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Spanking Worsens Children’s Behaviour, Says Science

S u m m a r y :
Children who are spanked by their parents in their early years display an increase in behaviour problems when they are older, shows a new study published in the journal Psychological Science.

To Spank or Not to Spank?

“To spank or not to spank children” is a question that has left people in two groups: those who advocate it as a method to discipline children, and those who condemn it as harmful, defeating its own purpose. A new study brings more weight to the latter: conducted by a team from the University of Texas, Austin, it shows that kids who have been spanked by the age of 5 by their parents will have greater behaviour problems at age 6 and 8 as opposed to kids who have never been spanked.

“Our findings suggest that spanking is not an effective technique and actually makes children’s behavior worse not better,” says lead author, psychological scientist Elizabeth T. Gershoff.

Spanking or Other Factors?

Generally, determining whether behaviour problems are the direct result of spanking is challenging because researchers are unable to ethically conduct experiments that entail random spanking of children by parents. But, the authors of the new study seem to have found a way out of this dilemma by using a special statistical technique that has allowed them to exclude other factors like the traits of the child or the parents, or the home environment.

“Parents spank for many reasons, such as their educational or cultural background or how difficult their children’s behaviour is. These same reasons, which we call selection factors, can also predict children’s behaviour problems, making it difficult to determine whether spanking is in fact the cause of behaviour problems,” says Gershoff.

“We realized that the statistical method of propensity score matching could help us get as close to an experiment as possible.”

Ruling Out Other Factors

Gershoff and her colleagues analysed data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study in which a group of 12,112 children participated. The parents of these kids had reported how many times they had spanked their kids during a week back when they were 5 years old; the researchers considered any number other than zero as kids who were spanked. Then, kids who were spanked were compared with those who were not; the two groups of children were matched in terms of age, gender, overall health, and behaviour problems at the age of 5 as well as the parents’ education, age, and marital status, and factors pertaining to the quality of parenting, and conflict in the household. The pairing of the children in this manner meant that the main difference between them would be whether they were spanked or not such that any other factor that could have influenced their behaviour was ruled out.

Clear Results: Spanking is Linked With More Behaviour Problems

To assess the behaviour of the children, the researchers considered the ratings of teachers when the kids were 5, 6, and 8 years of age: this information provided the frequency at which the kids got into arguments and fights, when they acted angrily or impulsively, and disturbed others. The findings are clear: kids who were spanked by the age 5 had greater increases in behaviour problems by age 6 and 8 as opposed to kids who were never spanked.

“The fact that knowing whether a child had ever been spanked was enough to predict their levels of behavior problems years later was a bit surprising,” says Gershoff. “It suggests that spanking at any frequency is potentially harmful to children.”

“Although dozens of studies have linked early spanking with later child behaviour problems, this is the first to do so with a statistical method that approximates an experiment.”

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