Head to Head: To Hit or Not to Hit

By Jen Kim, published on November 19, 2009 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

A new study reveals that American children whose parents use spanking for discipline have lower IQ than those who aren't, citing “The more spanking, the slower the development of the child's mental ability." These studies supplement  additional research suggesting that those who are spanked are more aggressive and have higher delinquency in childhood, and are also more prone to depression, alienation, and lower professional achievement in adulthood. This new information raises new questions to the age old spanking debate. In the US, parents can legally spank their children in 49/50 states (both paddle and belt). However law makers in California and Massachusetts have been unsuccessful in passing laws that would prevent or restrict spanking. Sweden was the first country to ban spanking; since then, 18 countries have followed. We asked two experts if the US should be the next to hit up this trend. YES “Corporal punishment” means hitting a child on the buttocks, slapping a child, and other legal ways to inflict pain to correct misbehavior. Until court decisions in the late 1800’s, husbands had the right to do this for misbehaving wives, provided there was no injury and it was “reasonable” in the circumstances. The same “reasonable force” permission to hit children continues today for parents, but needs to end. Ending the reasonable force provision will not end all hitting of children by parents, just as domestic violence laws have not ended all marital violence. But my research and research by the Department Of Justice shows big decreases in hitting marital and dating partners, suggesting that it has made a difference. Joan Durrant studied what happened in Sweden since the 1979 ban on spanking. She found major reductions in spanking. Moreover, four other Swedish studies found that no-spanking has not meant no-discipline. It has meant correcting misbehavior by non-violent methods. In 1979, many in Sweden feared that Swedish children would be “running wild.” The opposite has happened. Behavior problems and crime by Swedish youth have decreased. An important characteristic of the Swedish law is that there are no criminal penalties. The objectives were to establish a national standard for humane treatment of children, to inform parents and children about the new standards, and help parents who have trouble managing their children without spanking them. It has been remarkably successful in reducing this psychologically injurious form of correcting misbehavior. The best-kept secret of American child psychology is that children who are never spanked are the best behaved. My recently published study of children 2 to 4 and 5 to 9 also found they tend to be smarter. Spanking does work to correct misbehavior in the immediate situation, but no better than non-violent methods of correction. The big difference is that, as Elizabeth Gershoff’s review of 88 studies found, spanking has harmful side effects such as increasing the chances that the child will be violent to other kids and later to spouses, and increased probability of depression. Parents can’t see this because it takes months or years for these effects to show up. The European Union and the United Nations ask all nations to ban spanking and 24 have done so. If we join them, the next generation of Americans will be smarter, have fewer psychological problems, and better family relationships. References: Durrant, J. E. (2000). Trends in youth crime and well-being since the abolition of corporal punishment in Sweden. Youth & Society, 31(4), 437-455. Gershoff, E. T. (2002). Corporal punishment by parents and associated child behaviors and experiences: A meta-analytic and theoretical review. Psychological Bulletin, 128, 539-579. Straus, M. A. (2001). Beating the Devil out of Them: Corporal Punishment in American Families And Its Effects on Children, 2nd Edition (2nd ed.). New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers. Straus, M. A., & Paschall, M. J. (2009). Corporal punishment by mothers and development of children's cognitive ability: A Longitudinal study of two Nationally representative age cohorts. Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment, and Trauma. Also to be reprinted in Murray A. Straus, Emily Douglas & Rose Anne Medeiros, The primordial violence: Corporal punishment by parents, cognitive development, and crime, Walnut Creek, CA, AltaMira Press. MURRAY A. STRAUS founded and co-directs the Family Research Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire. He has studied spanking by nationally representative samples of American parents for thirty years. He has been president of three scientific societies including the National Council On Family Relations, and a consultant for the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. Much of his research on spanking can be downloaded from here NO The scientific evidence is totally inadequate for imposing spanking prohibitions on parents, especially for 2- to 6-year-old children. The evidence against spanking does not distinguish appropriate spanking from inappropriate usage and makes unjustified causal conclusions from correlational data. For example, the strongest evidence that spanking causes an increase in children’s behavior problems in Gershoff’s (2002) widely cited review is based on longitudinal correlations. But correlations are biased against all corrective actions. Even psychological treatment then looks detrimental, being associated with a 14 times higher risk of suicides in adolescents, because of child effects (Larzelere, Kuhn, & Johnson, 2004). A recent literature review partially corrected those problems by distinguishing among four types of physical punishment and comparing their outcomes with alternative disciplinary tactics (Larzelere & Kuhn, 2005). The conclusions: 1) Child outcomes of physical punishment compared unfavorably with alternative disciplinary tactics only when it was the primary disciplinary method or was overly severe. 2) Outcomes of customary1 spanking did not differ from any alternative, except for one study favoring spanking. 3) When 2- to 6-year-olds responded defiantly to milder disciplinary tactics, conditional nonabusive spanking led to less defiance or less antisocial behavior than 10 of 13 alternative tactics and had equivalent outcomes otherwise. Such spanking can then be phased out rapidly as children learn to cooperate with milder tactics (Roberts & Powers, 1990), which is how psychologists trained parents to use spanking for 25 years through the mid-1990s. There is no evidence that spanking bans have improved child outcomes. Swedish criminal records show that physical child abuse and criminal assaults by minors against minors both increased about 6-fold during the 15 years after Sweden banned spanking (Larzelere, 2004; Larzelere & Johnson, 1999). Instead of making spanking illegal, we need to help parents use all disciplinary tactics more effectively, including spanking. 1Customary spanking is defined as typical use, usually measured by how frequently it is used, without specifying or emphasizing how severely it was used. References: Gershoff, E. T. (2002). Corporal punishment by parents and associated child behaviors and experiences: A meta-analytic and theoretical review. Psychological Bulletin, 128, 539-579. Larzelere, R. E. (2004). Sweden's smacking ban: More harm than good. Frinton on Sea, Essex, UK: Families First. Larzelere, R. E., & Johnson, B. (1999). Evaluation of the effects of Sweden's spanking ban on physical child abuse rates: A literature review. Psychological Reports, 85, 381-392. Larzelere, R. E., & Kuhn, B. R. (2005). Comparing child outcomes of physical punishment and alternative disciplinary tactics: A meta-analysis. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 8, 1-37. Larzelere, R. E., Kuhn, B. R., & Johnson, B. (2004). The intervention selection bias: An underrecognized confound in intervention research. Psychological Bulletin, 130, 289-303. Roberts, M. W., & Powers, S. W. (1990). Adjusting chair timeout enforcement procedures for oppositional children. Behavior Therapy, 21, 257-271. ROBERT E. LARZELERE, Ph.D is an associate professor and Research Methodologist at Oklahoma State University Robert.Larzelere@okstate.edu