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Steve Hansen: Is ‘spanking’ as dangerous as some research claims?

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Posted: Tuesday, October 29, 2013 12:00 am

Is “spanking” a child as bad as some believe? Well, as they say in law school, “It depends.”

Much of the “research” done in this particular area uses “descriptive” methodology and is not designed with the rigorous framework found in hard sciences. Descriptive research is primarily based on observation rather than manipulation of variables via controlled studies. It’s a system not usually employed in the medical world but more commonly used in schools of education and social sciences.

One of the fundamental problems with this research is that “spanking” is not universally defined. It could mean anything from a light swat on the rump to a beating with a wooden coat hanger by an inebriated caregiver.

Secondly, reported studies often are initiated by groups with predetermined biases. For example, trying to correlate spanking with negative emotional developmental outcomes is like trying to associate (as some have reported) a similar premise with criminal behavior. However, these studies do not account for the many more people who were spanked and did not become criminals — or for that matter, those who weren’t spanked and did engage in unlawful activities.

It’s similar to saying that the majority of criminals are right-handed and therefore, one factor caused the other. Ridiculous? Of course!

Thirdly, one recently reported study contained methodology that was blatantly flawed. After a few years of childhood spankings, it used a “before and after” questionnaire about a child’s behavior at a later point in elementary school. Obviously, this calls for subjective opinion and is quite vulnerable to inconsistent conclusions. It does not account for normal changes that occur developmentally as a child grows older. Biased questions with “group think” assumptions can also be an issue in poorly designed research.

These are some of the problems with descriptive and correlative studies. In addition, they usually do not control the many variables, which can affect outcomes. In the study of spanking, these variables can be the socio-economic and formal education levels of the parents, substance abuse, along with single or dual caregiver households. Others are age, intelligence, personality styles, mental health, temperament, impulsivity, gender, ethnic cultural practices, sophistication of social skills and a host of other factors. Still other undefined variables are the intensity and frequency of this type of disciplinary procedure.

This is not to say that spanking is absent from controversy. Several years ago, a popular TV show called “Little House on the Prairie” had a story about a boy who got himself into trouble at school. When Michael Landon (who played the father) discovered the problem, he sat down with his son and had a discussion about what went wrong and what could be done differently. He also had the boy make a value judgment about the behavior. This included a commitment not to repeat it in order to avoid future negative consequences.

It was a perfect example of a parent guiding his child through the mistakes of life and helping him plan for future problem solving. It all sounded well until the last moment when Landon said, “OK, son, off to the woodshed!”

But why? The job of the parent had been done. What was the point of corporal punishment after a learning experience had been evaluated and solutions were established?

A real problem with the issue of spanking is a parent who does not guide his or her child, but simply uses yelling and physical punishment as primary forms of discipline. A child could, but not necessarily will, draw a number of negative conclusions and behaviors that affect personality from this repeated limited set of tools. Anxiety, depression, passive-aggressiveness, social withdrawal, antisocial (lack of conscience) behavior, or low levels of self-confidence are all possibilities.

So, back to the point of the original question, “Is spanking really as bad as some claim it to be?” In reality, it’s a matter of common sense as well as appropriateness for age. If a light swat on the rear is used to gain the attention of an active 4-year-old or to set boundaries when other methods have failed, probably not. On the other hand, if this is the primary method of control by parents who are poor role models and fail to teach successful decision-making, then unintended consequences for their children could certainly evolve.

Steve Hansen is a Lodi writer and retired psychotherapist.

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