spanking is entirely ineffective in promoting appropriate behavior, will lead Americans to reduce and eventually stop spanking their children.

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