Meet The Scientists Who Haven’t Given Up On Spanking

Is the fear that physical punishment will ruin kids’ lives overblown? Some PhDs say it is.

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To say that spanking has fallen out of favor would be putting it mildly. The idea of swatting children horrifies many parents, who say the practice is cruel, antiquated, and ineffective. Decades of research support those claims and draw links between childhood spankings and mental health problems later in life. A recent study even found that spanked kids are more likely to behave violently toward future romantic partners. But some researchers say that, as  long as parents spank in a non-abusive way (a couple of open-handed thwacks on the butt), spanking won’t do any harm — and might even help.

“Only five research studies have restricted their definition of spanking to open-handed swats on the bottom, [and] none of them found any harmful effects of spanking,” Robert Larzelere, Ph.D., a parenting professor and researcher at Oklahoma State University who has authored numerous papers about discipline and spanking since the 1980s, told Fatherly. “And four studies found it to be tied for first place as the most effective way to enforce cooperation with timeout in defiant 2- to 6-year-olds.”

Despite the considerable backlash from most parents and researchers, one in six parents still spank their kids “sometimes,” and 4 percent do it often, according to 2015 Pew Research Center survey. Black parents spank more often than white parents, and parents who spank usually are poor and less educated than parents who never spank. In other words, the divide is increasingly cultural as well as ideological.

Read more of Fatherly’s stories on discipline, behavior, and development.

But Larzelere says that “conditional spanking” or “backup spanking” can be helpful as a last-resort disciplinary measure when young children don’t respond to time-outs or other non-physical forms of punishment. “Parents ought to be nurturing, they ought to be using reasoning in an appropriate way, and they need to proactively teach children to think about whether they’re acting in an appropriate way,” he says. “But that doesn’t negate the fact that more oppositional children will need negative consequences in a consistent way so that they learn to cooperate and to listen to reasoning rather than just be defiant whenever they don’t like what the parent wants them to do.”

“It’d be a nice utopia if we never had to correct our colleagues at work or correct kids’ behavior, but that’s not how life works.”

Some kids might never need a spank, but others who are difficult to reason with might, adds Christopher Ferguson, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist, and professor at Stetson University in DeLand, Florida. Ferguson says he has never had to spank his son, who’s now 14, but he says other parents might not get as lucky with their children. “Kids are going to respond to different things,” he says. “It’d be a nice utopia if we never had to correct our colleagues at work or correct kids’ behavior, but that’s not how life works.”

Still, most psychologists are concerned about spanking, which has been shown to increase risk of anxiety, depression, and aggression later in life, says Laura Markham, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and author. Besides, she says spanking doesn’t work. “Not only does it cause pain and frighten kids, it interferes with their ability to internalize the parent’s message,” Markham says.

“When you hit them, they’re not thinking about what you want them to do, they’re just thinking, ‘This person 10 times my size who’s supposed to be protecting me is now hitting me.’”

“If a man hits his wife, I don’t think explaining later why he did it is going to make her feel any better.”

The reality is that many parents hit kids when they’re frustrated, not when they’re attempting to deliver a calm, unemotional disciplinary message, she says. And explaining to them later why you hit them, as authoritative parenting guidelines suggest, won’t erase the trauma of the experience. “If a man hits his wife,” she says. “I don’t think explaining later why he did it is going to make her feel any better.”

What’s more, spanking puts kids in the “fight, flight, or freeze” stress-response mode, she says, which means the learning centers in their brains shut down and they’re not getting the lesson the parent is trying to teach them. In one study of 1,400 adults, in fact, researchers reported that brain scans of kids who were spanked once a month revealed increases in the size of the amygdala, which is considered the brain’s “alarm center.” A more active “alarm” in the brain might help explain why spanked kids show more aggression later: “You might react more quickly with aggression if you were worried about your safety,” Markham speculates. In addition, the study showed reductions in the areas of the brain responsible for empathy, self-regulation, and ability to pay attention.

That study, however, looked at the effects of “harsh corporal punishment,” which the authors noted meant that kids were struck, on average, once a month “frequently with objects.” Harsh and frequent spanking isn’t what Larzelere is suggesting. That most spanking research lumps abusive behavior along with measured, open-handed spanks is is one problem that he and Ferguson have with most spanking studies. Data collected in these studies cut across too broad a swath, they argue, so that parents who hit their kids with belts or switches and leave bruises or cuts, for example, are lumped in with parents who use the unemotional, non-abusive spanking that they suspect will benefit some kids.

Another problem is that it’s difficult to tease out the effects of spanking alone, when many kids who are spanked might suffer other forms of mistreatment such as verbal or emotional abuse. Conversely, such children may have more behavioral problems to begin with. “How do you know that’s the cause of it? I think the evidence suggests that children who get spanked more were more oppositional or defiant in the first place,” Larzelere says. “So parents didn’t only use more spanking; they also tended to use grounding and timeouts more, too, more reasoning in response to bad behavior, more everything. That’s going to correlate with worse outcomes because of the poor prognosis of kids who are pushing limits all the time.”

“There are probably bigger issues, and spanking is not the huge public health threat I think some have made it out to be.”

Ferguson is similarly unimpressed with much of the research critical of spanking. “It’s crazy to see a scientific field come apart at the seams because it’s promoting something they see as a public health issue, even though there isn’t anything there to suggest it’s a public health issue,” he says.

Noting that he’s not an “advocate” for spanking, Ferguson adds that, “if everyone gave up spanking tomorrow, I’d be fine with that. What I’m interested in is how scholars, and certainly advocates, cherry pick or show citation bias in their research or who represent research in a distorted way to reach an advocacy goal, such as banning spanking.” In general, Ferguson says, everyone should stop worrying so much. “As long as you don’t abuse your kids, and let them know that you love them, appreciate them and accept them, everything is probably going to be OK,” he says. “There are probably bigger issues, and spanking is not the huge public health threat I think some have made it out to be.”

Markham nonetheless maintains that spanking is ineffective. “Once you’re punitive, kids stop thinking you’re on their side,” she says. “They want to feel that you’re their backup and here to help them.”

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