Last week, on Facebook, a friend of mine linked to a Yahoo blog post whose title caught my eye: “Spanking Linked to Mental Illness, Says Study.” My husband and I have a 14-month-old boy, whom we’ve never planned to spank. Still, we have years of discipline ahead of us, and I was curious about the findings.
Despite the Yahoo headline, and many others like it, the study, published in Pediatrics in early July, does not actually link spanking to mental illness. In fact, the study has nothing to do with spanking at all. Canadian researchers asked 34,000 adults how often they had been pushed, grabbed, shoved, slapped, or hit by their parents or other adults when they were children. The authors explain that they were trying to assess the long-term effects of regular harsh physical punishment, which, they write, “some may consider more severe than ‘customary’ physical punishment (i.e., spanking).” Ultimately, the researchers reported that adults who have mental problems are more likely to say they were pushed, grabbed, shoved, slapped, or hit by their parents than healthy adults are.
Yes, OK. Abuse is bad. But now I wanted to know: What about spanking? According to a 2011 study, more than half of all American parents spank their toddlers; some studies have put the number closer to 60 percent. But the American Academy of Pediatrics opposes it, and the practice is illegal in 32 countries, including Spain, Israel, and all of Scandinavia. So what’s the deal—are slaps on the tush OK if your children deserve it, or will it screw them up for life?
After digging into the literature on the topic and talking to a handful of experts, my best shot at a conclusion is this: It depends. If you spank your kids frequently, harshly, or after you’ve lost your temper, then your kids may end up worse off because of it. If, on the other hand (no pun intended), you rely primarily on nonphysical disciplinary tools like time-outs, but you (lightly) spank your kids with the palm of your hand several times when they don’t comply with these tactics, reasoning calmly but firmly with them as you do—then spanking might make your children better behaved, and it probably won’t do them any harm.
I wrote my best shot at a conclusion because, despite a recent Huffington Post piece calling the “debate” settled, the research on spanking is messy and controversial. The same study might be cited by different experts as evidence that spanking is safe and that it’s dangerous. That’s in part because the effects of spanking are hard to evaluate: You can’t assess its effects like you would a drug, in a randomized controlled clinical trial, because it’s unethical for researchers to instruct a random group of parents to spank their kids and a second group not to. Yet in the name of science, that type of study would be ideal, because it would allow scientists to compare what happens to both groups of kids—and conclude, with some certainty, that any differences arising between them were due to the spanking.
But for physical punishment, the best researchers can do is compare what happens to kids who are punished with those who are not. And the thing is, kids who incite spankings may be more difficult or delinquent to begin with than kids who don’t. Ideally, studies should control for a child’s behavior prior to spanking, to ensure that findings only reveal how many more problems kids develop after they are spanked—but researchers don’t always do this, in part because they often collect information about people at a single point in time. Researchers might ask adults if they were hit as kids and, at the same time, assess these adults for mental illnesses, looking for associations between the two—such as in this 1999 study. (The recent study on harsh punishment was conducted in this manner, too.) But when these types of studies report that kids who were spanked have more behavioral problems later in life than kids who were not, it’s impossible to pin the cause on spanking.
To prove this point, in 2010, researchers at Oklahoma State University investigated whether nonphysical punishments are also associated with delinquent behavior later in life. They found that psychotherapy, grounding, and sending children to their rooms all make kids more antisocial. The researchers don’t actually believe that psychotherapy causes behavioral problems—they just wanted to show that these kinds of studies identify associations that aren’t necessarily causally linked the way you would expect. Discipline is associated with behavioral problems in part because discipline is caused by behavioral problems.