To Spank or Not to Spank?

The answer is do not spank. People will disagree, as is there right, but all the evidence suggests spanking does more harm than good and with upwards of 65% of parents who still believe it is acceptable (down from 82%) people need to understand the consequences. A quick review of psychological theory and spanking: 1) Social Learning Theory-children learn from their parents that aggression is acceptable and are more likely to act this way with their peers. 2) Attribution Theory-parents use of physical force confuses children who are told not to act aggressively thereby leading to unregulated child behavior. 3) Attachment Theory-parents intention hurt of child can prevent trust and closeness of parents which undermines teaching appropriate behavior. All of theories are backed up by current research which in essence all comes to the same conclusion; spanking is correlated with more behavior problems.

However, these are correlational not causal studies. To try and understand the causal mechanisms, Elizabeth Gershoff, in a recent study proposed to answer the following questions: “Does spanking predict increases in behavior problems? Or are children with behavior problems eliciting more spanking? Or are the factors that lead parents to spank the same that cause their children to have high levels of behavior problems?”

Obviously, this type of research would benefit from a controlled experiment through randomization, but as you can imagine this is no possible to assign kids to spanking and non-spanking parents. So, the authors use an extremely sophisticated statistical methods that  “allows the closest possible approximation to a randomized experiment, namely, propensity score matching.” Basically Propensity Score Matching takes two groups (spanked and not spanked) and matches the groups on a number of factors so that individuals in the study have the same likelihood to be in the treatment group. This helps to control for gender, race/ethnicity, socioeconomic background, and any other variables included in the model. This model creates the most rigorous test to date with a  large representative sample of over 12,000 individuals to examine the causal link between spanking and future behavioral problems.

There are three main results from the study:

  1. Children who had been spanked by their parents at age 5 were linked to increases in children’s behavior problems at both age 6 and age 8
  2. The authors find no evidence that being spanked ever reduces behavior problems
  3. Simply knowing a child had ever been spanked—regardless of frequency—was a significant predictor of behavior problems.

As the authors conclude, “The analyses presented in this article tested whether spanking would continue to predict changes in children’s externalizing behavior problems over time after groups of children who differed on their exposure to spanking were matched across a range of child, parent, and family demographic characteristics, including children’s initial problem behaviors.” While researchers will continue to refine models, this study provides the clearest evidence for a causal link between spanking and future behavior problems. Raising kids ain’t easy, but the research clearly demonstrates spanking is only going to make things more difficult down the line.

The study, Strengthening Causal Estimates for Links Between Spanking and Children’s Externalizing Behavior Problems, was co-authored by Kierra M. P. Sattler and Arya Ansari.