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Child corporal punishment: Spanking

Results of studies: 2001 to 2004

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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 decades:

bullet A 2001 longitudinal study at the University of California

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:

bullet Abusive punishment - There were none among the parents examined.
bullet "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 researchers.
bullet "Orange zone" - Parents who spanked frequently but with low intensity.
bullet "Yellow zone" - Parents who spanked with moderate frequency.
bullet "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:

bullet In childhood: immediate compliance, moral internalization, quality of relationship with parent, and physical abuse by that parent, child aggression;
bullet In adulthood: abuse of ones own children, abuse of one's spouse; and
bullet 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:

bullet Many parents strongly support spanking because they are rewarded with immediate compliance by the child whenever this discipline technique is used.
bullet 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 problems."

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." 2,3

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2002: Genetic linking of childhood abuse with adult violence:

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 commented:

"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, opposition to 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."

References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Patricia McBroom, "UC Berkeley study finds no lasting harm among adolescents from moderate spanking earlier in childhood," at:
  2. "Is corporal punishment an effective means of discipline?," Press release, American Psychological Association, 2002-JUN-26, at:
  3. 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:
  4. Michael A. Milburn & Sheree D. Conrad, "The Politics of Denial," MIT Press, (1996). Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store

Copyright 2001 to 2009 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update and review: 2009-MAY-30
Author: B.A. Robinson

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