Spanking Spawns Bad Behavior? The Debut of Data Bites

Getting into the spirit of spring, I'm trying something new - "Data Bites" - brief takes on new studies I've not yet had a chance to read in the journals.  So many of them pop up in the media and deserve a quick and dirty review.  Think of it as Momma Data Lite, a refreshing alternative to wordy posts for those of us with short attention spans, clogged inboxes, and in my case, constrained typing abilities.  We'll kick off with a new study on how not to discipline your kids.

Spanking Leads to Aggression   Time Magazine featured this rather ho-hum study (really? spanking not so great? who knew!) with the dramatic headline The Long-Term Effects of Spanking.  Long-term? Only if you consider two years impressive.  The big result? Moms who reported spanking their 3 year-olds described them as more agressive at age 5.  Okay study here, big sample. The research team asked about and controlled for lots of variables that might explain the future aggression, like mom's drinking, depression, spousal relationship, the child's aggression level at the start, and even if the mother thought about aborting the pregnancy. 

But this is a self-report study - the mothers reported the frequency of spanking and the child's aggression (e.g., temper tantrums, defiance, physical violence).  Would have been much better if we had independent verification of the agressive behavior from a teacher, day care provider, dad, next door neighbor even.  Why? 

There may be something about women who resort to physical discipline that also makes them perceive their children as more aggressive. 

Maybe limited parenting skills? Being easily frustrated? Lazy?  In other words, maybe the kids actual behavior wasn't so bad.  Even if the mothers accurately reported the aggression the causation is still uncertain.  I can't help but think there's also something about the spankers that makes their kids act up - again, maybe similar suspects like limited parenting repetoire, short-fuses, etc.

Bottom Line: Not so conclusive but suggests spanking may lead to behavioral problems.  Not so surprising. The remarkable finding here - more than half of parents surveyed have walloped their 3 year-old in the past month.

BTW, who are these people spanking young child on a regular basis? Not that I haven't been swatted in my youth, but honestly, who in this current p.c. parenting climate does?  Do you know people who do? As much as I like to question the status quo not to mention the latest study, I've never even considered spanking my kids.  Do I honestly think a little swat once in a while negatively impacts a child in the long-term? No, probably not.  But still, there are better alternatives, they're just harder to do well over the long haul and sometimes feel like such a burden to implement. Days without tv or computer time can be painful, especially if it's raining. If only doling out punishment weren't so darn punishing.    


momtothree said...

I wonder too if some parents spank because they aren't doing the positive discipline approach throughout the day, or maybe it's something else about their parenting. I've been reading your blog for awhile and haven't commented yet but thank you. I read the Time article and I was glad to see you articulated some of my thoughts.

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

Thanks, momtothree! Three kids, so you know it's not easy being on top of the kids, doling out the discipline. So I take it you don't spank your kids either?

La Mama Loca said...

I wonder if spanking rates vary by region. I live in Kansas, and it is not uncommon here for preschooler to be spanked multiple times a week. Spanking isn't usually a punishment of last resort, but a way to train your kid to obey. Of course, I know parents who don't spank at all and parents who spank rarely, too, but it isn't surprising to see it used often.

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

Hi La Mama! Yes, I wonder too. I believe some of my relations have the same ideas about training obedience. Of course I'm a psychologist and can't help but think of the old Stanley Millgram "obedience" studies where a lot of adult subjects "punished" other supposed people with painful electric shocks bc they were just following orders to do.