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.