When to Spank
For decades, parenting experts have said spanking irreparably harms kids. But a close look at the research suggests otherwise
The shortcomings in the research aren't just methodological quibbles--they go right to the heart of what worries parents about spanking. To take one example, one of parents' biggest fears is that spanking might lead to child abuse. Common sense suggests--and studies confirm--that child abuse typically starts from situations where a parent is attempting to discipline a child. But no study demonstrates that spanking a child leads to abuse--indeed, it may be the other way around. Parents who end up abusing their children may misuse all forms of discipline, including spanking. Sweden, often cited as a test case, hasn't borne out the spanking prohibitionists' fears, either. After Sweden outlawed spanking by parents in 1979, reports of serious child abuse actually increased by more than 400 percent over 10 years, though the actual number of reports--583 cases in 1994--was still quite small. Sweden's experience does not prove that banning spanking creates more child abuse, but it does suggest that outlawing the practice may do little to lower the rate of child abuse.
Why take a chance? Straus and Hyman and other parenting experts concede that much research on spanking is flawed, but they believe its collective weight supports their claims. "There's enough evidence to decide we don't need it [spanking]," says Hyman, "even if the evidence isn't that strong." Besides, he asks, given the stakes, is it worth taking a chance? "The question should be turned around. We should say, 'Give me a good reason why you should hurt kids.' "
Journalists, reporting on child-rearing trends, seem to have adopted a similar approach to spanking, rarely bothering to scrutinize the claims of prohibitionists. Consider the news media coverage of a much touted study by Straus, published last year in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine. His research indicated that frequent spanking (three or more times a week) of children 6 to 9 years old, tracked over a period of two years, increased a child's antisocial behavior, measured in activities like cheating, bullying, or lying. The American Medical Association, which publishes Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, issued a news release headlined "Spanking Makes Children Violent, Antisocial," and Straus's findings were reported by the three major networks and included in at least 107 newspaper and magazine stories. But neither the press release nor many of the news reports mentioned the study's gaps: that 9-year-olds who are spanked at the rate of every other day may have serious behavioral problems quite apart from their being spanked, and that the 807 mothers in the survey were just 14 to 24 years old at the time they gave birth--hardly a representative sample. Typically, news accounts reported simply that Straus's study determined that "spanking children causes [a] 'boomerang' of misbehavior," as the Associated Press put it.
Remarkably, the same issue of Archives carried another, longer-term study by psychologist Marjorie Lindner Gunnoe that came to quite different conclusions. Unlike Straus, Gunnoe used data that tracked somewhat more children (just over 1,100) for five years (not two years), sampled older parents as well, and relied on reports from both children and adults. The researcher concluded that "for most children, claims that spanking teaches aggression seem unfounded." Gunnoe found that children ages 4 to 7 who had been spanked got in fewer, not more, fights at school. (The reverse was true with white boys ages 8 to 11 in single-mother families, who Gunnoe suggested might be less accepting of parental authority.) Yet there was no AMA press release on the Gunnoe study, and none of the network reports and only 15 of the 107 newspaper and magazine stories on Straus's research mentioned Gunnoe's contrary findings.