Child corporal punishment: Spanking
Results of studies: 2001 to 2004
As noted elsewhere, many studies into the
effects of spanking have proven to be highly unreliable because they are largely
based on the researchers' interpretation of children's behavior. Such
interpretations are heavily subject to bias.
However, there are a few studies in which research bias is minimal or non-existent.
One such investigations
reported during 2001 was a longitudinal study that extended over
2001: Corporal punishment and social/emotional development:
On AUG-24, Diana Baumrind and Elizabeth Owens, research psychologists at
University of California - Berkley's Institute of Human Development,
reported the results of their longitudinal study on corporal punishment. They
had studied over 100 middle class, white families. Data was extracted from a
data base that had studied the children from 1968, when the children were
preschoolers, to 1980, when the children were early adolescents. They defined
five levels of severity of corporal punishment:
|Abusive punishment - There were none among the parents examined.|
|"Red zone" - About 4 to 7% of parents studied impulsively used
overly severe, frequent hitting. This included using a paddle or other
device to strike the child, hit the child on the face or torso, or "lifted
to throw or shake the child." However, punishment by these
parents did not reach the level of abuse, in the judgment of the
|"Orange zone" - Parents who spanked frequently but with low
|"Yellow zone" - Parents who spanked with moderate frequency.|
|"Green zone" - Parents who spanked rarely or not at all.|
No parents who went beyond hitting into actual abuse were included in the
study. They found a major correlation between spanking and long-term harm to
children among "Red zone" parents. Among the remaining parents, they found small
but significant correlations between the level of physical punishment and later
misbehavior among the children at age 8 to 9. Ms. Baumrind said that "the
children of parents in the green zone who never spanked were not better adjusted
than those, also in the green zone, who were spanked very seldomly." She emphasized that her study
did not study how abusive physical punishment harms children. She said that she and other researchers have
found ample evidence of that in other studies. 1
2002: Result of meta-analysis of 88 studies:
The American Psychological Association issued a press release
in 2002-JUN concerning the publishing of a large-scale, meta-analysis of 88
studies on spanking of children by psychologist Elizabeth Thompson Gershoff of
the National Center for Children in Poverty at Columbia University.
She searched for correlations between parental use of corporal punishment and
eleven factors, including:
|In childhood: immediate compliance, moral internalization, quality of
relationship with parent, and physical abuse by that parent, child
|In adulthood: abuse of ones own children, abuse of one's spouse; and|
|In both childhood and adulthood: mental health, aggression, and criminal
or antisocial behavior. |
She found "strong associations" in each case. One factor -- immediate
compliance by the child -- was positive; the other ten factors were negative.
She suggests that these observations give insight into why corporal punishment
is such a controversial matter:
|Many parents strongly support spanking because they are rewarded with
immediate compliance by the child whenever this discipline technique is
|Many researchers strongly oppose spanking because of serious negative
affects on the child during childhood and later in life.|
The APA comments:
"The meta-analysis also demonstrates that the frequency and severity of
the corporal punishment matters. The more often or more harshly a child was
hit, the more likely they are to be aggressive or to have mental health
Commenting on the study, George W. Holden, PhD, of the University of Texas at
Austin, wrote that Gershoff's findings:
"... reflect the growing body of evidence indicating that corporal
punishment does no good and may even cause harm."
2002: Genetic linking of childhood abuse with
Terri Moffitt of King's College London in the UK, and the
University of Wisconsin in the U.S. helped lead an international team of
investigators in a longitudinal study of 1,037 children. Their subjects were all
born in Dunedin, New Zealand during 1972. Included were 442 boys. The study
followed the children from the age four in 1976 until adulthood. The team
studied the genetic makeup of the children, concentrating on a gene that
controls the production of an enzyme called monoamine oxidase A (MAOA). This
chemical breaks down a key neurotransmitter in the brain which is linked to a
person's mood, aggression and pleasure. The gene come in two
alleles (varieties). One allele is
found in about one third of the male subjects tested. It causes their brains to
produce too little of the enzyme.
For these males, 85% of the boys who
were abused during childhood turned to criminal or antisocial behavior as adults.
They were nine times more likely to become antisocial. Moffit explained that the
allele's "relation to aggression only emerged when we considered whether the
children had been maltreated." They defined maltreatment as: frequent
changes in the primary caregiver, rejection by the mother, or physical or sexual
abuse. She said: "This suggests that the best strategy for preventing
violence is to prevent child abuse." Two out of every three boys have
inherited the other allele which produces higher levels of MAOA. They were
unlikely to develop behavior problems. The allele that they possess "may
promote trauma resistance."
If physical abuse during childhood causes anti-social
violent behavior among the one third of adult males who are genetically
predisposed to produce low levels of MAOA, then one wonders what level of
corporal punishment would be safe. Perhaps conventional levels of spanking could
trigger violence many years later when the child has grown up.
2004: Linking childhood punishment with political beliefs in adulthood:
The 2004-MAY-13 issue of Newsweek carried an article by Michael Milburn,
interviewed by Brian Braiker. Milburn is a psychologist at the University
of Massachusetts and a co-author of the book: "The Politics of Denial."
4 He "has extensively
explored what determines political attitudes, the role of emotion in public
opinion and the effects of the mass media on political attitudes and social
behavior." Discussing the prisoner abuse scandal in Iraq involving the
physical and sexual mistreatment of inmates by American soldiers, he
"We found that, particularly for males who had never had any
psychotherapy, when they reported a high level of childhood punishment,
they were significantly more likely to endorse a range of punitive
public policies like support for the death penalty,
abortion, support for the use of military force....Well, the extent to
which emotion connected to childhood punishment was driving their
political attitudes, when they had an opportunity to sort of reflect on
that and [have a] short-term catharsis experience, that sort of energy
disappears....What we have found, really broadly, is the higher level of punitiveness among political conservatives is really strongly associated
with experiences, generally, of harsh punishment from childhood. It's
not just going to be that they were spanked; there's a whole family
climate, and punishment is just going to be one of those indicators of
that....In our research we also found that when we gave people the
statement 'the amount of physical and sexual abuse in this country is
greatly exaggerated by the mass media,' conservatives were significantly
more likely to agree with that."
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
- Patricia McBroom, "UC Berkeley study finds no lasting harm
among adolescents from moderate spanking earlier in childhood,"
- "Is corporal punishment an effective means of discipline?," Press release,
American Psychological Association, 2002-JUN-26, at:
- Elizabeth Gershoff, "Corporal Punishment by Parents and Associated Child
Behaviors and Experiences: A Meta-Analytic and Theoretical Review,"
Psychological Bulletin, Vol 128, #4, Pages 539-579, (2002-JUL), at:
- Michael A. Milburn & Sheree D. Conrad, "The Politics of Denial,"
MIT Press, (1996).
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Copyright © 2001 to 2009 by Ontario Consultants on
Latest update and review: 2009-MAY-30
Author: B.A. Robinson