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Child corporal punishment: Spanking

Results of studies during 1985 & 1986

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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.

Study bias is a common phenomenon among behavioral studies in which the researchers have a committed position and are required to judge behavior. However, there are a few studies that largely bypass such judgment. The effects of research bias are minimal or non-existent. Two such studies conducted during 1985 and 1986 were:

bullet The National Family Violence Survey that involved statistical analysis of answers previously given by adults.
bullet Family Research Laboratory of the University of New Hampshire that involved parental self-reporting on spanking and IQ testing.

1985: Study of teenage corporal punishment & adult depression:

M.A. Straus of the Family Research Laboratory of the University of New Hampshire analyzed data from a 1985 National Family Violence Survey. He reported this in his book "Beating the devil out of them: Corporal punishment in American families and its effects on children." 1 He observed:

bullet Serious adult depression is a widespread problem. It affects from 1 to 6% of the population.
bullet There is little empirical research on the link between childhood corporal punishment and depression. One study "suggests that the perceptual blinders are a result of the almost universal early experience with corporal punishment."
bullet An analysis of ten of the leading child psychology textbooks showed that they devoted only an average of only half a page to corporal punishment.
bullet He quotes a book by P. Greven which suggests that

"depression often is a delayed response to the suppression of childhood anger...from being physically hit and hurt..." [by parents]...Melancholy and depression have been persistent themes in the family history, religious experience, and emotional lives of Puritans, evangelicals, fundamentalists and Pentecostals for centuries....The first assaults on children's bodies and spirits generally commences before conscious memory can recall them later. The unconscious thus becomes the repository of rage, resistance, and desire for revenge that small children feel when being struck by the adults they love...the ancient angers persist while the adult conscience directs rage inward upon the self." 2

bullet The National Family Violence Survey involved 6,002 adults respondents, including adults who were living with a spouse, living common law, or a single parent living with one or more children. They were asked the question: "Thinking about when you yourself were a teenager, about how often would you say your mother or stepmother used corporal punishment, like slapping or hitting you?" A second question was asked concerning their father or stepfather. About half of the subjects reported memories of having been hit during adolescence. Respondents were asked five questions to find out if they had been suffering from sadness, depression, feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness, feelings that nothing was worthwhile, or suicidal ideation during the past year.
bullet "For the men [in the study], there is a clear tendency for depressive symptoms to increase with each increment of corporal punishment. For the women in this sample, the slope starts out even more steeply than for the men, but then declines for the highest categories of corporal punishment....the significant effect of corporal punishment occurs despite controlling for possible confounding with the five other variables -- SES, gender of the child, husband to wife violence, excessive drinking and witnessing violence between parents."
bullet The data showed that "with increasing amounts of corporal punishment [during teen years], ...thinking about suicide [in adulthood] increased."

1986 to 1990: Study of corporal punishment and child anti-social behavior:

The Family Research Laboratory of the University of New Hampshire conducted a large study involving over 3,000 mothers of 3 to 5 year old children during the late 1980's. The women were interviewed in 1986, 1988 and 1990. The found that 63% of the mothers had spanked their child at least once during the previous week. Among those that spanked, they hit their children a little over 3 times per week, on average. The researchers found that the children which were spanked the most as 3 to 5 year olds exhibited higher levels of anti-social behavior when observed 2 and 4 years later. This included higher levels of hitting siblings, hitting other children in school, defying parents, and ignoring parental rules. Dr. Murray Straus, the co-director of the Laboratory noted how ironic it is that the behaviors for which parents spank children are liable to get worse as a result of the spanking.

1986 to 1990: Corporal punishment and child IQ:

The Family Research Laboratory of the University of New Hampshire released a study which showed that the more often a child is spanked, the lower they score in IQ tests four years later. Their paper was described by researcher Dr. Murray Straus at the World Congress of Sociology on 1998-AUG-1 in Montreal, Quebec. They examined 960 American children who were between one and four years old between 1986 and 1990. The researchers do not attribute the lower IQ tests directly to physical injuries sustained during the spanking. Rather, they believe that parents who do not spank are forced to use more reasoning and explaining while disciplining the child. "Some parents think this is a waste of time, but research shows that such verbal parent-child interactions enhance the child's cognitive ability."

Thirteen percent of the parents studied reported spanking their children seven or more times a week. The average was 3.6 spankings per week. Twenty-seven percent reported using no physical punishment. Those children who were spanked frequently averaged 98 on their IQ tests -- a below average score. Those who were rarely or never spanked scored 102 -- an above-average score. The four point average decline in IQ among the spanked students is sufficient to have a negative functional effect on those children. Ms. Dawn Walker, executive director of the Canadian Institute of Child Health commented:

"We know that children who are under the threat of violence or aggression develop a fight-or-flight response system that has an impact on creativity and imagination, both of which could influence their IQ...Children need discipline but not hitting." 3

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References used:

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

  1. M.A. Straus, Corporal punishment of children and adult depression and suicidal ideation," Chapter 5 of: "Beating the devil out of them: Corporal punishment in American families and its effects on children," New Brunswick, (2000), Page 60 to 77. Online at: This is a PDF file. You may require software to read it. Software can be obtained free from:  Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store
  2. P. Greven, "Spare the child: The religious roots of physical punishment and the psychological impact of physical abuse," Knopf, (1991)
  3. Jane Gadd, "Spanked children suffer intellectually," The Globe and Mail, Toronto ON, 1998-JUL-30

Copyright 1995 to 2009 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update and review: 2009-MAY-30
Author: B.A. Robinson

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