New data released this week indicates that countries where the slapping, spanking, and corporal punishment of children has been banned now have lower rates of youth violence compared to countries that allow corporal punishment. The number comes from a study funded by the Canadian Institutes for Health Research that is part of a growing body of research suggesting spanking children is a counterproductive practice. For many American parents, physical punishment remains the go-to disciplinary tool and it’s understandable why: Parenting practices are passed down generation to generation. The best way to halt what has become a vicious cycle? Pass a law making spanking illegal. It’s an extreme reaction, sure, but there’s plenty of reason to think it will work.
In order to understand if spanking was related to teen violence, CIHR researchers poured over World Health Organization survey results tracking teen behavior in 88 countries across the globe encompassing a full 46 percent of world’s teenage population. Of particular interest were questions related to how often a teen respondent had been in an altercation within the past 12 months. Researchers found that in countries where spanking was banned, boys engaged in fighting 69 percent less than countries where there were no bans. Among young women, there was a 42 percent lower incidence of physical violence in those non-spanking countries.
Here’s the wild thing: The results were consistent even when controlling for national economic health, children’s exposure to violence at school, and the presence of social programs aimed at curbing youth violence.
Are there confounding factors in the study? Sure. For instance, researchers could not control for how long corporal punishment bans had been in place. It was also impossible to tell if cultural attitudes towards violence influenced teen behavior more than the actual ban on corporal punishment (presumably cultures that ban spanking are not particularly violent). That said, the findings remain deeply compelling when placed beside longitudinal research suggesting that children who are spanked have worse outcomes as adults in areas ranging from violent behavior to drug abuse.
Obviously, there’s likely to be vigorous opposition to a law telling parents what they can and cannot do with their kids. The most plausible argument against such a law is that legislating discipline allows the government to intrude too deeply into the lives of American families. Opponents to a spanking ban would pull out the old slippery-slope argument, which does warrant some consideration, and raise the dark specter of “big government.”
But, let’s be honest, municipal, state and federal governments already have a say in how we raise our kids. Consider the fact that there is fluoride in most municipal water supplies, specifically to reduce cavities in children. Think of car-seat laws which dictate how you transport your children. Read up on compulsory education laws that require parents to educate their children in accordance with state regulation, unless they are affiliated with specific religious traditions. Finally, consider the fact that if your child is not adequately fed, washed, and sheltered they could be taken by the state.
We accept these government assaults on parents’ autonomy because we understand that they are in the best interest of children. Sadly, it’s our inability to understand the long-term health consequences of disciplinary violence that keeps us from supporting a spanking ban.
But, on a deeper level, it’s also fear of losing control. Because let’s face it, the vast majority of parents who spank their children are not sadists. Parents do not want to hurt their kids. They spank their kids as a measure of last resort and because it leads to children changing their behavior. There is ample evidence to suggest that kids behave considerably better under threat of violence (hostages and prisoners do as well).
To discipline a child in a non-violent way requires work and enormous patience. That’s true. And that’s a huge ask for American parents, particularly because of what the government doesn’t provide: parental leave, tax incentives, universal pre-K. Even parents who’d prefer to have a better method of discipline sometimes default to spanking because it’s practical.
And honestly, that’s why a law prohibiting spanking would help. It would force parents and educators to find a better way to raise respectful, well-behaved children and to engage more actively (and maybe even productively) with the resource constraints that make doing so difficult. Historically, parents have risen to occasion when asked to change. It’s no easy feat to install a car seat, but we do it because it’s mandatory and we’ve accepted it’s safe. It’s not easy to send a kid to school, but we do it because it’s mandatory and we understand it’s good for their future.
Spanking and corporal punishment are not good for a child’s future. That’s becoming increasingly clear. But parents’ desire to change is lagging behind the science and we are becoming increasingly complicit in the poor outcomes of some American kids. We should do the right thing and speed up the process. It’s time — beyond time — to ban spanking.