putting a whooping on spanking statistics

I know I am opening up a huge can of worms (or whoop-ass, however you want to see it), but I came across this article while studying for finals last week and finally had a moment to read it today. It is fascinating….ALL parents should read it. Specifically, it shows how spanking studies over the past 40 decades have been skewed toward the researchers’ philosophical bias*, but against actual statistical results: while many researchers are philosophically opposed to spanking, methodologically sound research does not make the case. When meta-analyses of spanking research that meets high methods standards are performed, spanking has not been shown to be any more “harmful” to a child than any other tool of punishment, including time out.

Most spanking research that tries to make the case that spanking is harmful fails to distinguish:

1) qualitatively between abuse and spanking (defined by hitting on the bottom or extremities with an open hand without inflicting physical injury while meaning to correct behavior) within the study,

2) between the ages at which a child was spanked (spanking a teenager is different than spanking a young child), and

3) the quantity of spanking (getting spanked once a month is different than being spanked, as one survey studied, “156 times a year . . . up to 13 times the normal average.”)

And while abuse certainly is harmful, the biased researchers will analogize to spanking by using a “continuum” theory that has never been empirically tested. In other words, anti-spanking researchers will say “spanking is on the same ‘continuum’ as abuse, and therefore parents who spank somehow ‘transform’ into parents who abuse.” Studies have actually found that abusive parents have very different personality traits than non-abusive parents and that:

Research that discriminates between abuse and physical discipline indicates that you cannot predict that a child will have behavior problems simply because his parents use spanking. (pg. 42 of the PDF)

The author uses anti-spanking laws in Sweden to show how a national spanking ban can have counter-intuitive results. In Sweden, parents are not allowed to do anything to their children that they would not do to their neighbor. The rhetoric used is often something along the lines of, “Can you hit an adult who doesn’t do what you tell them to do? Well, then, why should you be able to do that to a child?” That includes not only spanking, but also pulling a child’s arm to move them in the direction you’d like them to go (With my three year old, we’d never go anywhere.) The law, which many other countries also adopted, is based on the U.N. Convention of the Child, which mostly all countries have adopted except the U.S. and Somalia.

The problem is, according to this article, as a result, apparently Swedish children are out of control. There has been a perceptible rise in teenage violence since the ban went into place (although violence in Sweden is still very low compared to American standards) and Swedish teenagers who have grown up entirely under the spanking ban believe that their parents have no right to punish them at all.

There is so much more in this article, and if you ignore the footnotes (although there is a lot there to be interested in), this 76-page article is really not that long. And if you’ve followed me here or on gradmommy, you know that I am not one to spare the rod, so I found the article downright refreshing.

But I also find this article fascinating in how it sort of contradicts itself.

Part of the argument is about how what parents know to be true instinctively – he talks about how parents who were never spanked themselves go on to spank their children – have turned to childrearing advice gurus and statistics to justify or “learn” how to raise their children.  Most parents who spank don’t do it because some book told them it was the right thing to do, but because it was a cultural parenting tool that has been handed down through generations as an effective tool for discipline. We learn how to parent through how we’ve been parented. Yet, the only way he has to debunk all the junk science out there about spanking is to do it through statistics; he has to use the same platform to out-do what he’s fighting.

To be fair, I do know some parents who say they are purely philosophically against spanking because they see any hitting whatsoever as violence on any scale, but they are very few and far between. I can really only think of one who has NEVER resorted to citing a study that justifies his or her viewpoint. And even those who are philosophical in their viewpoint have a limit that I find hypocritical: what exactly is the outer bound of the non-violence? Is mental pain okay? Taking away a toy is painful to a child. Why is that kind of pain and “violence” okay, but hitting is not? At that point a person usually has to resort to, “Well, but the studies show that….”

Read the article (or don’t, and just trust what I say about it is true) and let me know what you think. I can say so much more in the comments. If spanking is shown to not be harmful to children, would that change your mind about doing it? How does it make you feel to know that the research has been purposeful skewed due to researcher bias based on a philosophical viewpoint? Is the only way to fight statistics with more statistics?

What do you think about parents’ tendency these days to rely more on “expert” opinions and statistics about childrearing and parenting than on our own traditions and instincts?

*(Parenting research is fraught with researcher bias. I am no exception; when I defended my dissertation proposal last week about parenting and special education I was called on my almost overt bias against special education placement. So I understand where it is coming from. But I had 7 people in that room on purpose to keep me in check because I acknowledge and own my bias. Anti-spanking crusaders? Not so much.)