Bad Science: Spanking Kids Leads to More Aggressive Behavior—Or Does It?

child change your mind spanking

Bad Science: Spanking Kids Leads to More Aggressive Behavior—Or Does It?

Time Magazine has published an article on a new Tulane University study that purports to show that children who are spanked leads to more aggressive children in the long run. On the surface, it makes sense—”aggressive” physical punishment leads to more aggressive children. Obviously it would be best then not to spank one’s children unless you want them to become bullies. The only problem? The study doesn’t hold water.

child change your mind spanking For one, the study made no distinction between various “types” of spankings. That in itself is seriously problematic, as not all spankings are equal. It is one thing for a parent to spank a child after having made a commitment never to do so in anger (if angry, wait until not angry); the point then is simply a matter of consequences rather than whether the parent is angry or not. The alternative behavior—parent gets angry, child gets whipped because of it—is a wholly other thing, training the child that the appropriate action when one is angry is to aggressively lash out at another. But this study made no distinction between “lawful” and “angry” spankings. My guess is that the latter would lead to the child sharing similar aggression, while the former would not. But studies are problematized by not accounting for this difference.

Another problem—everyone repeat after me: “Correlation does not imply causation.” “Correlation does not imply causation.” “His name is Robert Paulson.” Oh, sorry. Got off track there. The study notes that the students who were spanked more often were more aggressive later on.

… spanking remained a strong predictor of violent behavior. “The odds of a child being more aggressive at age 5 increased by 50% if he had been spanked more than twice in the month before the study began,” says [study lead Catherine] Taylor.

So a correlation was established. Congratulations. But here’s a question: why were these kids spanked more often than the others in the first place? Could it be, perhaps, that they were spanked more often because they were more aggressive to begin with? Oh, but we can’t ask that question if we have an axe to grind, as it appears was the case in this study. This study is a poster child for bad science,  a great example of all too many “scientific” studies done in service of a preconceived bias, with no regard for possible sources of error. And yet again, the “correlation does not imply causation” error, which is marker #1 of a biased study.

In discussing this issue over the past week, one interesting theme did continue to come up with those categorically opposed to spanking: a notion of the “right of physical inviolability” shared by all human beings, which apparently also extends to children and their parents. I find this a fascinating response, especially since I’m not sure how diaper changes and wiping an older child after a trip to the toilet would seem to violate such a notion. In addition, I’m not sure how imprisonment (or its childhood equivalents, “time-out” and “grounding”) is any less a violation of a person’s “right to physical inviolability,” as they restrict a person’s body to a specific place, removing the freedom of movement. (I would think Foucault’s Discipline and Punish should have divested folks of the idea that imprisonment is somehow the result of more humanitarian concerns. Frankly, I am a firm believer that imprisonment is a far less humane punishment than corporal punishment, as it effectively entails taking away a person’s life, whereas corporal punishment is more about humiliation than anything.) Thirdly, punishment is reserved for those who have committed crimes—disobedience to established authority involves waiving one’s rights commensurate with one’s actions. A person who commits a heinous enough crime (or a child who insolently disobeys to a certain degree) has forfeited his “right to physical inviolability”; that is the nature of law and punishment.

Regardless, there still is no scientific study that has done any sort of adequate job showing spanking to be an inherently bad tool in a parent’s disciplinary toolbox. I would strongly argue that no one should ever spank a child out of anger, but there is no reason to think that dispassionate spanking as a clearly defined punishment is somehow going to ruin one’s child.

*EDIT: Apparently, another study applied the same methodology used in this study to other punishments, finding the same results:

The only problem was that we got the same apparently harmful child outcomes for grounding, sending children to their room, and even for child psychotherapy.

This led us to conclude that something is wrong when the “strongest evidence yet against the use of spanking” is based on statistical analyses that would make psychotherapy for children look as harmful as spanking!

Our study shows that these results are biased because defiant children lead parents to use all disciplinary tactics more often as well as to seek psychotherapy for their child.

More on that study and some excellent analysis of child discipline (including quite a lot on spanking) here.

16 Comments
  • Tyler
    Posted at 22:38h, 02 May Reply

    Excellent article.

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  • Nathan
    Posted at 12:11h, 28 May Reply

    I read an article some years back that argued at length for corporal punishment in place of imprisonment, I believe using some sort of medically supervised electric shock punishment: painful but not damaging. I haven’t read Foucault. But our prison system really is dehumanizing, and it’s about as effective a tool at destroying someone’s ability to function in society and the workplace as any other I can think of. I do not believe that mass imprisonment is a good thing.

    • Jeffrey Waldron
      Posted at 09:06h, 28 February Reply

      Agreed. I think imprisonment should only be used as a tool to protect society. It should never be used as punishment or a teaching mechanism.

  • Bruce
    Posted at 00:45h, 09 June Reply

    I totally agree. The best way to teach kids that violence is bad is to smack them. I was spanked and I turned out fine. If I ever meet the “scientists” who did the study I’ll show them the back of my hand. But not out of anger, I just want to modify their behaviour so their studies will agree with what I think.

    I have to go smack my wife, she just burned the toast again.

    • Jason A. Staples
      Posted at 12:08h, 09 June Reply

      As far as “teach[ing] kids that violence is bad,” I suppose the question that must be asked is whether all violence is actually inherently bad. That question must be answered before one builds other arguments off the answer, one way or another.

  • like a child
    Posted at 21:27h, 25 January Reply

    Curious – what has molded your preference for spanking over non-spanking. Personally, I never really thought about it until I had children. I have no blanket statement pro or against spanking. My bias with my young kids was against spanking, and then a faith-crisis was provoked when our church promoted spanking as a biblical way of doing things. I’m not sure if I’m doing the right thing, and certainly the studies on spanking are very complex, as I agree with you that there are good ways and bad ways to spank. I think the key, whether you spank or not, is communication. For me, not-spanking has been helpful as it has forced us to work towards communication and also forced me to read about parenting and discipline technique. I guess I hope that by learning communication skills while they are young, I will be better equipped as they get older (because you really shouldn’t be spanking a teenager anyways.).

    • Jason A. Staples
      Posted at 03:08h, 27 January Reply

      That’s a good question. I think perhaps the biggest part of it is that I was spanked (and I think it was done properly). On top of that, I’m a bit old-school when it comes to education and discipline of children. I think kids are made of stronger stuff than we often think in the West, and the honor/shame and authority aspect of spanking (so long as it’s done properly) is an important part of early discipline. For a kid under two, it’s harder to get their attention by gently explaining why something shouldn’t be done—the clarity of corporal punishment in such cases tends to be better if it’s done well. This is obviously barebones, but I hadn’t thought about it in a while. Perhaps I should put more thoughts together and then make it a separate post…

      I agree that communication is critical whether one spanks or not. There is a minor danger for those who recognize the importance of communication, however: the child may conclude that if there isn’t a good “reason” for a rule, it isn’t worth following. That’s part of why I think a combination of more austere punishments for definite wrongs bundled with communication is really the best way.

  • Pingback:ABC News Should Be Embarrassed | Professor Obvious
    Posted at 15:20h, 04 July Reply

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  • Pingback:Article on Spanking: ABC News Should Be Embarrassed | Professor Obvious
    Posted at 15:24h, 04 July Reply

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  • steffcaan
    Posted at 15:47h, 18 January Reply

    You are an expert in everything, it seems.

    Bottom line: when you teach kids it is okay to solve problems with violence, they learn it well. Perhaps you can try and be smarter than an animal and discipline children without violence.

    And yes, violence is bad, despite what your god thinks.

  • Becky
    Posted at 23:42h, 04 April Reply

    In reading your reply to the article, you completely left out this part: “The association remained even after her team accounted for varying levels of natural aggression in children, suggesting, she says, that ‘it’s not just that children who are more aggressive are more likely to be spanked.'”

    It was asked and answered and you completely glossed over it. Why?

  • J Ward
    Posted at 11:35h, 12 September Reply

    You are a disgusting human being: hitting a child, but especially a child under 2 years old? I hope you are sterile and unable to adopt.

  • Bryan
    Posted at 21:04h, 03 January Reply

    Weak American women… Go solve Isis with hugs. Maybe we should free the enslaved woman of many parts of the world. Oh wait, that would take more violence, nevermind

  • Galen Andrews
    Posted at 19:55h, 24 September Reply

    There is a great difference in spanking a child out of love and beating a child! If I have to explain this you probably don’t agree with me.

  • Bob
    Posted at 11:52h, 27 May Reply

    This study did not come the conclusion that I wanted, therefore it is WRONG.

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