Monday, July 2, 2012

Spanking and Mental Trauma

The headline reads "Spanking Linked to Mental Illness", and I was immediately intrigued.  Spanking, generally, is a very hard thing to study, as it is so often correlated with other things.  Physical punishment of children is often linked to frustrated and under resourced parents, cultural norms that can be positive or negative, and even immigration status.

Curious how the study authors controlled for such things, but assured by the article that they had, I flipped over to the study itself.  It didn't take long for me to realize this was yet another example of bad journalism mucking about with a half decent study.

The article starts like this:
Although the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) strongly discourages spanking, at leasthalf of parents admit to physically punishing their children. Some research suggests that as many as 70-90 percent of mothers have resorted to spanking at one time or another. Anew study published in the journal Pediatrics may cause parents to think more carefully before laying a hand on their little ones.
However, the study states:

Physical punishment was assessed with the question, “As a child how often were you ever pushed, grabbed, shoved, slapped or hit by your parents or any adult living in your house?” Respondents who reported an answer of“sometimes” or greater to this event were considered as having experienced harsh physical punishment. The term harsh physical punishment was used for this study because the measure includes acts of physical force beyond slapping, which some may consider more severe than “customary” physical punishment (ie, spanking).
 So the study specifically excluded "customary" physical punishment when it assessed the effects on future mental illness....which pretty much completely contradicts the headline.   I also doubt this is what 70-90% of mother's are admitting to when they spank "at one time or another".  



  1. This is nonsense. People spank less frequently today than they did back in my day, and we have more violence in school, on television, and in society in general, so that argument that "spanking teaches kids violence" doesn't hold water!

    1. I think the problem with most research on this topic is that they mix up two groups of people: parents who spank out of love and discipline, and parents who lose their tempers and haul off and hit their kids because they have other frustrations going on. Presuming everyone has the same motivation for spanking is wrong. The parents mentioned in the study above sounded more frustrated than anything (I have not often heard of shoving or pushing kids being used well). It's all about intention, and saying that no parent should do something because some have issues is not a good idea, IMHO.

  2. I find the use of the term "resort to spanking" quite revealing. It implies that these parents lack sufficient other real disciplinary options and so must "resort" to spanking. If they had been better trained or lived in better circumstances, they would not have had to stoop to such draconian and primitive methods.

    What must the researchers think of people who PLAN to spank their children and have a clearly thought through set of guidelines and procedures for doing so? I imagine that they can't imagine it. They only view spanking as a last desperate measure of the uneducated.

    1. To note, the researchers were much more was the press who started assigning words like "resort".

      About planning....I don't know many people who planned on spanking their children who ever reached the levels actually assessed in the I would agree the amount of forethought would probably be a key variable.

      When I took my legal and ethical class in grad school, we talked a lot about spanking (therapists being state mandated reporters and all) and our professor actually mentioned that she had not spanked her daughter because she was a single parent. She believed that it would have been dangerous for her to spank her daughter without another adult in the house to make sure she was using it consistently/properly. I was really struck by that level of parental forethought, and I think it makes a huge difference whether physical punishment is planned or the result of a lost temper.