Last year, researchers concluded that children who were spanked were likely to be more aggressive, suffer from cognitive impairments, and develop mental health issues. Elisabeth Gershoff of the University of Texas at Austin and Andrew Grogan-Kaylor of the University of Michigan conducted a meta-analysis of 75 previous studies to draw conclusions about the immediate and long-range effects of spanking. The study makes clear that spanking results in long-term negative consequences. It also found that spanking lacks any significant short-term benefits. Gershoff and Grogan-Kaylor also found that spanking did not lead to better behavior.
Despite our growing knowledge about the negative consequences of spanking, a surprising number of parents view it as an acceptable practice. What's even more surprising is who is doing the spanking.
How prevalent is spanking?
It's hard to determine how prevalent spanking actually is, perhaps because high-profile cases have made parents less willing to admit to spanking. How parents are asked about spanking also seems to influence their responses. For example, in a Pew Research study in which parents were asked to say whether or not they spanked their children, 17 percent of parents said they either often or sometimes used spanking to discipline their children. 28 percent said they rarely spanked their children. Over half of parents (53 percent) said they never spank their children.
Pose the question differently and you'll get a different answer. Since 1986, the University of Chicago's General Social Survey has included the question “Do you strongly agree, agree, disagree or strongly disagree that it is sometimes necessary to discipline a child with a good, hard spanking?” You can view the data sets yourself, but for the statistically-challenged among us, there's "Whiz Kid" Harry Enten of FiveThirtyEight. Enten found that between 1986 and 2012, approval of spanking decreased from 84 percent to 70 percent. Despite this decrease, in 2012 nearly three-quarters of the population agreed that spanking was at least sometimes appropriate.
What accounts for the difference in these answers? When the question is posed as do you personally spank your kids, respondents seem less willing to answer "yes" than when the question is posed as do you think it's acceptable for parents to spank their kids. This same tendency is what makes studying spanking difficult. Gershoff noted that parents are less likely to spank their children when they are being observed.
Which parents are spanking?
Although approval of spanking is on the decline, it remains high for some groups. Enten found that Southern parents are more likely to spank their children than parents in any other part of the country. Republicans are more likely to spank their children than Democrats are likely to spank theirs. In 1980, 90 percent of born-again Christians approved of spanking. That number fell to just under 80 percent in 2012.
"Born-again" is not a religious denomination, but is generally considered synonymous with fundamentalism. The GSS data, therefore, may indicate that those who ascribe to a literal interpretation of the Bible are more likely to spank their children than Christians who have a more moderate or liberal interpretation of the Bible.
This trend is not news to Gershoff, who was studying this question back in 2002. She found that Conservative Protestants were more likely to use corporal punishment than parents in other religious groups. A more recent study, looking at the GSS data from 1986-2014, attempted to further define which groups were most likely to spank their children, and found that less educated Conservative Protestants made up the largest group.
How can we decrease the spanking rate while respecting faith traditions?
The split between spanking detractors and spanking advocates is of biblical proportions. On the one side, there are pediatricians and child psychologists, who warn patients of the physical and mental health dangers for spanked children. Because the overwhelming conclusion of researchers is that spanking causes harm, it's no surprise that professional organizations recommend against spanking, as do the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychoanalytic Association, and the American Psychological Association. That's just to name a few at the beginning of the alphabet.
On the other side, there are parents interpreting Proverbs literally and refusing to "spare the rod" else they "spoil the child." Given that spanking is shown to have detrimental effects, and that some communities continue to use spanking as a form of discipline, the question facing researchers is how they might align an non-spanking approach with parents' religious and cultural goals.
Option 1: Tell the spankers why they're wrong. The next time you read about a friend who's angry at the grocery store clerk who dared tell her not to spank, make sure to point out the inconsistencies in her thinking. Add a link or two to Gershoff's work in support of your argument. Your carefully-worded social media missive probably won't come across as sanctimommyious, but just in case, make sure to start with something like "I would never spank my child but..."
Option 2: Mix science and religion. When Option 1 fails, you might try an approach studied by psychologists. Recent psychological research has focused on how a more progressive reading of religious texts could facilitate anti-spanking movements. Cindy Miller-Perrin and Robin Perrin, a psychologist and a sociologist at Pepperdine University, studied college students and found that their approval of spanking significantly declined when they were instructed with an approach that included both research and religion.
There's some evidence that this approach at least helps people think about spanking differently. But Miller-Perrin and Perrin's research was conducted with college students without children. It's possible that, once those parents are in the trenches, dealing with the kind of behavioral infractions that make them see red, all of that careful scientific and biblical study might wash away. If this message is going to stick, parents need an easier, more memorable approach.
Option 3: Advocate for New Testament parenting. You can do this no matter what your religion, as all you really need to be able to do is see the differences between two halves of a book. The God of the Old Testament is tempestuous and unpredictable. The God of the New Testament is much more measured and thoughtful in his teaching, only occasionally devolving into temple tantrums. Violence is a poor teacher. Although it may halt a specific behavior, it cannot replace that behavior with a better response. Well-worded, thoughtful responses can create real occasions for learning.
A parent who angrily lashes out at his children when provoked sounds a lot like that Old Testament deity. A parent who notices his child's mistakes and teaches a better alternative is much more like that New Testament deity.