WASHINGTON — Parents who believe in “spare the rod, spoil the child” might be setting their children up to become violent toward future partners, according to a study published Tuesday in the Journal of Pediatrics.
“We asked 758 kids between 19 and 20 years old how often they had been spanked, slapped or struck with an object as form of punishment when they were younger,” said the study’s lead author, Jeff Temple, an associate professor at the University of Texas Medical Branch.
“Kids who said they had experienced corporal punishment were more likely to have recently committed dating violence.”
This result, he said, held up even when contributing factors such as sex, age, parental education, ethnicity and childhood abuse were controlled.
“One of the advantages of our study was to control for child abuse, which we defined as being hit with a belt or board, left with bruises that were noticeable or going to the doctor or hospital,” said Temple, who specializes in dating, or relationship, violence.
“Regardless of whether someone experienced child abuse or not, spanking alone was predictive of dating violence.”
The result was no surprise to Dr. Bob Sege, a spokesman for the American Academy of Pediatricians who specializes in the prevention of childhood violence.
The academy strongly opposes striking a child for any reason, pointing to research that links corporal punishment to mental health disorders and aggression.
“This study confirms and extends previous research that says children who experience violence at home, even if it is couched as for their own good, end up using violence later in their lives,” said Sege, who was not involved in the new research.
“For children, their parents are the most important people in the world, and they learn from them what are social norms and how people should behave toward each other.
“Corporal punishment confuses the boundaries between love and violence for children while they are learning how to treat others.”
Boston University associate professor Emily Rothman, an expert in partner violence, agreed.
“The experience of having someone direct aggression to you increases the likelihood that you’ll fall back on aggression when in a flight or fight moment,” she said.
“Having been hit by the parent can elevate stress and reduces a child’s coping skills, so they may lash out.”
Data from the University of Chicago through 2016 show 73.6 percent strongly agree that it is sometimes necessary to discipline a child with a good, hard spanking.
“It’s been a controversial issue for several decades, with some parts of the country, like the South, using corporal punishment more than others,” Rothman said, adding religious fundamentalists are also more likely to believe in corporal punishment.
“They don’t think of it as violence. It’s a parenting strategy.”
“There’s a tendency for adults who have been spanked to say ‘I turned out just fine,'” Temple said. “So they continue the behavior with their children.”
Temple and Sege argue that attitude is shortsighted and doesn’t take into account two decades of research showing no benefit from corporal punishment.
“There’s zero evidence that it enhances children’s development, and there is a whole bunch of evidence that it has negative outcomes,” Temple said.
“Our goal is not to turn out fine. Our goal is to turn out healthier and happier than previous generations.”
“We didn’t have seat belts for children when I was growing up, either,” Sege said. “Research changed that. The effects of corporal punishment are quite well established to be poor.”
Some remain unconvinced of the harms of spanking, including a small group of physicians and researchers who continue to argue that it is beneficial, or at least not bad for kids.
“I think that like any disciplinary tactic, its effect is in the context of how it’s used,” Oklahoma State University professor Robert Larzelere said.
“Research is strongest for the use of spanking between the ages of 2 and 6, when milder types of correction have failed.”
Larzelere co-authored a position paper on spanking for the the American College of Pediatricians, a small group of physicians who have a conservative stance on many parenting matters.
Some of its position papers state, for example, that homosexual parenting is harmful to children, gender dysphoria in children will be outgrown by adolescence and cohabitation before marriage will negatively impact any children born before, during or after cohabitation.
Larzelere and his co-author, Dr. Den Trumbull, concluded that “it’s OK for parents to spank,” but with some conditions: Parents should ensure children know it’s “motivated by love and concern for their well-being” and be certain “they do not use disciplinary spanking too severely.” Spanking should always be used in a manner that reduces the need to use it in the future, the paper said.
Spanking also should only be used when children fail to respond to milder disciplinary tactics (e.g., time out) or fail to stop harmful misbehavior (e.g., running into a street).