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Wednesday, November 07, 2018

Spanking (Children)

For some reason, many people get very excited over the subject of spanking (children), and go on long diatribes about how bad it is, how traumatic it is to children and how parents who do it are bad.

I suspect there is some deeper motivation behind the excitement. Maybe many people of a more liberal bent just don't like to see kids being spanked.

Yet, as we know, visceral dislike of something doesn't make it bad.

Anyway, here is a consolidation of past featured material on spanking, about omitted variable bias and some contrary research that actually finds that spanking is good:


What Science Says--and Doesn't--about Spanking - "Ferguson did try to control for the effects of preexisting child behavior in a 2013 meta-analysis he published of the longitudinal studies on this issue; when he did, “spanking’s effects became trivial,” he says. As a further demonstration of the importance of careful statistical controls, Robert Larzelere, a psychologist at Oklahoma State University, and his colleagues reported in a 2010 study that grounding and psychotherapy are linked just as strongly to bad behavior as spanking is but that all the associations disappear with the use of careful statistical controls. It makes sense that disciplinary tactics used as responses to bad behavior will be associated with such behavior, Larzelere says, unless care is taken to control for children’s preexisting characteristics and temperaments."

Some Kids Are Never Spanked - Do They Turn Out Better? - "In NurtureShock, we described some extensive cross-ethnic and international research on spanking by Drs. Jennifer Lansford and Ken Dodge. Their data suggested that if a culture views spanking as the normal consequence for bad behavior, kids aren’t damaged by its occasional use... are kids who’ve never been spanked any better off, long term?Gunnoe’s summary is blunt: “I didn’t find that in my data.”... those who’d been spanked just when they were young—ages 2 to 6—were doing a little better as teenagers than those who’d never been spanked. On almost every measure... children of progressive dads were acting out more in school... perhaps the consistency of discipline is more important than the form of discipline. In other words, spanking regularly isn’t the problem; the problem is having no regular form of discipline at all."

Why parenting may not matter and why most social science research is probably wrong - "Children who are spanked (not abused, but spanked) often experience a host of other problems in life, including psychological maladjustment and behavioral problems. In a study led by my colleague J.C. Barnes, we probed this issue in more detail and found some evidence suggesting that spanking increased the occurrence of overt bad behavior in children. We could have stopped there. Yet, we went one step further and attempted to inspect the genetic influences... much of the association between the two variables (spanking and behavior) was attributable to genetic effects that they had in common. The correlation between spanking and behavior appeared to reflect the presence of shared genetic influences cutting across both traits"


And some new material:

Research on Disciplinary Spanking is Misleading | American College of Pediatricians

"most research against spanking uses methods so flawed that such studies would be rejected if they were being used to halt a medical procedure, such as chemotherapy for combating cancer. The anti-spanking research suffers from three major fallacies or defects that invalidate its conclusions. These flaws are evident in a recent summary of research on spanking by Dr. Elizabeth Gershoff and her colleague, Dr. Andrew Grogan-Kaylor...

The first step in assessing the effectiveness of an intervention, whether a medical intervention against a disease or a disciplinary action to correct behavior, is to ensure the intervention is both well-defined and appropriately implemented... only four of the 75 studies in the latest Gershoff overview ensured that spanking was used appropriately, and those four studies actually found disciplinary spanking to be at least as effective as the three alternatives with which it was compared. In contrast, all the evidence against spanking came from the other 71 studies which suffer from three major fallacies, any one of which would be a fatal flaw in medical research. Let’s examine each of them in turn.

The correlational fallacy: Correlations, or associations between two variables, do not prove causation. Correlations are especially misleading when evaluating actions chosen to correct disciplinary or medical problems, called corrective actions.

The extrapolation fallacy: Even if infrequent spanking is correlated with better outcomes than overly frequent spanking, that does not prove that zero spanking is best.

The lumping fallacy: Only 4 of their 75 studies were limited to two open-handed swats to the buttocks for child defiance. The other 71 studies lumped together all “spanking” regardless of how it was implemented and why it was used...

most of their evidence is based on “cross-sectional” correlations, i.e. correlations between disciplinary spanking and child behaviors during the same time period, regardless which occurred first... This is the kind of flawed correlational evidence contained in 55% of the studies that Drs. Gershoff and Grogan-Kaylor considered relevant for their meta-analysis... However, one must ask which came first, the spanking or the aggressive behavior? Did the aggression occur first and elicit more spanking from the parents, or did the spanking occur before the aggression? One cannot tell from cross-sectional correlations.

Now consider their strongest evidence against spanking: the 21% of their studies that were longitudinal and documented that spanking preceded the child’s aggressive behavior. Correlations indicate that children who were spanked tended to be more aggressive at school the following year when compared to children who had not been spanked. Is this sufficient evidence to oppose this corrective disciplinary action by parents? Again, the answer is no. The medical field would not be impressed by the fact that patients who received chemotherapy last year are now more likely to still be battling cancer than people who had never had cancer. Medical doctors would ignore such longitudinal correlations unless the research (1) compared patients who had the same severity of cancer to start with, and (2) showed that another treatment was more effective than the selected chemotherapy. Gershoff & Grogan-Kaylor’s meta-analysis did neither. Even their strongest correlations could be explained by the possibility that children who were more defiant caused their parents to try all their disciplinary tactics more often, including but not limited to spanking... By limiting their meta-analysis to correlations, Gershoff and Grogan-Kaylor ignored evidence from studies that took pre-existing child differences into account, such as the crucial fact that some children are more defiant than others. A better meta-analysis in 2013 included 45 longitudinal studies, with 25 taking pre-existing child differences into account with statistical adjustments. This analysis concluded that “the impact of spanking . . . on the negative outcomes . . . are minimal”...

Incredibly, Gershoff and Grogan-Kaylor have failed to find any disciplinary response that is linked to reductions in children’s behavior problems, despite investigating eight other disciplinary responses in a large international study. That is because their reliance on correlations makes all corrective actions look harmful or ineffective, just as it would all cancer treatments...

If low-dose chemotherapy against cancer is associated with better outcomes than high-dose chemotherapy against the same cancer, is it correct to extrapolate that no chemotherapy will yield even better results for the patient than low-dose chemotherapy? Of course not! Yet, this is precisely the kind of flawed reasoning Gershoff and Grogan-Kaylor use in their anti-spanking research. The meta-analysis recommended that parents never use spanking despite including only one study that actually compared a never-spanked group to a spanked group. Moreover, that one study suggested a beneficial outcome in that American soldiers who recalled being spanked as children had lower rates of drug abuse than those who did not recall being spanked. Thus, not only is their no-spanking recommendation an extrapolation based upon a comparison of infrequently spanked children versus those spanked too frequently, but it is also contradicted by the only directly relevant study included in the analysis.

Other studies of never-spanked children do exist, but they were not included in this latest meta-analysis. For example, one retrospective study found slightly better adolescent outcomes for those whose spanking was phased out before age 12 compared to adolescents who were never spanked, replicating similar prospective results by a leading spanking-ban advocate...

Two other meta-analyses published since Gershoff’s2 initial meta-analysis have gone beyond correlational evidence to obtain stronger causal evidence of the effects of spanking. One concluded that any adverse effects of spanking were “trivial,” whereas the other found that child outcomes of physical punishment were worse than outcomes of other disciplinary responses only when it was used too severely or as the main disciplinary response. The latter meta-analysis also identified an optimal type of back-up spanking, which led to less defiance or aggression than 10 of 13 alternative disciplinary tactics and was just as effective as the remaining three tactics studied. Back-up spanking is used non-abusively when a child refuses to comply with milder disciplinary techniques, such as time out (based mostly on research with 2- to 6-year-olds). Back-up spanking teaches a defiant child to cooperate with the milder disciplinary technique, thereby making spanking less necessary in the future...

This matter of misrepresenting the science on the effects of spanking in children is significant in that it is being used to influence legislators worldwide to ban spanking by parents... Remarkably, there is no objective evidence that any of these bans have curbed child abuse or teen violence as intended. In fact, there is more evidence that the incidence of each has increased following these bans, especially in countries that enforce them more vigorously"


Cited paper on spanking bans increasing violence:

Swedish Trends in Criminal Assaults against Minors since Banning Spanking, 1981-2010

"Compared to 1981, criminal statistics in 2010 included about 22 times as many cases of physical child abuse, 24 times as many assaults by minors against minors, and 73 times as many rapes of minors under the age of 15. Although the first cohort born after the spanking ban showed a smaller percentage increase in perpetrating assaults against minors than other age cohorts, those born since the spanking ban had almost a 12-fold increase in perpetrations altogether, compared to a 7-fold increase for older age cohorts. Although some increases might reflect changes in reporting practices, their magnitude and consistency suggest that part of these increases are real. Recent increases may be due to expanding proscriptions against nonphysical disciplinary consequences. Future research needs to identify effective alternative disciplinary consequences to replace spanking. Otherwise, proscriptions against an expanding range of disciplinary consequences may undermine the kind of appropriate parental authority that can facilitate the development of impulse control in oppositional children and appropriate respect for others, especially the physically vulnerable."


Is it harmful to smack your child?

"I have replicated this strongest type of evidence against customary use of spanking and found very similar evidence against everything else that parents use to try to reduce oppositional defiance in young children, including privilege removal, grounding, sending children to their room, docking their allowance, and getting professional help (child psychotherapy or Ritalin)...

Getting professional help in the form of psychotherapy or Ritalin also appears to be just as harmful as customary spanking. In other words, when using the same statistical methods that provide the strongest causal evidence against customary spanking, Ritalin appears to be just as harmful as spanking. This shows additional evidence that the superficially harmful outcomes of spanking are due to the remaining poor prognosis of children whose behavior causes parents to use every kind of discipline more, rather than being due to any harmful effect of spanking...

Interestingly, one of the leading anti-spanking advocates also published a recent study showing that spanking did not have any adverse effects if parents were no longer spanking at age 9, and such phased-out spanking was associated with better outcomes in conservative Protestant families, apparently because it was more likely to be perceived as appropriate parental discipline rather than evidence of parental rejection.

There is, however, an alarming amount of child physical abuse in some quarters of society. Isn’t it worth banning physical discipline altogether for the sake of children vulnerable to real abuse? Aren’t alternatives like time out and withdrawal of privileges enough for good parents?

This is the main rationale for spanking bans, using the same logic that was used for the Prohibition Amendment in the United States a century ago. Unfortunately most evidence indicates that enforced spanking bans lead to increases in physical child abuse as well as other forms of violence as children grow up without effective discipline...

A five-nation comparison in Europe found that some kinds of verbal and physical violence are higher in countries that have banned spanking compared to those who had not banned spanking. For example, 79% of intimate partners say that they insult their partners in Sweden, compared to 36% in countries without spanking bans. A surprising 34% of partners get tackled or hit in Sweden compared to 18% in countries without spanking bans...

There was a similar finding for how they were disciplined as children. Those receiving mild spanking but not severe physical punishment were less likely to use severe physical punishment with their children. This supports a speculation we made in 1999 that mild spanking can serve to bring a frustrating discipline episode to a conclusion before parents get so frustrated that they erupt by hitting the child harder than they otherwise would...

One of my mentors, Dr. Gerald Patterson started by trying to reinforce (reward) children for good behavior, assuming that their behavior would improve with that method alone. He still supports reinforcing good behavior, but said in his major book, Coercive Family Process, in 1982: “If I were allowed to select only one concept to use in training parents of antisocial children, I would teach them how to punish more effectively. It is the key to understanding familial aggression” ( p. 111). By that, he meant timeout, because he personally opposed spanking.

All the other gurus of behavioral parent training -- the primary psychosocial treatment supported for ADHD In the guidelines of clinical child psychologists, pediatricians, and child psychiatrists -- also used timeout, but they recommended a two-swat spanking to enforce cooperation with staying on the timeout chair -- until spanking fell into disfavour in the 1990’s.

So parents should prefer the mildest disciplinary response that can get acceptable cooperation from children. But children need to learn that persistent defiance in response to milder responses will not let them get their way. In such cases non-abusive spanking can be a very effective enforcement of milder disciplinary responses, which is why most behavioral parent training protocols recommended that from the late 1960’s, when they were developed, to the mid-1990’s. By then the gurus could no longer get research funding if they continued using the spank backup (but they never found anything more effective).

And what about children's dignity and rights?

As children grow up, they develop rights and responsibilities together. We require many things of children that are not required of adults (vaccinations, school attendance). A balance of love and limits, which is called authoritative parenting, has been shown to be optimal for children to achieve their potential. The polarized extremes of authoritarian parenting (limits without love) and overly permissive parenting (love without limits) fall way behind in developing their potential competencies across a range of outcomes.

The argument that children should not be subject to negative disciplinary consequences that would be unacceptable for adults is an argument against most negative disciplinary consequence, including timeout, grounding, etc. To maximize their potential, children need both love and limits when they are young, so they don’t need to learn lessons about cooperating with people around them when they are older and the negative consequences are worse and longer lasting."


Addendum: For those who don't like the American College of Pediatricians, here're more of the cited papers:

Spanking, corporal punishment and negative long-term outcomes: a meta-analytic review of longitudinal studies.

"the impact of spanking and CP on the negative outcomes evaluated here (externalizing, internalizing behaviors and low cognitive performance) are minimal. It is advised that psychologists take a more nuanced approach in discussing the effects of spanking/CP with the general public, consistent with the size as well as the significance of their longitudinal associations with adverse outcomes."

Published in Clin Psychol Rev - IF 8.897 (Note that "0nly 213 journal titles, or 2% of the journals tracked by JCR, have a 2016 impact factor of 10 or higher")

Comparing child outcomes of physical punishment and alternative disciplinary tactics: a meta-analysis.

"effect sizes significantly favored conditional spanking over 10 of 13 alternative disciplinary tactics for reducing child noncompliance or antisocial behavior"

Published in Clin Child Fam Psychol Rev, IF 4.171
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