A 2013 study published in the journal Pediatrics used a database of over 4000 American children to investigate whether children whose parents spanked them when they were young showed any behavioural or verbal differences to their peers when they were older.
ALthough spanking is now a faux pas in the upbringing of children, it is not uncommon. Sweden became the first country to make spanking children illegal in 1979 and since then 35 other nations have followed. However, in the USA, all 50 states allow parents to hit their kids, while 19 states allow it in schools.
The database in this study shows that half of the children were spanked by their mothers: 57% at the age of 3 and 52% when the child was aged 5. Spanking by their fathers was less common: 40% when the child was aged 3 and 33% when the child was aged 5.
The study found two significant connections. Children aged 5 who were spanked by their mothers were more likely to show behavioural problems at age 9. Children aged 5 who were spanked by their fathers were more likely to show reduced vocabularies at age 9. Both of these effects were higher when the child was spanked more often.
While previous studies have shown links between spanking children and aggressive behaviour later in life, there are fewer investigations into the effect of spanking on cognitive skills, like vocabulary.
In these types of studies, it is important to recognise the difference between correlation and causation. We can not say for sure that “spanking causes behavioural problems” from the data. It could be the other way around — children might have been spanked more often because they already had behavioural problems — and there might many more others factor underlying both issues.
However, the study attempted to correct for this by including the child’s earlier behaviour and vocabulary, plus a range of other controls, such as the parent’s age, employment history and marital status. In fact, the large number of characteristics used as controls in this study motivated the authors to write about behavioural issues that “this model increases our confidence that association is indicative of an effect of spanking on child behaviour rather than simply a spurious correlation.”
The study did not show any differences between gender and ethnicity of children. The authors suggest further work could include spanking administered by other caregivers in the child’s home, such as grandparents.
Photo: Flickr, HA! Designs
MacKenzie, M., Nicklas, E., Waldfogel, J., & Brooks-Gunn, J. (2013). Spanking and Child Development Across the First Decade of Life PEDIATRICS, 132 (5) DOI: 10.1542/peds.2013-1227
upbringing, spanking, behavioural problems, cognitive problems