Every once in while, the issue of spanking reignites the controversy over whether it is an effective parenting practice or should be avoided. I blogged at length about this issue once before and laid out my case for how spanking is harmful to children. I was recently interviewed by Marty Toohey of the Austin-American Statesman in his article on this topic, and I explained why I am against spanking. In his article, Mr. Toohey cited a recent meta-analysis on the effects of spanking by Dr. Elizabeth T. Gershoff of The University of Texas at Austin and Dr. Andrew Grogan-Kaylor of The University of Michigan at Ann Arbor that appeared in the April 2016 issue of The Journal of Family Psychology.
What Is a Meta-Analysis?
In brief, a meta-analysis is a “study of studies.” Using various statistical methods, researchers are able to pool data from numerous studies and synthesize the results. This enables them to draw more robust conclusions about the topic in question than one can gather from just the results of a single study.
Importantly, for a topic such as spanking, researchers cannot ethically randomly assign children to spanking and non-spanking experimental groups and then follow them over time to see what the effects of spanking are. Rather, they have to do correlational studies that often involve using various statistical methods to control for variables that could influence the findings such as socioeconomic status, educational achievement, 2 vs. 1 parent households, and so on.
Potential Effects of Spanking
In their meta-analysis on the effects of spanking, Gershoff and Grogan-Kaylor found that spanking is associated with a host of detrimental child outcomes such as:
- Antisocial behavior
- Internalizing problems such as anxiety and depression
- Low self-esteem
- Lower cognitive ability
- Negative relationships with parents
Although the authors of the study readily acknowledge that their meta-analysis is correlational, the results indicate that spanking is only associated with negative outcomes and not associated with any positive outcomes. Moreover, they were able to show that spanking that does not constitute physical abuse is associated with these harmful outcomes. Based on the results of their work, the researchers strongly recommend that spanking be avoided as a means of disciplining children.
Discipline is About Teaching, NOT Spanking
As parents, it is critical that we try to teach our children right from wrong, how to make healthy choices, how to treat other people well, and so on. When it comes to parenting, there are many effective options for disciplining children that do not, and should not, involve spanking. It is important to note that “discipline” does not mean punishment or spanking. It comes from the Latin word disciplina, and refers to teaching and learning. Thus, it is our responsibility as parents to find approaches to discipline that enable our children to grow to be healthy, responsible, and happy adults. For two great books that provide compassionate and effective options, I highly recommend The Whole Brain Child and No Drama Discipline, both by Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson.
What’s the Matter Here?
One of my favorite groups of all time is 10,000 Maniacs, an alternative band who were around in the 1980s through the early 1990s. Led by the talented, impassioned frontwoman, Natalie Merchant, they developed a loyal following and had a number of popular, conscientious songs that could be heard on alternative radio stations and seen on MTV during their heyday. One of their first songs that gained some acclaim and airplay was a song called, “What’s the Matter Here?” that is an outcry against the hurtful treatment of children by their parents. This song touched many, including myself, on a deep level. I’d like to end this blog with some of Natalie Merchant’s song lyrics as well as the music video for, “What’s the Matter Here?”:
Answer me and take your time,
What could be the awful crime he could do at such young an age?
If I’m the only witness to your madness
Offer me some words to balance out what I see and what I hear.
Oh, these cold and rude things that you do I suppose you do because he belongs to you
And instead of love and the feel of warmth you’ve given him these cuts and sores
That don’t heal with time or with age.
But I don’t dare say, “Hey, hey – what’s the matter here?”
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