A new study published in “Child Development” claims that spanking children leads to aggression and reduced cognitive development.
Why doesn’t this surprise me?
A study of low income families showed that when children were spanked at age 1, they exhibited increased aggression at age 2 and scored less on measures of thinking ability at age 3.
Low income families were chosen to counter a claim by some researchers that when spanking is “culturally normative,” in other words expected, the negative effects of spanking may be reduced. Spanking is far more common in families with a low income than those with a higher income.
Verbal punishment, on the other hand, exhibited no negative effects.
There is apparently a growing body of research that indicates that spanking children is a bad idea. I will admit that I never struck any of my kids, ever. I did yell on occasion, but I never hit them. I suppose the fact that they were girls might have had something to do with that.
My father only hit me once. As a teenager I told my mother to shut up and he walloped me. Luckily he did it with an open hand or I think he would have knocked me silly. As it was the world blurred for a moment or two. My mother on the other hand, used to regularly beat the hell out of me with her hands, wooden spoons, metal spatulas and the occasional poorly thrown shoe. I don’t think she ever actually hit me with the shoe. Her aim wasn’t very good and I was too quick. I used to be pretty good at avoiding the worst of the spoons and spatulas too but I do remember once she broke a spoon on my leg.
So how does this line up with the studies? Well, clearly I didn’t pass on my mother’s beatings to my kids and they didn’t hurt my cognitive skills unless my skills would have been even better. Perhaps they made me more aggressive. No one has ever accused me of being a pushover, but I don’t have any way of knowing if I would have been less aggressive if my mom hadn’t swung a mean wooden spoon.
Generally I frown upon hitting kids if for no other reason than adults, especially males, don’t always understand their own strength. The whole idea strikes me as a bad bet.
Yet there are still those that praise physical punishment. Fundamentalist Christians tend to favor spanking because of a number of cultural and biblical reasons.
Fundamentalist Christians are largely in the South and in the lower income brackets and culturally these groups tend to do more spanking. They also believe that Proverbs 13:24, He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him, means that God is in favor of spanking children.
There is a similar admonition in Proverbs 23:13, Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you punish him with the rod, he will not die.
The question however is exactly what do these passages mean? That they recommend discipline is obvious. Only a complete fool would argue that children don’t require discipline. But do they recommend physical punishment?
Most Christian ministries say yes. One enterprising pair even used to sell a 20 inch thin nylon rod to be used. Do you have any idea how much that would hurt? Other’s interpret the passages differently. Pointing out that the “rod” was at the end of a shepherd’s staff and used to gently guide sheep. Therefore one should gently guide a child with discipline.
One interesting interpretation I’ve seen is that the word translated as “rod” is “shebet” which is used in much of the Hebrew Bible to refer to God’s authority. Therefore somehow these passages apply to the application of God's authority. Unfortunately I’m not all that sure how one punishes with “authority.” It just doesn't seem to fit.
There were approximately 1,200 deaths of children from physical abuse in 2007 in the United States. Granted a whack on the rear is a long way from child abuse but it doesn’t help to avoid accidents when physical punishment is considered an acceptable form of child discipline.
Like I said before, adults often don’t know their own strength. If you want additional evidence that the physical punishment of children is a bad thing, the Family Research Council and James Dobson approve of it. That means it has to be a bad idea.