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Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Asking Questions About Spanking

Is everyone thoroughly tired of this topic? I surely am, but it keeps coming up. For example, the Canadian Medical Association Journal has just published an article summarizing some 20 years of work on spanking and its effects (see I haven’t been able to get the original article to read, but this link will give you some access). The authors, Durant and Ensom, concluded that spanking has no positive outcomes and a number of negative ones, among which they include possible shrinkage of brain matter and declines in IQ.

And this could be true, although of course none of the studies discussed had the randomized design that allows us to understand whether one factor actually caused another.  But let me refer to another journal article that brought a high level of critical thinking to this difficult issue (Berlin,L.J., Ispa, J.M., Fine,M.A., Malone,P.S., Brooks-Gunn, J. et al. [2009]. Correlates and consequences of spanking and verbal punishment for low-income White, African American, and Mexican American toddlers. Child Development, 80, 1403-1420).

Berlin and her colleagues noted that “the extent to which the literature speaks to the effects of spanking, per se, is limited.” They pointed out that one well-known analysis combined spanking with the bare hand and hitting with an object into the category “corporal punishment”. This conflation of the two events has been common and is probably characteristic of the studies considered in the Canadian article. When spanking and hitting with an object are combined categories, no study can conclude correctly whether spanking itself has specific good or bad effects on child behavior and development.

 Berlin and the other authors also emphasized the need for the transactional perspective that is essential to modern developmental psychology, a perspective that considers the possibility that parents can influence children, that children can influence parents and evoke different parent behaviors, pr that both can happen simultaneously. In the case of spanking, this would mean that parent punishment behavior could change children’s behavior, mood, personality, etc.; that children’s characteristics could evoke particular punishment behaviors and attitudes from parents; and that these mutual influences could go on simultaneously. It would be a failure of critical thinking to focus exclusively on one factor--  for example, the effect spanking, or any other form of punishment has on the child.

A second broad concern of developmental psychologists is an ecological approach, as suggested many years ago by Uri Bronfenbrenner. Berlin and her colleagues noted the need to look at individual factors and contextual factors that may make a difference to the effects of a specific childrearing practice on child outcomes. They mentioned a particular need to consider race/ethnicity and maternal emotional warmth as factors that may influence the outcome of spanking or other punishment methods. They pointed out a number of studies showing an association between corporal punishment and aggression for White but not for African American children. According to Berlin and her colleagues, those studies suggested that spanking “ may have negative effects for White children that do not necessarily apply to racial/ethnic minority children and that parents’ emotional responsiveness can buffer or even trump the potentially negative effects of their disciplinary practices”.

Interviewing over 2,000 mothers when their children were age 1, then age 2, then age 3, Berlin and her colleagues found that boys were significantly more likely to be  reported as spanked at all three ages, and fussy children were more likely to be reported as spanked at ages 1 and 2. (It could be argued that being spanked might make children more fussy, but hardly that being spanked makes them boys.) Regrettably, the researchers did not provide the mothers with a definition of what they meant by spanking, so once again it’s possible that both spanking with the bare hand and blows with an object were being reported here.

The outcomes reported by Berlin and her co-authors are too complicated to be summarized here. But, at the risk of cherry-picking, I will point out that in fact results of spanking (whatever that meant) were different for different ethnic groups. For a more acculturated Mexican American group, for example, a high frequency of spanking at age 1 was associated with high scores on a test of development at age 2, while there was no such association for White children (I follow Berlin’s capitalization here, by the way). Spanking at age 1 or 2 did not predict child aggression at age 3. (All the effects were small in size.)

The Berlin study also included an analysis of verbal punishment and its effects. Other parental practices like time-out were not a focus of the study, nor were positive practices like reward or praise. We still lack research that gives a complete picture of parents’ disciplinary or guidance efforts, but this does not seem to prevent various commentators from drawing absolute conclusions.

A complete picture of parents’ methods would allow us to consider what parental characteristics were associated with what methods. The question may be not whether spanking causes negative or positive outcomes, but whether living with the kind of parent who does or does not spank has negative or positive outcomes.  An additional question may be whether child characteristics (like being male) are associated both with the evocation of spanking in parents and with “negative outcomes” (which may not be outcomes of experience, and may only be negative in certain contexts)  like aggressive behavior. So many aspects of early development involve transactional processes and therefore relationships--  is it really likely that the effects of spanking will be otherwise? 


  1. All I got are arguments of "logic." You want 'em?

  2. Okay, as long as as you have a verifiable fact or two in the mix. Logic can't really exist in a vacuum.

    By the way, if spanking causes violence by modeling, how come toddlers don't smack other people on the behind by preference? Toddler imitation is usually pretty specific.

    I hope everybody realizes I'm trying to champion critical thinking, not authoritarian parenting.

  3. Sorry, I got nuthin'. Good stuff, though. Thanks for the info . . .