Will science ever convince parents to stop spanking their children?

Posted on June 30, 2011 by Lara in parenting, science

Full disclaimer: I don’t spank my children. We’re a gentle-discipline kind of household (most of the time, anyway), and I think the bulk of the evidence from decades of parenting research supports that decision. So when the issue of spanking comes up in conversation with other parents, I’ve never hesitated to repeat my spanking-is-bad mantra:  Spanking sometimes works in the short-term, but not the long run, and children who are spanked are more likely to experience a long list of negative outcomes like depression, aggression, and other antisocial behaviors.

As far as I’m concerned, this isn’t up for debate. Around here, we like science, and this is what the science tell us so far. And yes–of course there are exceptions. Not all children who are spanked experience the same outcomes.  I get that, I really do. But many studies, of many thousands of children or grown children, tell the story.

And yet there are big holes in what we know, and I suspect that these holes are what make some parents so difficult to convince.  Sure, we know that some children are spanked or slapped for misbehaving, and that these children are at greater risk for certain outcomes. But what does this look like in real time, and why does it matter so much? What kinds of behaviors, attributes, misdeeds are more likely to result in a spanking? How is the spanking handled–what does the parent say, or do? Explain it? Lash out? Hug the child afterward? How does the child respond to the spanking, and what does the parent do in return? And how does all of this relate to what the child internalizes about the experience?

In other words, if a study showed us that spanking a child in these specific ways led to those specific outcomes–would that be more persuasive? If scientists could show us exactly which elements of corporal punishment are hurtful and why, would that convince anyone to stop hitting their child?

These are all hard questions to ask, but they are important in understanding the big picture. To figure out why spanking is so harmful to some kids, we’ve got to see the whole context. That’s not easy research to do. Most studies of spanking have relied on parental self-reports or retrospective accounts by grown children, and they give us very few details about the day to day experience of being punished physically. Observational studies of parent-child interaction are common, but none of them have included a focus on corporal punishment.

Enter George Holden, a developmental psychologist on faculty at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. As this article nicely summarizes, Holden’s project was actually a study of parental yelling–conducted via audio recordings (with consent, of course) of parent-child interactions at home. However, as he and his students began transcribing the recordings, it became clear that they had captured corporal punishment in action, too.

Holden’s recordings sound pretty chilling; you can read a couple of brief snippets in the Time article. (Props to him for doing this kind of work; I couldn’t. Studying how mean kids can be to each other is hard enough.) And of course there are surely both milder and more extreme examples in his transcripts. That’s good–we need to study corporal punishment in all its variety in order to understand the big picture. In that regard, these recordings are a gold mine. They will surely fill some of these gaps in our science. They may provide the researchers with the kinds of details they need to help parents understand what spanking means to a child. I look forward to reading more about Holden’s findings. We may be one step closer to understanding the how’s and the why’s–and maybe change a few parents’ minds about spanking along the way.