There’s also the possibility that parents who spank are different in important ways from parents who don’t. A 2010 study published in Pediatrics found that spankers are more likely than non-spankers to be young, depressed, under a lot of stress, and substance abusers—so it’s hard to know whether some of the purported effects of spanking might actually be caused by poor parenting skills in general. And what about genetics? Substance-abusing or depressed parents who spank may have given their kids genetic predispositions to mental health problems, so, again, it’s not necessarily the spanking that’s the cause of future problems. Some studies try to control for these types of confounding variables, but not all.
Then there are what some researchers call “lumping problems”—when studies are reported as being about spanking but aren’t really about spanking. A 2002 meta-analysis scrutinized data from 88 studies and reported that although physical punishment makes kids more immediately compliant, it also makes them more aggressive in the short and long term and more likely to engage in criminal behavior as adults. This analysis has been cited as some of the strongest, most comprehensive evidence that spanking is dangerous, but it actually looked at far more than just spanking: In 16 percent of the studies, parents were hitting their kids with objects, not with the palms of their hands. It also included punishments such as pinching and slapping. It doesn’t surprise me that kids who are hit with objects or pinched or slapped end up more screwed up than kids who aren’t. But it’s misleading to conclude that these kids were worse off because they were spanked.
Finally, there’s the issue of frequency, severity, and timing. Some research, such as a 2007 study reporting that spanking induces behavioral problems, lumps kids who were ever spanked into a single category and compares them with kids who were never spanked. But these subjects may have been spanked once in their lives (like me) or once a day for 10 years straight. Some may have been hit hard on bare buttocks, while others were spanked lightly on top of clothes. And all of this matters in terms of the impact of the spankings.
The 2010 study in Pediatrics, for instance, reported that 3-year-olds who were spanked were more likely to exhibit aggression when they were 5, even controlling for the kids’ prior behaviors and the mothers’ other risk factors (like depression). But the study only found these ill effects if the kids were spanked more than twice a month. Another study, published in April 2012, found that kids who were spanked once a month or less with hands (no objects) were no more likely to subsequently develop delinquent behavior than were kids who were never spanked at all. Kids spanked more frequently or with objects, however, did develop problems. Finally, research suggests that preschool kids are the least likely to get scarred from spanking but that striking infants or older kids could cause problems.
So spanking, it seems, can be safe. But is it effective? In a 2005 meta-analysis, researchers analyzed 26 studies that compared the effects of spanking with those of other disciplinary tactics. They found that when spanking was used as a backup, only on 2-to-6-year-olds, and wasn’t done in anger, it helped to increase kids’ compliance in both the short and long term compared with 10 other disciplinary tactics, including scolding, reasoning, and removing privileges. There are also four studies (published in 1981, 1983, 1988, and 1990) that did use randomized, controlled clinical trial designs to assess the positive effects of spanking in preschool kids with conduct disorders, reporting in all four cases that spanking when kids did not adhere to time-outs improved their subsequent behavior.
With those results, why wouldn’t we all start occasionally spanking our kids? Well, there’s evidence to suggest that spanking begets spanking, or worse. The same 2012 study that found that light spanking was OK also reported that parents who lightly and infrequently spanked were 50 percent more likely to spank more harshly and frequently the following year. And a study published in 2008 reported that when moms began spanking more often, they were also more likely to become physically abusive—suggesting that spanking might be a kind of gateway drug to more horrible things. So, yes, spanking may well be safe. Until it’s not.