In 1996, numerous pediatric experts gathered to develop a consensus statement regarding corporal punishment including spanking. The group agreed on the following: The strongest studies do not indicate a link between spanking and later violence. They do not support the idea spanking is detrimental. Spanking should not be used as the only method of discipline.
One of the most comprehensive meta-analyses was conducted by Dr. Robert Larzelere, in 2007. He reviewed 50 years of research on child discipline and identified 26 separate studies on child outcomes of physical punishment. This is the first scientific review to compare child outcomes of physical discipline with alternative discipline tactics. It also distinguished between overly severe discipline and non-abusive physical discipline, where previous studies did not. The authors conclude a two-swat spanking is one of the most effective forms of discipline in defiant 2-6 year olds.
“Conditional” spanking, defined as “two open-handed swats, not out of control due to anger,” led to better outcomes in 10 of 13 disciplinary tactics, with 2-6 year olds. One completed in 1994 by Larzelere found mild spanking was not only beneficial for children between 2-6 years of age, but enhanced the effectiveness of time out when used as the back-up method.
Spanking was the most effective intervention compared to alternative methods, except when it was severe (beating a child or striking in the face or head.) Interestingly enough, spanking was found to reduce substance abuse more than nonphysical punishment.
The use of spanking during childhood in a nurturing environment is not a predictor of adult dysfunction. This study reinforces this fact and found ALL types of corrective discipline (time-out, removal of privileges) are associated with subsequent aggression. When Larzelere reviewed articles written between 1974 and 1995, the studies linking aggression and spanking came from cross-sectional studies of teenagers, measured severe forms of punishment, and humiliation tactics (i.e. striking in the face.)
In 1979, the Swedish enacted a spanking ban, making this form of punishment illegal. Larzelere conducted the best quality follow-up study, which demonstrated child abuse was 49% higher in Sweden compared to the US two years after the spanking ban went into effect. Swedish criminal records indicated child abuse in Sweden increased 489% between 1981 through 1994; a 672% increase in minors assaulting minors resulted. Banning spanking clearly did not reduce the incidence of child abuse nor did it decrease violence in a population of children no longer being punished physically.
Under 5 years of age, parents often use praise, ignore negative behaviors, or use time-out. Time out instituted early is very effective especially with compliant, mild mannered children. However, for some defiant children time-out is ineffective. Time-out may be more effective with a back-up tactic for emphasis.
Dr. Diana Baumrind endorses the idea that punishment is effective and is not intrinsically harmful to a child. She is best known for identifying three parenting styles: Authoritarian, Permissive, and Authoritative. Authoritative parenting is recognized by most pediatric experts as the optimal style of child rearing, which includes physical discipline. She asserts scientists have overstepped in claiming spanking causes lasting harm because there is no hard science to support it.
Authoritative parents make reasonable developmentally appropriate demands of their children and encourage a genuine respect for authority. They are consistent; using reasoning, power, and reinforcement to achieve objectives. They strike a fine balance between control and nurturance, which sets the standard for future expectations and promotes a child’s independence.
Dr. Baumrind’s study, from the Family Socialization and Developmental Competence Project, followed families for 12 years assessing negative outcomes. It is a well-designed prospective study, making it reasonable to draw conclusions. They found authoritative parenting led to the production of socially responsible and assertive children, who felt a sense of purpose and were oriented toward achievement. Parents in this study favored spanking over all other negative forms of punishment. Evidence from this study revealed, an occasional swat on the rear end, delivered between 4-9 years of age, was not harmful.
Permissive parents in this same study admitted to “explosive attacks of rage in which they inflicted more pain or injury upon the child than they had intended.” They became “more violent because they felt they could neither control the child’s behavior nor tolerate its effect upon themselves.” This phenomenon has implications in statistics from Sweden collected after the spanking ban was enacted. This type of overwhelming anger, was not determined to be harmful, however my concern is it could be.
Ultimately, the developmental outcome of child-rearing is primarily determined by the overall quality of a parent-child relationship. Non abusive spanking by loving parents who use correct methods were able to achieve effective behavioral management and a rapid re-establishment of affection between parent and child following interventions.
The above studies overall demonstrate optimal child development results from a parent’s balanced use of firmness (which may include occasional spanking) and a high degree of encouragement, praise, and love, kind of like making meringue (see previous post “Drawing a Line in the Sand“.)