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New research suggests that never spanking might be worse for kids than spanking them

Mother disciplining child with a spanking.
Mother disciplining child with a spanking.
(Photo: Schoenbaum/Getty)

In Newsweek's blog, NurtureShock: Experiments in Parenting, a recent post by Po Bronson, an expert and writer on the science of parenting, explains why never spanking might be worse for kids than spanking them. 

Bronson begins his post by reviewing a study conducted by Drs. Jennifer Lansford and Ken Dodge, which examined cross-ethnic and international views of spanking and its long-term effects on children. Their data suggested that if a culture views spanking as the normal consequence for bad behavior, kids aren’t damaged by its occasional use. The doctors further found that in societies that consider spanking unacceptable, parents still spank—but they hit in anger—when they've lost control. To explain their findingss, Lansford and Dodge (who are adamantly against corporal punishment) suggest that in cultures or communities where spanking is common, parents are less agitated when administering spankings. Therefore, spanking almost never—when combined with losing your temper—can be worse than spanking frequently.

After summarizing the findings of Landsford and Dodge, Bronson poses a question: "But what about the third option: not spanking them at all?"  He admits that in the past this was a difficult issue to study because children who had never been spanked weren't easy to find. However, as times change and alternatives to spanking become more widely acknowledged and practiced, the number of kids who have never been spanked continue to grow as asegment of the population.

One of the new population studies underway which has gathered data on spanking and its effects is called Portraits of American Life. It involves interviews of 2,600 people and their adolescent children every three years for the next 20 years. Dr. Marjorie Gunnoe, who is analyzing the first wave of data collected on the teenage participants, has found that almost a quarter of these teens report they were never spanked. 

So Bronson asks: "[A]re kids who’ve never been spanked any better off, long term?"  He says, "Gunnoe's summary is blunt: 'I didn't find that in my data.'"

The study asked teens how old they were when their last spanking occurred, and how often they would get spanked as a child. That was cross-referenced against the data on bad outcomes we might fear spanking could lead to years later: antisocial behavior, early sexual activity, physical violence, and depression. But Gunnoe went further. She also looked at many good outcomes we might want for our teens, such as academic rank, volunteer work, college aspirations, hope for the future, and confidence in their ability to earn a living when they grow up. Studies of corporal punishment almost never look at good outcomes, but Gunnoe wanted to really tease out the differences in these kids.

Her findings were shocking.  She discovered that those who’d been spanked just when they were young—ages 2 to 6—were, as teenagers, doing a little better on almost every measure than those who’d never been spanked. She further found that a separate group of teens who had been spanked until they were in elementary school and had their last spanking between the ages of 7 and 11 didn’t turn out badly, either. Compared with the never-spanked, they were slightly worse off on negative outcomes, but a little better off on the good outcomes. Only the teenagers who were still being spanked clearly showed problems.

Gunnoe is now looking at how parenting styles might explain these patterns—especially the mystery of why the never-spanked are doing worse than expected.


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