August 20, 1997

2 Spanking Studies Indicate Parents Should Be Cautious


For years, some doctors' organizations have opposed spanking because of research linking it to all sorts of problems in children, including aggressiveness and delinquency. But this line of thinking did not square with reality as many parents saw it. After all, they argued, nearly everyone they knew had been spanked, and most of them turned out all right.

As for the research, these parents said that if spanking was associated with poor behavior, it was because misbehavior led to spanking, not the reverse.

Now, two studies have attempted to settle this chicken-or-egg debate. Each looked at a large group of children around the country to see whether spanking was associated with behavior that became worse over years, not just immediately after the punishment. And each came up with somewhat different answers.

Both studies attempted to answer the question with a snapshot assessing behavior at one point in a child's life and looking at how much it had changed years later.

In both studies, children who were spanked appeared to become more antisocial, meaning that they lied, cheated and bullied other children more.

But one of the studies, led by Dr. Marjorie Lindner Gunnoe, a developmental psychologist at Calvin College, affiliated with the Christian Reformed Church, in Grand Rapids, Mich., found that certain groups seemed to benefit from spanking. Spanking appeared to make the children of black mothers -- only the race of the mothers was surveyed -- and all children from 4 to 7 less aggressive over a five-year period, meaning that they reported getting into fewer fights in school.

Dr. Gunnoe's study is not being interpreted by either outside experts or the researchers themselves as a green light to spank some children.

"This set of studies strengthens the case for the causal relationship between spanking and antisocial behavior," said Dr. Rebecca R.S. Socolar, clinical assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine in Chapel Hill, who has studied the effects of corporal punishment. "But it's still fairly muddy whether there are contexts in which spanking could be OK, or at least not deleterious." Her editorial on spanking appears along with the studies in the current issue of The Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine.

An estimate widely quoted by researchers is that more than 90 percent of parents spank their children, at least occasionally, and some doctors have recently begun to join parents who question the blanket injunction against this form of punishment. Spanking is broadly defined as hitting a child with an open hand without causing physical injury.

Last fall, a conference in Elk Grove Village, Ill., a Chicago suburb, on corporal punishment that was sponsored by included a report that outlined instances when spanking might be justified. The conference was sponsored by the American Academy of Pediatrics, National Institutes of Health and Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.

In the report, Dr. Diana Baumrind, a research psychologist at the University of California at Berkeley, said that when a child did not listen, "the addition of aversive consequences, which can include a couple of smart spanks, may be indicated."

But consensus statements drafted at the conference say, among other things, that spanking should not be used on children under 2 because it can cause physical injury and should not be used on adolescents because it can promote aggression and dysfunction.

Dr. Murray A. Straus, a sociologist at the University of New Hampshire in Durham who is the lead author of the other new study, which found uniformly negative outcomes two years after spanking, said that parents should never hit children of any age under any circumstances.

"Considering research showing that antisocial behavior in childhood is associated with violence and other crime as an adult," he said, "society as a whole, not just children, could benefit from ending the system of violent child-rearing that goes under the euphemism of spanking."

Straus and his colleagues analyzed information from interviews conducted with 807 mothers across the country whose children were 6 to 9 years old when the study began in 1988. The researchers assessed the degree of each child's antisocial behavior by asking the mother whether her child "cheats or tells lies," "bullies or is cruel or mean to others," "is disobedient in school" or misbehaves in other ways.

The mothers were then asked how many times they had spanked their children in the preceding week. The study found that 44 percent of them had spanked their children at least once during that time and that 10 percent had spanked their children three or more times.

Two years later, the children's antisocial behavior was evaluated again by interviewing their mothers. The more often a child was spanked, the more antisocial he or she seemed to become, the study found. The children who were not spanked at all had, on average, an apparent decrease in antisocial behavior.

Straus said that his study disproved the common assumption that spanking was not harmful if it was done only occasionally by parents who were otherwise warm and nurturing. His results held true even for children who were spanked just once in the week before the survey and who got a lot of love and intellectual stimulation at home, as measured by mothers' reports and the interviewers' observations.

Dr. Gunnoe's study was similar to Straus', but it looked at a group of 1,110 children from 4 to 11 years old for five years. She, too, found that the children who were spanked became more antisocial. But she found a statistically significant association between spanking and increased aggression, as measured by the number of fights at school, only among boys 8 to 11 years old who lived with single mothers who are white. She found a significant association between spanking and less aggression among children of black mothers, regardless of their sex, age or family situation, and among 4- to 7-year-olds, regardless of their sex, family situation or mother's race.

"This study challenges the notion of the simplistic relationship between spanking and aggression," Dr. Gunnoe said. She said she thought that spanking was most likely to lead to aggressive behavior in children if they perceived it as an aggressive act.

Her theory is that children under 8 tend to regard spanking as a parent's rightful exercise of authority, while older children are more likely to see it as aggressive because they are less willing to accept parental authority.

In addition, Dr. Gunnoe proposes that black children are more inclined than white children to think spanking is acceptable because it is favored in the black community. "In therapy, some black mothers say, 'Timeouts are for white people,' " Dr. Gunnoe said, referring to a method advocated in many child-care books of isolating a child briefly as punishment for misbehavior.

As for the sex difference her study found, Dr. Gunnoe said that one reason spanking was followed by more aggression only in boys could be that girls were less aggressive by nature.

These studies leave many questions. Does spanking weaken the parent-child bond? How often does it get out of control and cause physical harm? Does spanking even work as a mode of discipline?

Though many parents are convinced that, when all else fails, spanking works because children often stop misbehaving immediately, research shows that it is no more effective than other disciplinary measures, like timeouts, Dr. Socolar said.

So should anyone spank a child if the benefits are questionable and there are known and suspected risks? Dr. Catherine D. DeAngelis, the editor of The Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, had this answer in a brief editor's note: "I still believe that it is better to spare the child and spoil the rod."