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Study Links Spanking to Relationship Violence

This trend held whether or not children were physically abused, which means even well-meaning parents who spank their kids may be priming them to abuse others.

Children who are spanked are more likely to mature into adults who use physical violence against their intimate partners, a new study suggests. Researchers found that this trend held whether or not children were physically abused, suggesting that even prudent spanking delivered by well-meaning parents could prime kids to abuse others later on.

“Kids who said they had experienced corporal punishment were more likely to have recently committed dating violence,” co-author of the study Jeff Temple of the University of Texas Medical Branch told CNN. “One of the advantages of our study was to control for child abuse, which we defined as being hit with a belt or board, left with bruises that were noticeable or going to the doctor or hospital. Regardless … spanking alone was predictive of dating violence.”

The study comes as the United States begins to grapple in earnest with the results of the #MeToo campaign. Thanks to the brave women who have come forth to tell their stories, we now know that sexual and physical abuse is an endemic problem. This uncomfortable revelation has left parents scrambling for ways to inoculate their children against joining the ranks of the abusers. This new study suggests that avoiding corporal punishment may be a good first step.

Because parents are supposed to teach children “social norms and how people should behave toward each other,” Bob Sege, a spokesman for the American Academy of Pediatricians (who was not involved in the study) told CNN. “Corporal punishment confuses the boundaries between love and violence for children while they are learning how to treat others.”

For the study, researchers surveyed 758 adults between the ages of 19 and 20, and asked them whether they had been spanked, slapped or struck with an object as a form of punishment when they were younger. They then asked these volunteers about relationship violence. Sixty-eight percent said their parents had spanked them, and these participants were more likely than others to admit that they had used physical violence against their romantic partners.

It is noteworthy that the correlation between spanking and relationship violence was not particularly strong. The researchers report an odds ratio of 1.30, which is significant but falls short of the 1.68 (or 1.50) benchmark that statisticians use to demonstrate a “small” effect. And experts agree that an occasional spanking likely has no negative influence on a child’s long-term behavior. “Once or twice is almost surely no big deal,” George Holden of Southern Methodist University in Dallas told CNN. “The real problem is the parents who are doing it a lot.”

At the same time, studies have shown again and again that there is no particular advantage to spanking your children. It doesn’t improve their behavior, and it doesn’t shape them into better people. Meanwhile, studies suggest kids who are spanked tend to suffer in the long-term.

“There’s zero evidence that it enhances children’s development, and there is a whole bunch of evidence that it has negative outcomes,” Temple told CNN. And Temple has strong words for parents who claim that they “turned out fine” despite their own childhood spankings. “Our goal is not to turn out fine. Our goal is to turn out healthier and happier than previous generations.”