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Turns Out Misbehaving Kids Just Get More Horrible if You Spank Them

Moral judgements aside, a new study says spanking doesn't even work as advertised. And it can cause permanent damage.

Photo via Flickr user Boston Public Library

Modernity hasn't been kind to avid beaters of children like Tennessee fundamentalist pastor (and my namesake) Michael Pearl, who claims that only corporal punishment can properly "train" a child. Activists like Thomas Meyers of The Child Center of New York are increasingly convinced that all spanking is abuse. But people like Pearl can fall back on the certainty that if nothing else, at least whacking the little bastards on their asses makes kids knock off whatever mischief they were up to, right?

According to a new study, the opposite appears to be the case. A meta-analysis of child development data by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Michigan concluded that kids act out more if they're spanked. In other words: moral judgments aside, spanking doesn't even work as advertised.


This work came from a team including Elizabeth Gershoff, human development associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin. Gershoff claimed in a UT Austin statement on Monday that rather than turning kids into obedient little soldiers, spanking is most closely associated with "unintended detrimental outcomes."

Past studies have already come to similar conclusions in the long term. For instance, a 2013 study from the University of New Hampshire Family Research Laboratory found that kids who were spanked grew up to be lawbreakers at greater rates than un-spanked children, even if those un-spanked children had otherwise shitty upbringings.

That study by sociologist Murray Strauss, which sought to eliminate variables like education level and cultural background, and looked at spanked and un-spanked children and adults in countries in Europe, North America, Asia, and the Middle East, to figure out the effects. It found increases in criminal records across the board for former spank recipients. Delinquency increased even when the household situations of kids who got spanked were otherwise stable and loving.

While that 2013 study might give you pause if you're concerned about things like your child's "long-term wellbeing," this new study suggests that even if you're some crummy, Al Bundy-style parent who only cares about getting some peace and quiet right now, spanking seems to be counterproductive.


The study, "Spanking and Child Outcomes: Old Controversies and New Meta-Analyses," is less the result of elimination of variables like the Strauss study, and instead crunches mass quantities of numbers. In her statement, Gershoff further built her case by pointing out that this analysis wasn't skewed by cases in which parents were clobbering or otherwise assaulting their kids, and instead focused entirely on "what most Americans would recognize as spanking."

Her team pooled 50 years worth of scientifically controlled observations of "160,927 unique children" (which means no cloned children were allowed, I guess) and converted those into 111 sample instances. 78 of those showed a statistically significant "detrimental outcome," and only one of those spanking cases reflected significantly improved behavior.

Negative effects included aggressive and antisocial behavior, externalizing behavior problems, and "low moral internalization"—inability to learn right from wrong. In the worst cases, there were effects beyond behavior in childhood, including mental health problems and intellectual impairment.

Controlling to ensure experimental reliability was up to the scientists who performed the original experiments over the past half-century. The researchers' new, math-based approach meant some data had to be eliminated. The text of the study describes a dogged procedure for eliminating certain experiments from contention, based on qualitative attributes like whether or not a given study "assessed the associations of spanking with outcomes within a single group" which would have resulted in unreliable data.

But despite these controls, the authors are careful not to claim they've produced the definitive answer on whether a swat on the tushy necessarily transforms a kid into a vase-smashing demon. "[T]he data are consistent with a conclusion that spanking is associated with undesirable outcomes," the study says.

That is to say: Gershoff won't say she's sure that striking your kids makes them misbehave, but she's pretty positive that kids who have been struck go on to misbehave more than kids who haven't.

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