Spare The Rod Spoil The Child? 50 Years Of Research Reveal Discipline Spanking Could Do All Harm And No Good

Child Abuse
Spanking is nearly as harmful as child abuse when it comes to long-term effects. Photo courtesy of Pixabay, public domain

To spank or not to spank: That is the question. While some parents may see it as effective discipline, others think it leans on the cusp of child abuse. To settle the debate, a team of researchers investigated the pros and cons of spanking by analyzing 50 years of research conducted by experts from the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Michigan. Their study, published in the Journal of Family Psychology, is the largest analysis of spanking to date, revealing the potential effects spanking has on a child’s development.

"Our analysis focuses on what most Americans would recognize as spanking and not on potentially abusive behaviors," said the study’s co-author Elizabeth Gershoff, a professor of human development and family sciences at the University of Texas at Austin, in a statement. "We found that spanking was associated with unintended detrimental outcomes and was not associated with more immediate or long-term compliance, which are parents' intended outcomes when they discipline their children."

For the study, researchers examined the impact spanking and other types of physical punishment had in 160,927 children. Spanking, which is defined as an open-handed hit on the behind or other extremities, was strongly linked with 13 out of the 17 detrimental outcomes they typically find abused children are forced to live with. Researchers also followed up with some of the grown adults who reported being spanked as children and found the more they were spanked, the more likely they had developed anti-social behaviors and mental health problems.

"We as a society think of spanking and physical abuse as distinct behaviors," said the study’s co-author Andrew Grogan-Kaylor, a professor at the University Of Michigan School Of Social Work, in a statement. "Yet our research shows that spanking is linked with the same negative child outcomes as abuse, just to a slightly lesser degree."

Researchers also found that this type of discipline is a failure; it doesn't curb a child’s misbehavior. Instead, spanking increases the likelihood of the child doing exactly the opposite of what their parents want them to do, perpetuating a cycle that’s passed on from generation to generation. Unfortunately part of the problem is rooted in tolerance. Spanking is not looked at as critically as child abuse, but rather as a more socially acceptable and seemingly diluted form of abuse.

Spanking isn’t a dying discipline measure either. According to a 2014 UNICEF report, as much as 80 percent of parents spank their children throughout the world. When Americans were asked what they thought of the practice, 84 percent agreed “that it is sometimes necessary to discipline a child with a good hard spanking.”

Researchers concluded that this non-fatal form of physical violence is no less child abuse because it results in the same deplorable outcomes with nearly the same potent long-term effects. Gershoff concluded: "We hope that our study can help educate parents about the potential harms of spanking and prompt them to try positive and non-punitive forms of discipline."

Source: Gershoff ET and Grogan-Kaylor A. Spanking and Child Outcomes: Old Controversies and New Meta-Analyses. Journal of Family Psychology. 2016.

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