Thursday, September 23, 2010

An Analysis of the Research on Spanking Part 4

Putting it All Together

After reading the last two posts, you might wonder if the pro-spanking and anti-spanking researchers are on different planets, because their research is so starkly different. There are studies saying spanking is the most effective way of reducing antisocial behavior, and studies saying that spanking causes antisocial behavior. There are studies saying that spanking two times a month is frequent, and studies saying that five times a day is moderate. There were studies saying that spanking was related to lower drug use, and studies saying that it caused rebellion, depression, and drug use. The research was split very nearly 50/50.

Who wouldn't be confused?

But I do think there are some trends that we can recognize. First, nearly all of the studies that accounted for spanking frequency showed that too much spanking can be bad. In other words, quality is much better than quantity. Second, the state of mind of the parent is also important. Don't spank in anger. Don't spank impulsively. Don't spank if you don't believe in it as part of your family's disciplinary strategy. And certainly don't spank if you have a history of abuse or other psychological issues. The studies that accounted for these behaviors nearly all showed that a parent who is in control of themselves and spanks purposefully gets better results than a parent who is apt to lose control.

And, apparently, white parents need to be more careful about this than black parents. Don't ask me why, but at least three studies showed that spanking was beneficial for black children but not as effective for white children. None of the research looked at Asian children. Naturally. ;-)

Also, much of the pro-spanking research indicates that the "sweet spot" for spanking is between 2 and 6 years old. In both younger and older children, you start to see negative effects. There were studies in the anti-spanking research that showed negative outcomes for the 2-6 age range. However, there were only three studies that exclusively looked within that age range, and they were all published this year. Most of the other studies looked at children under two or at elementary school children.

In fact, nearly all the research on elementary or older children showed some negative results, and nearly all the research on infants showed negative results. So if it were me, I would suggest not spanking a child younger than 1 or older than about 8. For young toddlers and for older elementary school students, use caution. Certainly don't do it frequently, and even then it should be a mild version of a spanking.

So, confession time - what do we do in our house? We really only "spank" for one offense right now, and that is touching the computers. She has already destroyed one laptop by kicking it in a fit of anger, and she has also poured water on a running computer which was very lucky to only lose a video card. But the end result is that she has lost computer privileges. She can look, but she can't touch. Here is what we do if she disobeys:

The first time she touches my keyboard I remove her hand and say firmly, "Do not touch Mama's computer. Do you understand?"

The second time she touches my keyboard within the same 10 or 15 minutes, I again remove her hand and say firmly, "Do not touch Mama's computer. If you touch it again I will give you a spanking. Do you understand?"

The third time she touches the keyboard (again, in a reasonable time frame so that she should remember what I said), she gets a mild slap on the wrists and a repeat of the previous warning: "Don't touch. If you do this again, you get another spanking. Do you understand?"

Etc. About once every other day or so I will "practice" on myself just to make sure I'm not hitting too hard.

Pearl is only 15 months old. I don't anticipate seriously expanding our "spankable offenses" until she is much older. I also plan to give her fewer warnings once she is old enough that I know she understands the house rules. At this age I think it is only fair for me to give her ample warning and attempt to solve the problem without spanking whenever possible.

What conclusions have you drawn from the research? How did or do you handle spanking in your house?

Related Posts:

6 have poured out their souls in electronic text:

  • Marianne

    Hi Harmony - I really appreciate your literature review on spanking.

    A couple things from my end: I'm, admittedly, not a spanker. It's not a form of discipline that my parents used on me. My husband's family did not spank him. So, I think I'm uncomfortable with the idea. Having said that, I've
    gotten so frustrated that I've slapped Nathan's hand 4 times. I used spanking in exactly the way you're not supposed to do it: Impulsively and out of anger. These experiences convinced me that *I* could not spank him and be in control.

    I'm a social scientist (a criminologist) by training. Much of the research I'm well-versed in has to deal with causes of criminal behavior. Over and over again, you'll find that men in prison were disciplined harshly (physcially) and either erratically or extremely often.

    I also think one of the things the spanking (or anti-spanking) literature does not address is that most people are *NOT* that self-composed when they discipline their children. That would be ideal, obviously, but I don't think it's that realistic.

    I teach college level courses. In my current class, about 60% of the students are African American and have been raised in the inner city. Most of them have siblings who are currently or recently have been in trouble with the law. Yet, these young people talk about how often their moms gave the kids in their family "whoopin's" If this physcial discipline was the panacea of raising healthy children, it would work for more than one child in each generation.

    So, this is one of the things that bothers me about how we, particulary we as Christian parents, view discipline: as if all of the troubled children are troubled because they're not spanked enough.

  • CappuccinoLife

    Wow, thanks for the time and effort you put into this research. Very interesting, all of it.

    Josiah and I both come from spanking families. Mine was very moderate. His might have been considered abusive here, although he bears no ill will towards his parents for it--it was normal in that place and time, and they didn't know anything different.

    We aren't opposed to spanking but it's rarely necessary here. I worked very hard in the early years to figure out a discipline strategy that works with my boys, and once I hit on it, I kept it. Currently the only time physical discipline is even a consideration is when one child injures another, either deliberately or because they chose to do something they were warned could hurt someone else.

    For the previous commenter--I don't think "whoopin's" are a panacea, and I don't know any spanking family who does. Likely those would fall under the category of age-inappropriate spankings, spankings done in anger, etc.

  • Alan

    Given the prevalence of non-constructive spanking, and the generally acknowledged damage that it can do, it would be really easy to construct a study that makes it look like all spanking is harmful. Distinguishing "healthy" spanking from unhealthy is hard enough in the individual case, and would be nearly impossible in a broad study.

    Marianne touched on one important factor when she mentioned erratic discipline. To be effective, discipline has to be both reasonable and consistent. In order to modify future behavior, the child has to understand and accept the connection between his or her behavior and discipline. It has to seem fair and just to the child. And the child needs to have the clear impression that (s)he won't "get away with it" if the same behavior is repeated in the future. If those are in place, the discipline will be effective, and the parents don't have to feel that they are walking a tightrope with their approach to discipline.

  • Laura

    I think the biggest thing we can draw from the research is that biased researchers will get biased results. :-P Social research is especially prone to this.

    I do think that Daddy hit on something important - it has to seem just to the child. And that requires the parents to be calm, consistent, and intentional (rather than emotional and impulsive), and it calls for lots of affection and attention to surround those times of discipline. IMO all of this is probably more important than whether or not you choose to spank.

    It seems reasonable to me that children who grow up with discipline they see as unjust are going to be less inclined to respect authority their whole lives. And while young children are naturally eager to please their parents, I imagine kids can easily become jaded about that around teenage-hood if they don't have a solid relationship with their parents.

    I think there are probably a lot of parents who spank but get this part wrong -- for many people, the impulsive, emotional thing to do is to spank. It's easy for society to blame this on spanking when in all likelihood it's the parents' overall approach toward parenting that's the problem.

    Just some thoughts from a mom with an easy kid who's not even two yet. :-)

  • Harmony

    Maggie, I'd love to hear what your discipline strategy is! (I've also been wanting to comment on your blog recently, but I don't have an account with Homeschoolblogger.)

    There's so much I want to say about this.

    First, that's such a good point about consistent and just discipline. I know families that don't spank that are still prone to erratic and unjust discipline. Parents are imperfect, children try your nerves, and regardless of the discipline strategy you employ, you're going to have to work hard to make it a good one.

    To Marianne's point that most parents aren't composed when they spank, I think there are ways to avoid that. One of the biggest mistakes that James Dobson says parents make is that they wait too long to discipline. They warn and warn and warn, and each time their warning isn't taken, their anger level ratchets up a notch. If the parents would expect obedience immediately (and use a discipline strategy that backs it up), he believes there would be less child abuse. A parent who punishes the second time a child breaks the rule (warning the child the first time that a second offense will result in punishment) isn't angry yet, and can be much more in control of the situation. At least, that's his theory (and it's worked for me so far).

    I've also heard that it also helps to strictly define (when you're perfectly under control) what type of punishment a child will get for a certain offense. I know that Pearl gets one slap on the wrists after her second warning about touching the keyboard. So when I go to give her that punishment, I know I'm not doing it erratically or out of anger. It's just the established punishment for that offense in this house.

    And yes, La, these researchers basically got the results they were looking for. I do think that if you look closely you can find general guidelines that the research suggests, but I wouldn't take most of those studies at face value.

  • Marianne

    Thanks again for the great discussion. It certainly has given me food for thought, as a fairly INexperienced parent.

    I should have said one other thing: Obviously, all of my "evidence" is anecdotal. It's just an interesting view into families with criminality to see what sort of discipline was, or continues to be, used.

    Thank you again for this discussion.