Research by a team of experts from the University of Michigan and the University of Texas at Austin has revealed the potentially harmful effects of spanking on children in a study conducted by Andrew Grogan-Kaylor, University associate professor of social work, and Elizabeth Gershoff, associate professor of human development and family sciences at University of Texas at Austin.

Gershoff, previously a social work professor at the University, said their research attempted to discover whether or not the practice of spanking — a common disciplinary method — actually resulted in improved behavior. 

“Given that over 80 percent of American children are still spanked by their parents, we wanted to know if spanking in fact was linked with better child behavior and lower problem behavior,” Gershoff said. “In other words, is there evidence that spanking ‘works’?”

The team studies over 160,000 children who displayed negative behavioral outcomes, such as mental health problems, cognitive difficulties and increased aggressiveness.

 “We used a statistical method called meta-analysis, which takes data from many published studies and looks at the average association between spanking and child outcomes,” Gershoff said. “We conducted separate meta-analyses for 17 child outcomes.”

Out of the 75 studies the team consulted, 12 were from countries outside the United States, including Australia, China, England and Mongolia. The diversification of research sources enabled the team to explore possible variation in the effects of spanking by location and culture. According to Gershoff, these analyses suggested there were no substantial differences across the countries.

They found that spanking in many of the locations they examined was seen as commonplace, but that it actually led to adverse effects on the children.

“We have conducted a previous study that looked at the role of culture and the normativeness of spanking in a culture,” Gershoff said. “Specifically, we looked across China, Italy, India, Kenya, Philippines and Thailand and found that even when children or mothers thought spanking was normative in their communities, spanking was linked with more aggression and more anxiety problems.”

Grogan-Kaylor emphasized that the findings are significant both statistically and substantively.

“The findings are statistically significant in that we found a number of bad outcomes associated with spanking in a way that could not be attributed to chance,” Grogan-Kaylor said. “They are substantively significant in that we looked across so many studies with such a large number of children and found near unanimity in the conclusion that spanking is associated with bad outcomes for children.”

The researchers listed some of the unintended negative outcomes such as higher risk of mental health problems, lower cognitive ability and negative relationships with parents. Gershoff said there is a potential link between spanking and domestic abuse.

“We also found that the more children are spanked, the higher their risk of being physically abused by their parents,” Gershoff said. “Taken together, these results indicate that there is no evidence that spanking is linked with good outcomes for children, and substantial evidence that it is linked with risk of harm.”

However, the researchers could not isolate the effects of spanking from other factors in upbringing, like family stability, parental presence or socioeconomic status.

“Across the 75 studies, some controlled for factors like gender or race in their main analyses, but some did not,” Gershoff said. “In order to make sure we were comparing apples to apples rather than apples to oranges, we focused on the direct links between spanking and child outcomes.”

The team is currently refining its research on spanking as well as exploring the cause-effect relationship between other family factors and outcomes in the child.

“We are conducting analyses that will get closer to establishing any causal links between spanking and child outcomes, as well as examining whether the links are robust to family factors, such as parent education, family structure and family race,” Gershoff said.


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