When to Spank
For decades, parenting experts have said spanking irreparably harms kids. But a close look at the research suggests otherwise
Against spanking. Compounding parents' guilt were two books published in the mid-'90s by researchers Irwin A. Hyman and Murray A. Straus that seemed to solidify the antispanking consensus. In Beating the Devil Out of Them, Straus, a respected sociologist at the University of New Hampshire who has done groundbreaking research on child and spouse abuse, concluded that spanking children is a "major psychological and social problem" that can doom a child to a lifetime of difficulties ranging from juvenile delinquency to depression, sexual hangups, limited job prospects, and lowered earnings. Straus's 1994 book won raves from well-known child-development experts like Brazelton and Penelope Leach, who applauded him for spotlighting a link between spanking and violence in society. Hyman, a psychologist at Temple University, made much the same point in his 1997 manual, The Case Against Spanking, and promoted his views in numerous appearances on the talk-show circuit.
For Straus and Hyman, spanking became almost a unified field theory connecting seemingly disparate social problems. "We really want to get rid of violence," Hyman said last year in an interview on CNN. "And we really want to improve children's self-esteem and behavior. We should pass a law against spanking." Straus went even further, asserting that spanking helps foster punitive social attitudes, such as support for bombing raids to punish countries that support terrorists. If parents stop spanking, Straus said on ABC-TV news last year, "we'll have . . . lower costs to deal with crime and with mental illness."
The problem with Straus and Hyman's pronouncements was that they were based on a body of research that is at best inconclusive and at worst badly flawed. It is virtually impossible to examine the effects of spanking in isolation, uncontaminated by other influences on behavior and development, such as the overall quality of parenting and the varying temperaments of the children in question. A "pure" study, in which researchers randomly assign children to one of two conditions--either spanking or discipline with nonphysical methods--and then track their behavior over a number of years, is for obvious reasons impractical: Few parents would agree to participate in such research.
As a result, the vast majority of studies on spanking have instead been carried out in one of two other ways. Some rely on retrospective interviews with adults, who are asked decades later to recall if they were spanked as children, and how often. Researchers then attempt to link the spanking with current behaviors like depression or spouse abuse. In the second type of study, mothers are interviewed about how often their kids misbehave and how often they spank them, and researchers look for a relationship between the two behaviors.
Neither type of study is very effective in teasing out exactly what is going on. In the case of the interview studies, it is impossible to tell if the spanking led to the misbehavior or the misbehavior led to the spanking. In the case of the retrospective studies, it is anyone's guess how accurate the adult subjects' memories are of their parents' discipline techniques. In some cases, the researchers also failed to adequately control for other factors that might have influenced the results. For instance, most of the studies conducted by Straus himself include many people who were spanked as teenagers, which most child-rearing experts agree is too old for corporal punishment. Other studies failed to distinguish between one or two taps on the rear end of a preschooler and, say, beating a child with a strap. One 1977 study of 427 third graders who were reinterviewed 10 years later found that those who had been punished more also were more likely than others to push, shove, or start fights over nothing. But "punishment" was defined as including everything from nonphysical disciplinary steps like reasoning with children or isolating them, to slapping their faces, washing their mouths out with soap, or spanking them until they cried.