Monday, September 20, 2010

An Analysis of the Research on Spanking Part 1

As a mom, I am so sick of all the debates in the so-called Mommy Wars. One side vaccinates, the other doesn't. One side spanks, the other considers it child abuse. One side says let the baby cry it out so they can learn to self-soothe, the other side says never leave a crying baby. On and on and on it goes, and the truth is that it is hard for the average mom to determine what is right.

So it is with the spanking debate. And I, as a scientifically-minded mom, wanted to know what the research actually said. So I went to pubmed and searched for spanking. There were 151 studies that showed up, although only 33 of them included viewable abstracts that were relevant to the spanking debate. I read through each of those abstracts and made notes of what the researchers had discovered. And now I will present it to you.

But first I want to remind everyone that all research has a bias, and that it is incredibly easy to manipulate the data to get a desired result. My engineering professors demonstrated this to our class several times, and I myself witnessed it in the lab. This does not mean that the research is useless, per se - published research is often the best tool we have to help us make informed decisions - but it is a wise observer who recognizes that the bias does exist. When reviewing the literature on spanking, I saw bias on both sides of the debate, though honestly most of the bias I saw was on the anti-spanking side (though perhaps that was only because there were more anti-spanking studies than pro-spanking studies).

The biggest oversight I saw from the anti-spanking crowd was completely dismissing degrees of spanking. That is to say, they did not seem to differentiate from infrequent spankings given when the parent wasn't angry and frequent spankings given during a fit of rage. Is there a difference between the two? Maybe, maybe not, but if I'm going to take an anti-spanking study seriously they'd better account for it. Some of the anti-spanking studies accounted for this, but not the majority. On the other hand, the vast majority of the pro-spanking studies accounted for this difference, and all of them found a difference in the two approaches.

It also bugged me that the anti-spanking studies would frequently phrase their findings in what I think is a backwards fashion. Like saying "A square is a rectangle. Squares are bad, therefore rectangles are bad." I'll give two examples from my reading.

The first study I read said that in homes with domestic violence, parents were two times more likely to use corporal punishment. OK, got it. And how about the reverse? Are homes that use corporal punishment more likely to have domestic violence? The rate of corporal punishment in the US is significantly higher than the rate of domestic violence, so to me it seemed logical to at least show the reverse statistic as well.

Another study said that mothers who used psychological aggression were more likely to use corporal punishment on their children. So what can we take away from that study? That corporal punishment is equivalent to psychological aggression? Certainly not. That the use of corporal punishment leads women to psychological aggression? Of course not, that's not what that data showed. Unless you demonstrate which is the cause and which is the effect (if there even is a causal relationship between them), any conclusions you draw from a study like that are merely thought pieces. They shouldn't be used to drive the way families operate, and they certainly shouldn't be used to drive public policy.

Again, this type of backwards logic popped up over and over again in the anti-spanking studies. They made spanking out to be the cause - which it might be, I'm not taking sides here - but their research doesn't support that claim at all. Rather, it showed it to be the result of something else in some cases.

And the final thing about the anti-spanking studies that really bugged me is that over and over again, they would research something completely unrelated to how spanking affects children (the rate of corporal punishment in the US, or the predictors for who will spank their children - overwhelmingly those who were spanked as children, by the way), and then the conclusion to the study would be that since spanking is bad for children, this is a disturbing trend that needs to be addressed by public policy. First of all, your research didn't even touch that subject. Second, based on my research, there is no consensus in the literature about this. The closest to a consensus I could determine was that some forms of spanking cause aggression in certain segments of the population (more on that below), and that is hardly cause for a change in public policy. So please, stick to your actual body of research in your conclusions.

My main objection to the pro-spanking studies is that they largely ignored the spanking-aggression link that most of the anti-spanking studies addressed. Instead they focused on how spanking reduces antisocial behavior in children and the psychological effect of spanking on children. They were also a few statements that bothered me, such as how the anti-spanking studies would show "the same results for other methods of punishment if the same methods were used." OK... did you actually do studies on time-outs, loss of privileges, etc, and run the numbers? Or is that just supposition?

The point is that both sides have a tendency to present the data in a way that favors their side. This doesn't make the researchers evil - every researcher does this to a certain extent. But as we go forward in this series of posts, I want you to keep this in the front of your mind. It is healthy to read research with a good amount of skepticism.

To be continued in Part 2 - The Evidence For Spanking

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  • Alan

    Great topic!

    Our culture has lost the art of critical thinking. People accept what they're told, more or less based on their perception of the source, without examining the message for logical flaws. That makes it way too easy to pull the wool over people's eyes. It happens all the time.

    I'm eager to see the rest of your report!