Spare the rod, spoil the child?
November 9, 2010 5:08 PM   Subscribe

Where can I find some good research literature on the effectiveness of corporal punishment as a means to discipline children?

I'm interested in reading good-quality, unbiased research into the effectiveness of corporal punishment on kids, particularly spanking.

For the sake of transparency, I ask because lately I've been hearing a lot of arguments for spanking. The most common arguments seem to be:

- I was spanked as a kid and I turned out fine.

- Children don't always understand reason, sometimes you need to spank them to get the point across.

- Time outs (or other non-physical punishments) don't work, kids need to fear the consequences or they'll never listen.

- Spanking is fine as long as you only do it as a last resort.

Personally, I was spanked as a child and turned out fine, but for my sister and I the spanking was part and parcel of a rather miserable childhood. My parents did not have loving, healthy upbringings themselves, were uneducated, and saw little value in reflecting on the merits of their parenting methods. My fiance was never spanked, and we do not plan on using corporal punishment on our future children. I admit that neither of us know what it would have been like to have parents who only "pop" or "swat" their children lightly and never in anger. We have no experience of the middle of that spectrum.

I want to know what the research says. Does spanking help, hurt, or make no difference in the long run? Which methods of disciplining children are more or less effective than spanking? What are the psychological/emotional effects of spanking in the short and long term? If you can think of any other questions that should be asked in the same vein, please feel free to suggest them.
posted by keep it under cover to Science & Nature (24 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
There is none.
posted by Freedomboy at 5:23 PM on November 9, 2010 [2 favorites]

Seconding Freedomboy! I looked up research a few months ago. I was concerned that a good friend was spanking his child. I tried talking with him about it, he used the excuses above. I didn't find anything that said spanking was good.
posted by mareli at 5:30 PM on November 9, 2010

Many/most of my friends are Asian (Korean, Chinese, Japanese) or Asian-Canadian and almost all of them were spanked as kids. I tried looking for this sort of research, but it didn't seem to exist. Personally, I think the science on this is mostly junk, but that's what I found.
posted by smorange at 5:35 PM on November 9, 2010

It's probably impossible to design a reliable study on this without breaking every medical ethics rule in the book, but I'd err on the side of not hitting kids.
posted by theodolite at 5:37 PM on November 9, 2010

Response by poster: Freedomboy, do you mean that there is no research at all on corporal punishment used against children? That there are no unbiased studies? Could you please elaborate?

mareli, did you find any studies at all?

Please note that I am interested in reading studies that seem to support either side of the spanking argument, pro or anti, as long as they are published in reputable, peer-reviewed journals or other reasonably reliable sources.
posted by keep it under cover at 5:40 PM on November 9, 2010

Response by poster: theodolite, I get that there are no studies where kids are separated into groups and methodically spanked or not spanked, but for example, here is one study that seems to address the effects of spanking.

There must be more out there.
posted by keep it under cover at 5:44 PM on November 9, 2010

Look up studies on positive vs negative reinforcement. For example, for training animals it's generally accepted now that positive reinforcement training is better overall. Sure, a kid isn't an animal per se, but you are in fact training your kid to do some things and not do some other things, and the principle is the same (imo).
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 5:51 PM on November 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Here's a literature and legal review by the Australian Institute of Family Studies (a Commonwealth Government statutory agency, and reputable) of corporal punishment in parenting in Australian States and territories. It's full of references, if you have access to a library's electronic journals.

Their concluding quote:
Research findings regarding the damaging effects for children of corporal punishment have been critiqued for methodological reasons. However, the research is clear that there is limited evidence to support any positive outcomes associated with corporal punishment and that there are other more preferable techniques for disciplining children.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 6:00 PM on November 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

A couple of quick searches of Google Scholar seem to bring up a good number of articles - "corporal punishment" and "spanking". Also this book seems to be a pretty good review of the literature, according to the reviews on Amazon - you could use as a reference to find the articles you are looking for.
posted by catquas at 6:06 PM on November 9, 2010

I searched a Psychology literature database (Psyc Info), and there's pretty wide coverage of this issue. A couple of citations that might be relevant:

Gershoff, E. T. (2002). Corporal Punishment by Parents and Associated Child Behaviors and Experiences: A Meta-analytic and Theoretical Review. Psychological Bulletin, 128, 539-79.

Giles-Sims, J., Straus, M. A., & Sugarman, D. B. (1995). Child, Maternal and Family Characteristics Associated with Spanking. Family Relations, 44, 170-76.

Grogan-Kaylor, A. (2005). Corporal Punishment and the Growth Trajectory of Children's Antisocial Behavior. Child Maltreatment, 10, 283-92.

Straus, M. A., & Stewart, J. H. 1999. "Corporal Punishment by American Parents: National Data on Prevalence, Chronicity, Severity, and Duration, in Relation to Child and Family Characteristics." Child and Family Psychology Review 2: 55-70.

Chapter called "Spare the rod, spoil the child?" in Foner, Nancy [Ed]. (2009). Across generations: Immigrant families in America. (pp. 72-97). vii, 235 pp. New York, NY, US: New York University Press; US.

You should be able to google for at least abstracts of these articles.
posted by bluedaisy at 6:09 PM on November 9, 2010

And another:

Corporal punishment: Mother's disciplinary behavior and child's psychological profile in Alexandria, Egypt. [References].
Abolfotouh, Mostafa A; El-Bourgy, Mohamed D; El Din, Amira G. Seif; Mehanna, Azza A.
Journal of Forensic Nursing. Vol.5(1), Mar 2009, pp. 5-17.
posted by bluedaisy at 6:11 PM on November 9, 2010

Here is an (older) article about the long term effects of spanking as a form of discipline. I believe the methodology used has been significantly critiqued, though. This is a reanalysis of the data. These are more recent studies. It looks like there is a lot of child discipline and spanking on pubmed, sorry if these have been linked to from other sources already.
posted by anthropophagous at 6:12 PM on November 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

This isn't exactly what you're looking for, but maybe it's a start.

American Academy of Pediatrics, Division of Child Health Research: Attitudes and Counseling on Corporal Punishment in the Home.
posted by alms at 6:18 PM on November 9, 2010

You may find studies about corporal punishment and its effects but something to bear in mind is that without exception, all of these studies will be based on highly biased personal reporting, so the results may not be scientifically as accurate as one would hope. Those kids may grow up and be aggressive, but there's no way to know what the household looked like 24/7 and all the other factors in the kid's life.

As far as non-corporal punishment studies, those results can be even more off because self-reporting of parental consistency can be very biased.
posted by dzaz at 6:19 PM on November 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Spanking, even "moderate" spanking, has been found to increase aggression in children.

Google Scholar search for journal articles on spanking +aggression + studies

Many young children have trouble comprehending the idea that it's okay for their parents to hit them but not okay for them to hit other people. And they don't make distinctions between "swatting" and hitting. If a child can't understand reason how are they going to understand "My parent is inflicting pain on me"?

And time outs don't work for every child but there are alternatives that don't involve corporal punishment (Google "alternatives to time out" and you'll find a bunch.)

As someone who was disciplined with corporal punishment I think the whole "We'll only swat our children occasionally when it's really necessary and never in anger" is a slippery slope; children can often be frustrating and once corporal punishment is part of your disciplinary methods it can seem like the fastest and easiest solution.

Spanking studies may often be based on subjective memories but there's really no way to tell if your "pop on the butt" will be interpreted down the road by your child as no big deal or as a betrayal by an adult who was supposed to provide love and protection.
posted by camyram at 6:27 PM on November 9, 2010

Just a note, positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement are BOTH reinforcement. The negative in negative reinforcement refers to removing something. If you are going to do a keyword search, use reinforcement VS punishment.
posted by Silvertree at 6:29 PM on November 9, 2010 [2 favorites]

Some kids are never spanked - do they turn out better?:
Their data suggested that if a culture views spanking as the normal consequence for bad behavior, kids aren’t damaged by its occasional use. 
posted by AlsoMike at 6:29 PM on November 9, 2010 [2 favorites]

I don't have any of the research I found right now, will look it up tomorrow.

All too often I've seen parents resort to spanking for minor misbehaviors, backtalk, refusal to obey, refusal to clean up, etc. It's an expression of the parent's anger more than the parent's desire to guide the child. My feeling is that if it has to be used at all it should be for really serious things, like running into the street or reaching for a hot pot on the stove.

My oldest son is 40. When he was very little I did spank him a few times, I don't remember specific circumstances. By the time my other two sons came along I had realized that I did not want to do that any more. Violence is violence is violence and a violation of another human being. They've all turned out fine and do not spank my lovely grandchildren.

I do remember being spanked as a child and hating it.

Did you guys know that in nearly half of US states corporal punishment is allowed in schools?
posted by mareli at 7:02 PM on November 9, 2010

People tend to be highly ideological about this. Either 'I was spanked and it didn't do me any harm,' or 'spanking is a form of violence, we don't do that.' There are cultural differences in preferred forms of discipline between class and ethnic groups in the US, and people can be really defensive about it.

What I remember is that there's no difference in outcomes for kids between non-abusive use spanking and non-corporal forms of punishment. Fairness and consistency did matter. This is just what I remember from developmental psych years ago. You'll want to look at more recent research that other people have linked to.
posted by nangar at 7:29 PM on November 9, 2010

Just happend upon a relevant footnote, in Sam Harris' book, The Moral Landscape:

"Blair et al., 2005. The developmental literature suggests that, because punishment (the unconditioned stimulus) rarely follows a specific transgression (the conditioned stimulus) closely in time, the aversive conditioning brought on by corporal punishment tends to get associated with the person who metes it out, rather than with the behavior in need of correction."

I tried to find the citation for you, but I'm reading it via the Kindle App for Mac, and wasn't able to figure it out. I do know the author is James Blair, if that's any help.
posted by wheat at 7:59 PM on November 9, 2010

This isn't a study, but in an episode of Parenting Within Reason (episode 29), they interviewed Dr. Elizabeth Gershoff, a developmental psychologist who researches corporal punishment . If I recall correctly (it's been a while), she has found that corporal punishment is effective short term. If the goal is simply to make an immediate change in behavior, then spanking will do that. However, it isn't more effective in the long run than other forms of discipline. I suggest listening to the whole interview, which I believe starts about 20-30 minutes into the episode. It's pretty interesting stuff.
posted by lexicakes at 9:33 PM on November 9, 2010

This site may be of interest to you, along with the fact that corporal punishment is completely illegal in 29 countries worldwide.
posted by idiomatika at 4:09 AM on November 10, 2010

"Blair et al., 2005. The developmental literature suggests that, because punishment (the unconditioned stimulus) rarely follows a specific transgression (the conditioned stimulus) closely in time, the aversive conditioning brought on by corporal punishment tends to get associated with the person who metes it out, rather than with the behavior in need of correction."

This is exactly true- the timing needs to be on the order of seconds for the connection to be made correctly.

Think about driving in traffic. If I cut someone off and they give a honk, I know why. If they pull and cut me off again 30 seconds later, they are the asshole and the driver makes no connection whatsoever. And so unless I get smacked right away, I (as the child) only know that mom or dad *decided* to hit me, and that's not good.

And this is almost always the point of corporal punishment: making the child fear the parent(s) and modify their behavior based on that fear. I *do* believe there exist some situations where fear is a good motivator for kids, but I can't come up with any at the moment.
posted by gjc at 5:54 AM on November 10, 2010

You might want to see if the work of George Holden has anything. I was a grad student at UT-Austin when he was there. He's no longer there, but now at SMU (as Google tells me).
posted by kathrynm at 4:14 AM on November 11, 2010

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