The New “Spanking” Study Is Not Really About Spanking – It’s About Harsh Physical Punishment

The internet is lit up again with comments and reactions to a new study that has been described as showing that spanking leads to mental disorders in adulthood. The problem, however, is that the researchers did not examine spanking – rather they studied harsh physical punishment. 

So let’s focus on what the study did and what the results were. The authors analyzed data from a very large, well-respected survey study of over 34,000 adults. The participants responded to a number of questions in a face-to-face interview, including questions about their childhood experiences and past and current mental health. Now here’s the important point. The researchers included one question on harsh physical punishment (not spanking). You can read the entire article online if you like, but I am quoting from the methods section of the paper so you can read the description of the question that was asked right here:

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).

The researchers also excluded from the analyses subjects who reported more severe maltreatment or abuse. What they were trying to get at was something harsher than spanking but not extreme abuse. They report that about 6% of the sample reported experiencing harsh physical punishment (a much lower rate than is found for spanking). And they found these individuals had an increased risk for mood disorders, anxiety disorders, substance abuse, and personality disorders as adults.

While the study itself is very sound, it should be noted that it was a retrospective study as the adults who were interviewed were asked to recall their childhood. This is a limitation but not a fatal flaw – retrospective studies can yield meaningful data, they are just not believed to be as powerful as longitudinal studies. So all in all, the study makes an important contribution by suggesting that harsh physical punishment may lead to a heightened risk for later mental health problems. It sends a strong message that pushing, grabbing, shoving, slapping or hitting kids should not be considered acceptable.

That said, from a scientific perspective, this study does not suggest anything – pro or con – about spanking.



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  1. [...] The new “spanking” study is not really about spanking – it’s about harsh physical punishment ( [...]

  2. by J kraemer

    On July 3, 2012 at 12:49 pm

    Well, where do we old people that were abused when kids sign on to a class action suit to get compensation from our parents that spanked us, and from the schools that paddled us, and from teachers and perhaps a neighbor that that gave us a swat with a switch when we acted out? Okay, no one beat us unconscious or acted out some other sick Harsh Psycho Physical Punishment, but these spankings still hurt and that traumatized us. Most of us older must have been traumatized, the story proves it. No need to question an expert, certainly not if you want some money. Plenty of us were hit by the teacher’s ruler, the principal’s paddle, my mom’s and my grandma’s wood spoons, sometimes even by a neighbor here and there catching us doing something we were not supposed to be doing. The obvious trauma’s these mean people did to my psyche, while just me being a ‘kids will be kids’, must have harmed me in to respecting valid instruction, including following valid directions. Perhaps even carried over later in life to avoid acting out when driving, respecting others and their property, otherwise hurting others, and paying taxes. Why didn’t those mean people talk about it instead of choosing a swift method that has traumatized those of us that seemed not to listen to direction? Horrible people that deserve to be punished. My parents have already paid the price raising me, in fact I may owe them a partial refund. So, where do I sign up to get my share of the money from the evil schools and the government, the churches and also the expert secular associations that back in those days helped encourage these horrible events that traumatized me?

  3. by J Kraemer

    On July 3, 2012 at 12:54 pm

    [...] The new “spanking” study is not really about spanking – it’s about harsh physical punishment ( [...]

    The authors/magazine chose the title, not the readers.

  4. by J kraemer

    On July 3, 2012 at 1:28 pm

    Parents Magazine staff reports, “[...] The new “spanking” study is not really about spanking – it’s about harsh physical punishment ( [...]”

    The author and magazine chose the title of the story, not the readers. Sneaking in the word “spanking,” may have been done to get a reaction from the rest of us. A misbehavior carried over from childhood? Most of us already believe a spanking can be a useful and efficient tool up to a certain age, and when controlled. Is it possible a few adults could use a spanking, or perhaps a swift slap across the face when failing repeatedly to follow valid civil directions, such as when making up an inappropriate title designed to get attention?

  5. by Quinn

    On July 5, 2012 at 3:49 am

    Dr. Rende, I’m not entirely sure what the point of your article is; is it to say that the aforementioned study doesn’t present any data regarding spanking? Or are you going so far as to say that spanking isn’t a traumatic experience with lasting repercussions?

    Let me tell you about myself. I’m a 25 yr old man with anxiety and insecurities up the wazoo. I can tell you right now, that spanking is a horrible, damaging, frankly terrifying experience.

    I have vivid memories of my father walking me into the bedroom, ordering me to lower my pants, and proceeding to slap a brutal hand across my ass a good 25-30 strikes. First off, I can close my eyes and recall the physical pain (it was severe) to this very day. Worse? My father never bothered to explain to me the manner in which I was –presumably– misbehaving, nor did he ever explain to me what my behavior *should* be. There were several incidents at the dinner table, where I found myself being marched into the bedroom for no apparent reason, and being lit into. I distinctly remember the utter fear, the searing pain, and the looks on the faces of the rest of my family just before (and well after) each episode… dinner was over, and everyone else knew damn well that what was going on was wrong.

    I can’t speak for anyone else, but in my (extensive) experience, spanking absolutely qualifies as “harsh physical punishment”. As an added bonus, it includes severe psychological punishment as well. To this day, I still fear, resent, and truly hate, my father. Thanks to his spanking, I have many forms of anxiety, ranging from moderate to debilitating. I have incredible difficulty forming and keeping close relationships. I still (upon re-examining my past) have no clue what I did to deserve such treatment. I simply do not have the words to describe just how negatively this has impacted my whole life, and just how much I abhor the man who calls himself my father.

    For Dr. Rende, and whomever else reads this comment, please listen: Spanking is child abuse, period. If you ever have a child, DO NOT spank, or otherwise strike, him or her. Doing so will teach your child that you are to be feared, not respected. You will be teaching your child to hide his/her natural personality and curiosities, out of fear… your child will become severely withdrawn, and will learn to employ dishonesty simply to protect him/herself from you. By spanking (or otherwise striking) your child, you will be inflicting a lifetime of fear, hatred, insecurity, anxiety, isolation, and the like, simply to buy yourself a few hours of quiet time.

    Do not do this, EVER. You would never strike your spouse, would you? Spanking is child abuse, and those who resort to it have no business being parents in the first place.

    … now excuse me while I get off my soap box.

  6. by Nebulus

    On July 5, 2012 at 12:06 pm

    Quinn, you need a spanking.

  7. by Nebulus

    On July 5, 2012 at 12:08 pm

    If the article isn’t about spanking, DON’T call it spanking. It was purposely called that to get a rise out of people and to get people to read the article.

  8. by Nebulus

    On July 5, 2012 at 12:11 pm

    “Or are you going so far as to say that spanking isn’t a traumatic experience with lasting repercussions?”

    Uhhh, Quinn, there are millions upon millions and millions of people that were spanked WITHOUT any traumatic experiences or lasting repercussions. Just because you didn’t like getting disciplined growing up, doesn’t mean that it hasn’t worked for everyone else…

  9. by Lydia Beiler

    On July 27, 2012 at 6:59 am

    Quinn, what you experienced sounds more like beating to me, not spanking. I’m sorry- it sounds horrible.

    The spanking I experienced was given when I had clearly disobeyed. It consisted of a few swift swats and that was it. When we use spanking to discipline our son, we first go over what he did wrong to make sure he understands what was not okay, then we spank (he’s 4) with maybe 3-4 swats, then we hold him and snuggle. Usually there is a time of talking afterwards too and he’ll often say, “I love you”. I def. don’t see how that can be abuse.

    I get so tired of skewed research. Thanks Dr. Rende for pointing it out here.

  10. by superscrounger

    On July 27, 2012 at 12:13 pm

    Quinn, what you experienced was horrible.
    But it wasn’t spanking. Yours were beatings. It was flat-out child abuse. There was no teaching going on. These were the actions of an angry/troubled adult.

    Effective spanking is designed to catch a child’s attention. It has rules:
    1-Only with your hand.
    2-Only on the backside.
    3-No more than three swats.
    4-Not past the age of ten.

    This is not abusive. It makes a point. It gets a child’s attention. It is also effective.