Is it ok to spank your child?
Spanking is in the news again, following a recent study published by Pediatrics. Headline everywhere read: Study shows that spanking causes mental illness in later life. Unsurprisingly, the Internet is ablaze with discussions on the merits of spanking.
However, it’s pretty clear from these discussions that most have not read the actual article or if they have, they didn’t get any further than the abstract. If they had, they would see that the headlines igniting this debate are pretty misleading.
First, this study looked at “harsh physical punishment” – it did not specifically address spanking in isolation. Harsh physical punishment was assessed by asking adults this question: “As a child how often were you ever pushed, grabbed, shoved, slapped, or hit by your parents or any adult living in your house?”
Harsh physical discipline as described by them in this study is in my mind physical abuse, not spanking.
Do you see the problem with this? It isn’t shocking that individuals with higher instances of reported harsh physical punishment also showed a higher prevalence of mental illnesses later in life. There is not a single question on the questionnaire that asks about spanking, but headlines everywhere are assuming that spanking fits under the category of harsh physical punishment. The inference about spanking and mental illness has been drawn by others interpreting these results, but the researchers are clear that it is harsh physical discipline that is responsible for the negative effects.
In addition, there are a host of other issues with the study, including that it is based on adults recalling events from their childhood. Any type of retrospective data is always seen as a limitation in studies such as this. Also, these results are not causal. They are related, but without a controlled comparison, we can’t make cause and effect statements. However, this hasn’t stopped people from doing just that.
I want to be very clear here: I am not an advocate of harsh physical discipline. I do not think it is acceptable nor do I advocate parents “pushing, grabbing, shoving, slapping, or hitting” their children. I disagree with the researchers who defined harsh physical discipline as being separate from physical abuse. Harsh physical discipline as described by them in this study is in my mind physical abuse, not spanking. And yes, countless studies show that physical abuse as a child is associated with many types of adverse effects later in life.
But this study does not actually provide evidence in either direction pro or con about spanking children.
There’s an interesting result that is missing from all of these discussions. One of the links showed this: “Increases in education and income level were both associated with increased odds of harsh, physical discipline.” Nobody is talking about this result. This one seems pretty important to me. But it’s been left out of the discussion and you can see why.
Here’s a confession: There are instances when I spank my son. I realize I am taking a risk by admitting this.
There have just been times when spanking was the only way to get a point across to my son.
There is an entire repertoire of discipline strategies available and I have used nearly all of them at one point in time. Frankly, there have just been times when spanking was the only way to get a point across to Gus or the only form of effective discipline. My biggest thing with discipline is that it be effective. If it is not, I get rid of it, and move on to trying something else.
I thought about spanking a lot. My partner and I had many conversations about it prior to arriving at a decision. I know all of the parameters that need to be established if a parent is going to spank their kids – I’ve gone through them numerous times with parents in session and in parent training classes. There are rules to follow. And if these rules are followed, studies actually show that spanking is not detrimental to a child’s wellbeing.
This post first appeared on The Mommy Psychologist.