This morning the hosts of Fox and Friends were discussing a new study on spanking that just came out. This particular study only examined the effects of spanking on children under a year old.
The study concluded that children who were spanked before they were one year old, were more aggressive and did not do as well on cognitive tests as children who were not spanked. The study was based on what parents said about their spanking practices and their children’s behavior as well as “home visits by trained observers.”
I’m not an advocate of spanking kids who are younger than a couple years old (though a mild swat on the bottom may sometimes be appropriate), but I must say I am very skeptical of all the studies which supposedly show that all spanking is bad for children. How could such studies control for all the possible variables?
For example, in order to design a valid test that would determine the effects of spanking on children, the researcher would have to design a test that did the following.
1) The test would have to include only children who came from roughly the same kind of families—and no, I do not mean the same race or ethnic background! For example, in these studies on spanking, did the children all come from loving, two-parent families, or did some come from abusive family arrangements? Did some come from divorced or single parent backgrounds? Regardless of how good and loving many single mothers and fathers are, divorce or the lack of a father/mother can have a significant effect on some children’s behavior. A study of the effects of spanking that does not control for family background must be suspect.
2) The test would have to include only children who came from similar religious or non-religious backgrounds. Religion—or lack thereof—can have a profound effect on the behavior even of children. Any study of the effects of spanking that does not control for religion or lack thereof must be suspect.
3) The test would have to include only children who came from families in which the children had pretty much the same school experiences. For example, it would simply not be valid to compare children who enjoy their school experience in good schools, with children who attend schools where intimidation, bullying and even violence are common.
4) The test would have to include only children who came from families in which the children had pretty much the same relationship with their siblings. It would not be valid to compare children who come from families in which the siblings have normal sibling rivalry, with children whose siblings are exceptionally mean, bullying and uncontrolled.
5) The test would have to include children who have similar personalities as well as similar emotional and mental IQ’s—unless of course the researcher wants to assume that DNA and heredity have nothing to do with behavior! There is a kind of “chicken and egg” factor here. Without these controls, the researcher may conclude that spanking caused the rebellious or aggressive behavior when in fact the child’s poor behavior was the reason for which he got spanked in the first place. Those of us who have had children know that some children just seem to be more compliant while others seem to rebel at every turn—and it may have absolutely nothing to do with spanking.
6) The test would have to include only children who came from families which, generally speaking, consistently applied the same basic philosophy of spanking. James Dobson, for example, advocated spanking—but he emphasized that parents should never spank out of anger and that spanking should only be used as a last resort in the case of blatantly rebellious behavior, never, for example, just because the child spilled her milk. There is a world of difference between Dobson’s philosophy of spanking as opposed, for example, to the practice of parents who impulsively spank their children out of anger for all kinds of misbehaviors. We have to realize that when the discussion is simplistically framed in terms of spanking vs. not spanking, the deck has already been stacked. Studies on spanking that do not control for the actual philosophy and method used are meaningless.
If a study did not control for these factors, it would be impossible to know whether the difference in behavior was due to spanking rather than to other factors. I will stick my neck out here and say that no study on spanking has ever been done which controls for even half of these factors!
In an interview on Fox and Friends this morning a child psychologist who opposed spanking was asked, as an example, about spanking to keep kids from running in the street. The child psychologist responded that showing a child the squashed, dead body of an animal run over by a car would be more effective.
I was amazed at the naiveté of this psychologist! Did it not occur to her that forcing a little child to view the squashed and probably bloody guts of a dead animal may be more psychologically traumatic than the spanking?! But even aside from such psychological abuse, the psychologist responded as if all children were the same, or as if all children can be reasoned with.
Both assumptions are ridiculous. For some children, seeing a squashed animal may very well be effective. Other kids would think, “Yeah, so what, I’m smarter than a dumb squirrel. It won’t happen to me.” For many kids (and adults too) what they want to do overrides all reasoned arguments. Sometimes you simply cannot reason with children (nor, apparently with some psychologists)!
In these cases, if legitimate non-corporal punishments work, by all means use them first! But don’t remove from the parents tool-kit the option of appropriate spanking for rebellious behavior when nothing else works (As an aside, I must say at I am puzzled by my grandchildren at this point because in my totally objective and unbiased grandfathers’ opinion, they are always adorable and never have bad behavior)!
If someone really wants to do a meaningful study on spanking, try comparing a group of loving, stable, two-parent families that are serious about their faith and who consistently adopt James Dobson’s philosophy of spanking, with groups of any other alternative family arrangements and non-spanking philosophies, and compare the results.
Until such a study is produced, I think a better indication of the value of spanking may indicated by society as a whole. Since the days of Benjamin Spock and his permissive parenting philosophy (which he later renounced), American society has generally become less civil and much more selfish, mean, rude, and violent (I’ve seen it in education. My wife has seen it in retail. We have all seen it on the highways and in the news). There are many reasons for this, of course, but permissive parenting philosophies which rule out spanking under any circumstances may well be a significant factor.