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Spanking Study Sparks Outcry

Conclusions renew debate over whether such punishment harms kids

SATURDAY, Sept. 22, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- The debate over child spanking, which has raged off and on for decades, was re-ignited recently by a study that says occasional mild-to-moderate spanking does no long-term damage to a child's emotional or social development.

Psychologists Diana Baumrind and Elizabeth Owens at the University of California, Berkeley surveyed more than 100 families. They defined spanking as using an open hand to strike a child on the buttocks, hands or legs without physical injury.

But their study is infuriating critics, including Murray A. Straus, a professor of sociology and co-director of the Family Research Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire. He's also the author of Beating the Devil Out of Them, a book about corporal punishment.

"The study goes against the overwhelming weight of evidence. In fact, in research on corporal punishment, there's a consistency between the findings that's rare in any field of science and especially research on child development," Straus says.

He says that at least 80 percent of all such studies have shown that spanking harms children.

The Berkeley researchers examined data collected on white, middle-class families over a 20-year period. Only 4 to 7 percent of the parents resorted to physical punishment often and intensely. That included use of a paddle or other item to hit a child, striking a child on the face or torso, or throwing or shaking a child.

When that so-called "red zone" group of parents was taken out of the study sample, Baumrind and Owens say they found no evidence of behavioral or cognitive problems in children who received an occasional spanking.

Baumrind says her findings show that a blanket rejection of spanking isn't warranted. The study was presented at the American Psychological Association's recent annual convention.

But Peter Mangione, co-director of the Center for Child and Family Studies at WestEd, a nonprofit educational research and development agency in San Francisco, says the new study will have little or no impact on opponents of spanking.

However, he agrees the study, which is careful to distinguish between spanking and physical abuse, can be used to make the case that occasional spankings do no harm. But, he quickly adds, he, personally, would not make that case.

"When you think about the relationship with your child, when you think about all the possible strategies for giving guidance and helping children learn pro-social behavior and appropriate behaviors, why would you spank? That's the question I have in my mind," Mangione says.

Although the Berkeley study is the latest in a string of conflicting research over recent decades on the pros or cons of spanking, Straus believes the debate will soon be resolved in favor of the anti-spanking advocates.

"I think it's going to be settled in the next five, at most 10, years. It's mostly settled already," he says.

Straus says his own studies show a decrease in America's approval of spanking children. A national survey he did in 1968 revealed that 96 percent of parents agreed it's sometimes necessary to spank a child.

His most recent survey, in 1999, found that only 55 percent of parents shared that view.

"So we've gone from virtual unanimity down to a bare majority and that trend will continue down," Straus predicts.

But he adds that many people who say they don't believe in corporal punishment still spank their children. National surveys he did in 1975, 1985 and 1995 showed more than 90 percent of parents spanked their toddlers, ages 2-5.

What to Do: Here are some tips for parents on alternatives to spanking, and guidance for disciplining children from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

SOURCES: Interviews with Murray A. Straus, Ph.D., professor of sociology, co-director, Family Research Laboratory, University of New Hampshire, Durham; Peter Mangione, Ph.D., co-director, Center for Child and Family Studies, San Francisco, Calif.; University of California, Berkeley study
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