Sorting Through the Research
For parents trying to understand the mountains of data on spanking, the issue is confusing. In 2002, Elizabeth Gershoff, Ph.D., assistant professor of social work at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor, published the mother of all spanking studies. She looked at 88 different research efforts, analyzing them for 11 different effects, including depression, relationship difficulties, aggression, and long-term compliance in the kids. Across the board, children who were spanked did worse in ten of those areas and only did better in short-term compliance.
But there are credible pockets of dissent. Robert Larzelere, Ph.D., associate psychology professor at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, in Omaha, has been studying spanking for 25 years and argues that studies like Dr. Gershoff's include abusive physical punishment, such as slapping children in the face. His research has found that nonabusive spanking (typically, that means one or two openhanded swats on a child's rear) is a safe and effective form of discipline with kids ages 2 to 6, as long as it's used to back up milder forms of discipline, including reasoning with a child.
The problem, he points out, is that this method only works when parents are acting calmly, not in anger. Children can tell the difference between a loving, reasoned spanking and a spanking from a parent who is ready to lose it, he says. Angry spanking is harmful. Yet many parents can't resist spanking when they're mad: 39 percent of the spanking parents who responded to our poll say that they spank on impulse, not as a planned punishment. The risk, at the extreme, is frightening. The University of Minnesota reports between 60 and 70 percent of child-abuse cases started out as a spanking.
More commonly, though, impulsive parents simply wind up feeling remorseful after a spanking, which confuses children rather than making a point. "There have been times when my 18-month-old son, Branden, kept turning the power button on our stereo on and off, over and over again, no matter how often I told him to stop," says Lois Mae Byrd, 37, of Sacramento, California. "On two occasions, I put him over my knee. But it didn't work. I felt bad because I had hit him -- and he could sense that."
How could one careful researcher find spanking to be not harmful while others find that it's damaging? "It's really impossible to do a definitive study on spanking because there are too many variables," says George Holden, Ph.D., a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin. "Some parents spank on principle, and others out of strong emotion," he says. "Some are livid; some are loving. Some spank very hard, even with objects, and do it all the time; some barely spank at all." And of course, the child's temperament plays a role as well. Spanking a sensitive child may produce an entirely different result than hitting a child who's easygoing.
What's missing from spanking research, Dr. Holden believes, is information about how children see spanking. "Parents look at it from an adult point of view," he says. "The child misbehaves, the parent spanks, the child stops, and the parent thinks, 'Good, he got the message.' But kids, depending on their age, gender, or personality, may simply see the spanking as an attack. This is especially important because spanking peaks from ages 2 to 3 -- when children's strong emotional reactions to it (fear, anger, or humiliation, for example) may prevent them from focusing on the lesson the parent is trying to teach.
Nor are experts clear on cultural differences. While African Americans spank more frequently than the general population (a 2004 Johns Hopkins University study, for example, found that 49 percent of black mothers of children ages 2 and under had spanked them in the prior week, compared with about 36 percent of Caucasian mothers), there's less evidence that spanking harms these kids. Jennifer Lansford, Ph.D., a psychologist at Duke University, found that although white children who were spanked exhibited more aggressive behavior as young teens, African-American children actually exhibited fewer problems.
Dr. Lansford thinks her research makes an important point about the power of a cultural community. "My theory is that in many European-American families, kids experience spanking as a shameful thing -- it implies a loss of parental control that's frightening and harmful," she says. "In African-American families, spanking is seen as more acceptable."