The idea that spanking and other forms of corporal punishment are effective forms of discipline tends to be passed down from generation. If your mother did it, and you ended up okay, it must work, right? Although that’s debatable, there’s no doubt that it can leave some lasting marks on children, both physically and mentally. As more studies find these effects to be true, a group of researchers set out to see if they could change parents’ minds. And surprisingly, they did.
“Parents spank with good intention — they believe it will promote good behavior, and they don’t intend to harm the child,” said child psychologist George Holden, of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, in a press release. “But research increasingly indicates that spanking is actually a harmful practice.” For their study, Holden and three colleagues sought to change people’s minds about spanking through education — teaching parents and college students, who may have believed in spanking, about the harms it causes children.
First, the researchers asked 118 college students who weren’t parents to read web summaries about the effects of spanking. The students were split into two groups based on how they processed information on the internet: A passive and active group. The summaries included information on short- and long-term effects ranging from poor-quality child-parent relationships to aggressive behavior. Regardless of how they processed information, 74.6 percent of the participants understood the message, feeling less positive toward the idea of spanking.
The researchers did the same study on parents next. They went into it believing that parents would be much harder to convince on the basis that their disciplinary techniques have already been proven to work in their own families. But surprisingly, almost half (46.7 percent) of the 263 parents changed their minds about spanking. “These studies show that we can, in a very quick way, begin changing attitudes,” Holden said in the release.
There have been scores of studies on the psychological and physical damage abuse has on children. A study from last October found that children who were spanked as early as 5 years old were more likely to exhibit aggressive behavior as early as age 9. Moreover, these children also showed declines in cognitive development. Another study, from July last year, showed a link between abuse, obesity, and arthritis.
Despite these findings and many others, many children are still mistreated. In 2011, there were 858,840 reported events of child abuse — many more have certainly gone unreported — and that’s only in the U.S. Other countries and cultures may mistreat their children even more, while a study found that children with disabilities were most susceptible to these forms of punishment. Unfortunately, parents of children with disabilities have a harder time dealing with them, and may resort to spanking out of frustration.
In both the child-with disability case and the current study, the researchers emphasize the importance of educating parents. Having them read about the potential harms just may be enough. “Given the brevity of our intervention, the results are notable,” the authors wrote. “Our web-based approach is less expensive, potentially quicker, and more easily scaled-up to use at a community level.”
Source: Holden G, Brown A, Baldwin A, et al. Research findings can change attitudes about corporal punishment. Child Abuse & Neglect. 2014.