There’s been a lot of debate about the merits of spanking over the last fifty years, but a new study is providing some hard data about the results of spanking on developing personalities. The study at Tulane University observed the development of almost 2,500 children. Those who were spanked more frequently at age 3 proved to be much more likely to be aggressive by age 5.
Though this isn’t the first study of the affects of corporal punishment on children, the Tulane study is the first to attempt to control and compensate for many of the environmental variables that might muddy their attempt to prove a causal link between spanking and development. The study, led by Catherine Taylor, accounted for things like neglect by the mother, violence or aggression between the parents, maternal stress and depression, maternal substance abuse and even whether the child’s mother considered abortion while pregnant with the child being studied.
While all of those environmental factors contributed to the children’s aggressive behavior by the age of 5, the connection between spanking and aggression remained strong, even after those factors had been accounted for. “The odds of a child being more aggressive by age 5 if he had been spanked more than twice in the month before the study began increased by 50%,” says Taylor. Because her study was so thorough in accounting for other variables, its results allow researchers to confidently state that, “it’s not just that children who are more aggressive are more likely to be spanked.”
This thoroughness gives the study real weight in what is often a very subjective and sensitive conversation. ”I’m excited by the idea that there is now some nice hard data that can back up clinicians when they share their caution with parents against using corporal punishment,” says Dr. Jayne Singer, clinical director of the child and parent program at Children’s Hospital Boston, who was not involved in the study.
Children in the study who were spanked proved to be more defiant, more easily frustrated and more demanding of instant satisfaction of wants and needs. Singer suggests that the reason for that may be that spanking is effective because it installs fear, rather than understanding of why a particular behavior shouldn’t continue. It also models aggression as a solution to problems. Singer recommends time outs as a good way to help children understand why a behavior is wrong and eventually correct the behavior. Explaining the reason for the punishment, then forcing a little quiet time to calm down and reflect, may take more repetition and energy in the short run, but in the long run it produces more effective results.