WEDNESDAY, July 3, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- To spank or not to spank?

That is the question that seems to grow with the heightened sensitivities of each new generation of parents.

In an attempt to look at the big picture on the subject, Columbia University researcher Elizabeth Gershoff conducted an analysis of dozens of studies conducted over the past 60 years. Her conclusion: The bulk of research shows spanking is indeed a negative disciplinary measure, increasing the risk of everything from aggression to antisocial behavior.

In addition, corporal punishment does not teach children right from wrong, it is linked with delinquency, and it can be a key indicator of more serious physical abuse in the home, claims the study, which appears in the July issue of Psychological Bulletin.

In analyzing the studies, Gershoff, a developmental psychologist with the university's National Center for Children in Poverty, looked for associations between spanking and 11 behaviors and experiences ranging from immediate compliance to later aggression and abuse of the subject's own child or spouse.

Gershoff says she found strong associations between spanking and all 11 of the behaviors. Ten of the behaviors, such as increased aggression or increased mental health problems, were considered negative, and just one -- immediate compliance by the child -- was considered a desirable association.

The two strongest associations Gershoff observed were between spanking and physical abuse of the child by the parent and immediate compliance by the child.

A wide variety of factors appear to determine the extent to which children are affected by spanking.

Age is one. The study found that children between the ages of 7 and the pre-teens are more negatively affected by spanking than younger or older age groups.

"By the time children are that age, parents have so many other disciplinary options that children can understand," Gershoff says. "So, it's a sign of negative parenting in general at that point."

"Furthermore, since children can understand that it's not normal to be spanked at that age, it's likely to be more harmful to them," she adds. "At that age, they're still largely influenced by their parents, so it has more of an impact than in older years, when they are more influenced by their peers."

However, Gershoff says that doesn't mean spanking at younger ages is appropriate. "The associations with negative factors were seen at all ages," she notes.

With an estimated 94 percent of parents reporting they have at some point spanked their children, however, Gershoff says it's almost impossible to compare outcomes in any age group.

"In seeing the negative associations even at young ages, I'm left to conclude that there are more negatives with corporal punishment than with other disciplinary tactics," she says.

Predictably, the research has its detractors.

At the crux of the spanking issue is the all-important factor of how frequently and severely the child is spanked, say opposing psychologists. In a commentary accompanying the research, they argue that Gershoff's conclusion does not sufficiently consider that.

By including studies that looked at episodes of extreme or excessive physical punishment, such as slapping children in the face or hitting them with a fist, Gershoff's analysis goes beyond normal or acceptable levels of spanking and therefore " does not justify a blanket injunction against mild to moderate disciplinary spanking," they write.

"How parents use spanking is more important than whether they use it -- as with any other disciplinary methods," says Robert E. Larzelere, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha and one of the commentary's authors.

Larzelere says the few studies in the analysis that explicitly ruled out abusive or violent parenting in fact showed beneficial outcomes for the child as often as not.

"While it is clear that severe or frequent spanking can be harmful to children," Larzelere says, "the best research shows that non-abusive spanking is effective with 2- to 6-year-old children when used to back up milder disciplinary methods, such as reasoning and time out."

"Such usage is not only effective in reducing defiance and fighting, but children then cooperate better with the milder discipline methods, rendering further spanking less necessary," Larzelere adds.

Gershoff agrees the lowest levels of problems are associated with the mildest punishments, but argues that any fair analysis of corporal punishment must include what's considered excessive spanking because the sad truth is that it's more common than many realize.

"Many would consider using an object, such as a brush or belt, to spank a child to be abusive, yet a poll in 1995 showed that a full 28 percent of parents with children aged 5 to 12 had at some point used an object to spank their child," she says.

"(Others) may only want to study their definition of 'normal' levels of spanking, but I argue that that's not all that's going on," Gershoff adds. "If that's all that happened, maybe there would be no negative outcome, but there are clearly a whole range of things parents are doing in the name of punishment. And I think it's important to look at all of those things for a fair analysis."

What To Do

The American Academy of Pediatrics describes recommended approaches to spanking and other forms of discipline in this helpful site on effective discipline.

And the American Academy of Family Physicians offers these useful parenting tips.

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