Smacking children… Is it OK?

The current debate surrounding the spanking/ smacking of children is très heated.  Most of you are already likely entrenched in either the anti- or pro-smacking camp (or if not pro-smacking, maybe just anti-anti-smacking?).

A lot of people have posted/ blogged re: spanking… it’s common to see comments like “a lot of literature shows that spanking is dangerous” then the blogger goes on to mention ONE study.

Hence why I’m posting here… I wanted to see what was out there in terms of evidence before I decide whether to beat my son Asian-style with a wire coat hanger*

* JOKING! I’d cut off his rice rations first…

First, some definitions:

  • Corporal punishment: bodily punishment of any kind;
  • Spanking/ smacking: physically non-injurious, intended to modify behaviour, and administered with the open hand to the buttocks or the extremities.

(For the purpose of our discussion, spanking and smacking will be used interchangeably.)

Now for some history:

  • No surprise that spanking has been around for a long long time;
  • In Ancient Greece, spankings were administered to adults;
  • It was a pagan practice for allegedly increasing fertility in barren women, who were spanked by the pagan priests (that’s obviously code for something);
  • Later, the Catholic Church introduced it as a means for adult women to have their sins removed by the priest spanking them after confession (getting more Thorn Birds by the minute…  “Oh Father… spank me… I have been a bad bad girl”);
  • In the United Kingdom pre-World War II, teenage girls were spanked to remove sins.

There seems to be a pattern here: women were spanked, and men did the spanking, and all the better if a hot priest was doing the spanking (or Christian Grey)…

"Ritual whipping" by priests in 1st C BC was believed to bring fertility and ease the pain of childbirth (ancientstandard.com/)

“Ritual whipping” by priests in 1st C BC was believed to bring fertility and ease the pain of childbirth (ancientstandard.com)

Back to the serious stuff…

Anti-spankers/ smackers will often cite the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child as clear evidence that smacking should not be used. The Convention is rather heavy but worth a read…

Here are bits of the Convention relevant to corporal punishment:

  • Article 19: take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation including sexual abuse, while in the care of parent(s), legal guardian(s) or any other person who has the care of the child;
  • Article 3: the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration;
  • Article 6: ensure to the maximum extent possible the survival and development of the child;
  • Article 28: take all appropriate measures to ensure that school discipline is administered in a manner consistent with the child’s human dignity and in conformity with the present Convention;
  • Article 37: no child shall be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

unicef convention logo

Interestingly, these articles can be interpreted in different ways, depending on the stance of the reader:

  • For instance, some would take these to mean that children should not be spanked at all;
  • Others would argue that sometimes spanking is necessary in the best interests of the child, and indeed to ensure survival and development of the child.

Countries that have banned corporal punishment:

Sweden’s 1979 law banning corporal punishment was the first of its kind; its goal was to reduce the physical abuse of children.

Here are countries that have explicitly abolished all forms of corporal punishment of children:

(Wikimedia)

(Wikimedia)

Evidence AGAINST the effectiveness of smacking bans:

smacker

  • After the Swedes introduced their 1979 law, there was no decrease in the rate of child abuse… in fact:
Sweden's corporal punishment ban passed 1979.

Sweden’s corporal punishment ban passed 1979.

  • New Zealand introduced an anti-smacking law in 2007 (largely against the will of the people); since then there has been no decrease in child abuse death rates. In 2009 a referendum showed that nearly 90% of the population still opposed the smacking ban;
  • Studies have shown anti-smacking laws to result in: no change in child abuse rates, and increased rates of false allegations of assault (including from children themselves);
  • Anti-smacking bans result in an increase in police and social services activity related to minor acts of physical discipline, with fewer resources being devoted to ‘serious abuse’ cases;
  • Placing the ‘blame’ for negative outcomes on smacking ignores the other factors consistently associated with child abuse: family breakdown, drug and alcohol abuse, poverty, non-biological parents living in the home, maternal depression, exposure to violence;
  • There is evidence to suggest that children who are smacked in a reasonable way have similar or slightly better outcomes in terms of aggression, substance abuse, adult convictions and school achievements than those who are not smacked at all;
  • There is no evidence of the “slippery slope” theory – that parents who start off smacking often progress to abusive punishments;
  • The effects of discipline (such as verbal threats, or smacking) are offset by the child’s feeling of being loved; as long as the child knows they’re loved, and feels that it is coming from a good place, their experiences of being strictly disciplined are unlikely to result in antisocial behaviour further down the line;
  • Smacking may be less harmful than alternative strategies – eg. “I won’t love you if you’re naughty”, or worse still, “to conceive and leave” (ie. Neglect);
  • Criminalisation of smacking does not support parents in developing parenting skills;
  • In a healthy family life, spanking in and of itself is not detrimental to a child or predictive of later problems;
  • Developmental research indicates that optimal outcomes in children result from an authoritative style of parenting that combines positive encouragement with consistent behavioural control of the young child;
  • Many literature reviews of studies that provide evidence for a smacking ban include studies that include severe types of corporal punishment, such as “beating with a stick,” “still hurt the next day,” “burning,” and “using a knife or gun (not exactly what we have in mind when we think about giving a child a smack… “using a knife or gun”? Seriously?!);
  • Many ‘corporal punishment’ studies are cross-sectional, which can only determine whether an association exists, not causality.

Evidence SUPPORTING a ban on smacking:

anti-smacking

  • A Canadian study showed a linear association between frequency of slapping/ spanking during childhood and a lifetime prevalence of anxiety disorder, alcohol abuse and externalising problems;
  • A Scottish study found that pre-school children exposed to main caregiver smacking in the first two years were twice as likely to have emotional and behavioural problems as measured by parental assessment (significant after adjusting for child age and sex, caregiver age, sex, ethnicity, educational attainment and mental health status, sibling number, structural family transitions and socioeconomic status);
  • Beginning as early as age 1 year, maternal spanking is predictive of child behavioural problems, and maternal warmth does not counteract the negative consequences of the use of spanking;
  • The “Fragile Families and Child Well-being Study” (1998-2005) showed that more frequent use of corporal punishment at age 3 years is associated with higher levels of child aggression. Interestingly the authors themselves list several limitations with their study: all study variables were based on mothers’ self-reports (potentially inaccurate), that there may have been unmeasured confounders, and that they are unable to assert causality between corporal punishment and child aggression;
  • A Swedish Government paper has shown the Swedish ban of corporal punishment to be highly successful as evidenced by: (1) Less public support for corporal punishment (2) Increased identification of at-risk children (3) Low child abuse mortality rates (4) The social service system being supportive.
  • NB: Some problems with this Swedish paper:
    • A later study showed that the Swedish ban on corporal punishment did not affect public attitude;
    • A further study in 1994 showed that corporal punishment of teenagers was as prevalent after the 1979 ban as in previous generations and that overall, the incidence of corporal punishment had decreased little;
    • The original aim of a smacking ban in Sweden was to reduce child abuse rates and child abuse mortality – there is no evidence that this has been achieved;
    • Child abuse mortality is Sweden is extremely rate: pre-ban (1976-1990) there were no deaths attributable to child abuse; post-ban (1990-1996) there was one case of child abuse mortality;
    • Let’s face it… a Government paper about the success of Government legislation is unlikely to be completely unbiased… 🙂

Bottom line:

  • After all that… I don’t really have one 🙁
  • Certainly a ban on smacking does not result in decreased child abuse rates or deaths from child abuse;
  • No-one can say with certainty whether smacking is good/ bad in terms of child development and outcomes…
  • The only thing I would say with certainty is that there is evidence both for and against smacking (the judicious type anyway!), and that this evidence is muddied by study design, confounders, limitations with self-reporting, conflict of interest… etcetera etcetera etcetera

I would love your feedback on this topic… any papers/ evidence I’ve overlooked… personal experiences (smacker? smackee?)… please “comment” below!

adult-humor-spanking

REFERENCES
MacMillan HL, Boyle MH, Wong MY, Duku EK, Fleming JE, Walsh CA. Slapping and spanking in childhood and its association with lifetime prevalence of psychiatric disorders in a general population sample. CMAJ. 1999 Oct 5;161(7):805-9.
Larzelere RE, Johnson B. Evaluations of the effects of Sweden’s spanking ban on physical child abuse rates: a literature review. Psychol Rep. 1999 Oct;85(2):381-92.
Durrant JE. Evaluating the success of Sweden’s corporal punishment ban. Child Abuse Negl. 1999 May;23(5):435-48.
Roberts JV. Changing public attitudes towards corporal punishment: the effects of statutory reform in Sweden. Child Abuse Negl. 2000 Aug;24(8):1027-35.
Millichamp J, Martin J, Langley J. On the receiving end: young adults describe their parents’ use of physical punishment and other disciplinary measures during childhood. NZMJ 2006 Jan 27;119(1228).
Miguelina Germán, Nancy A. Gonzales, Darya Bonds McClain, Larry Dumka, Roger Millsap. Maternal Warmth Moderates the Link between Harsh Discipline and Later Externalizing Behaviors for Mexican American Adolescents. Parenting, 2013; 13 (3): 169.
Waterston T. Author’s reply. BMJ 2000 Jun 3;320(248)1538.
Fry R. Parents must be in charge of their children. BMJ 2000 Jun 3;320(248):1538.
Hain RDW. Occasional smacking does no harm. BMJ 2000 Jun 3;320(248):1538.
Waterston T. Giving guidance on child discipline. BMJ. 2000 Jan 29;320:261–262.
Sharkey M, editor. The short and long term consequences of corporal punishment. Pediatrics.1996;98(suppl):857–858.
Baumrind D. The development of instrumental competence through socialization. Minnesota Symp Child Psych. 1973;7:3–46.
Trumbull DA. Parents need techniques for behavioural control. BMJ 200 Jun 3;320(7248):1538.
Larzelere RE. Child discipline: weak evidence for a smacking ban. BMJ 2000 Jun 3;320(7248):1538.
Sanden A. Spanking and other forms of physical punishment: a study of adults’ and middle school students’ opinions, experience, and knowledge. Stockholm: Statistics Sweden; 1996.
Taylor J, Redman S. The smacking controversy: what advice should we be giving parents? J Adv Nurs. 2004 May;46(3):311-8.
Timimi S. Neglect, not smacking, is the public health issue. To conceive and leave should be against the law. Ment Health Today. 2005 Feb:19.
Slade AM, Tapping CR. Paediatricians’ views on smacking children as a form of discipline. Eur J Pediatr. 2008 May;167(5):603-5. Epub 2007 Jun 23.
Silverstein M, Augustyn M, Young R, Zuckerman B. The relationship between maternal depression, in-home violence and use of physical punishment: what is the role of child behaviour? Arch Dis Child. 2009 Feb;94(2):138-43. doi: 10.1136/adc.2007.128595. Epub 2008 Sep 11.
Scott S, Lewsey J, Thompson L, Wilson P. Early parental physical punishment and emotional and behavioural outcomes in preschool children. Child Care Health Dev. 2014 May;40(3):337-45. doi: 10.1111/cch.12061. Epub 2013 Jun 4.
Taylor CA, Manganello JA, Lee SJ, Rice JC. Mothers’ spanking of 3-year-old children and subsequent risk of children’s aggressive behavior. Pediatrics. 2010 May;125(5):e1057-65. doi: 10.1542/peds.2009-2678. Epub 2010 Apr 12.
Lee SJ, Altschul I, Gershoff ET. Does warmth moderate longitudinal associations between maternalspanking and child aggression in early childhood? Dev Psychol. 2013 Nov;49(11):2017-28. doi: 10.1037/a0031630. Epub 2013 Jan 21.

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4 Comments

  1. Maybe the increase in child abuse rates in Sweden after smacking was outlawed have some thing to do with the increase in reporting instance of abuse. The new law got results, people reported more because they were empowered to report because it was now outlawed. The graph rose.

    • Dear Deborah – absolutely! This is usually the case with enactment of new legislation. Apart from people being empowered to report more, the methods of reporting and capture also probably improved, leading to an apparent increased in rates of child abuse. But in any case, bringing in the law did not have the desired effect, to wipe out child abuse. Sad these laws are required at all.

  2. Dear Dr. Nat,
    The report from Sweden is not due to better reporting, but due to worsening behavior. A good friend is a Church of Sweden minister and they say it is due to parents feeling they cannot hit their children anymore, so the tension builds until they snap and more serious physical abuse then happens. The key is the breakdown of the figures by severity of the physical abuse (i.e. spanking v. punching et. al.)

    Are you genuinely interested in research or not? If so, you should read the meeting between the main pro and anti protagonists (all professionals in the mental health fields) with the most recent and accurate research available.

    https://www.biomedcentral.com/1471-2431/10/10

    It is not an easy read, being a scientific paper. The result however is that moderate spanking of younger children is LESS associated with negative outcomes than other punishments like grounding, taking away things and so on. It explains why the anti-spanking research found negative outcomes (they included things like breaking bones, or punching the child in the face in with spanking).

    • Hi Celia,

      Thanks a lot for reading my blog and providing feedback. Thanks also for the reference to the 2010 paper in BMC Pediatrics (analysis of a longitudinal studies, level 2 evidence). I always appreciate being directed to literature I may have missed.

      The paper concludes that previous evidence against customary spanking seems to be due to residual confounding (parents use disciplinary corrective actions more frequently with ‘behaviourally difficult children’).

      As you mentioned, and as discussed in the literature, one problem with results from previous studies is the classification/ grouping of spanking (type, frequency, severity, and so on) and indeed different categorisation between studies can make comparison difficult.

      I am interested to hear your reasoning that the report from Sweden is not due to better reporting, but due to worsening behavior, with explanation as per your good friend, the Church of Sweden minister. Is this your friend’s opinion (ie. antectodal reporting) or is there objective evidence to support this?

      Thanks again for the feedback and please keep reading!

      Regards, Dr Nat

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