Spanking for Misbehavior? It Causes More


Spanking for Misbehavior? It Causes More

A big new study finds a clear negative effect


Most children under 7 can neither master their emotions nor reason like adults, so power struggles with them are inevitable. Who gets to control the TV remote or the smartphone? Does junior resist taking a bath, wander around after bedtime, gleefully use curse words or pound on his siblings every chance he gets?

The answer to at least some of these questions must be yes, if the child is a growing human being and not a robot. Experimenting with autonomy and observing how his parents react is part of the job of a child. Setting age-appropriate boundaries is the role of the adult.

The dynamics become even more complex when a child is defiant or impulsive by nature, when a parent is under inordinate pressure, or all of the above. That is perhaps one reason why two-thirds of American parents, when asked by the federally funded General Social Survey in 2016, agreed with the statement, “Sometimes a child just needs a good, hard spanking.” (The number has dropped by about 15 points in the past three decades.)

A host of studies link spanking to later behavior problems. A 2016 meta-analysis of five decades of research on the topic suggests that spanking a young child is not only an ineffective form of discipline but a catalyst for more serious acting out and mental health problems in the future. Indeed, corporal punishment of children is now illegal in 53 countries, and banning any kind of hitting of children—with a hand or an object—is a growing international movement.

Whether striking a preschooler’s bottom with an open hand discourages or exacerbates misbehavior remains a controversial topic in the U.S. Adding grist to the debate: The studies that have been conducted are observational—that is, they show that spanking and future behavior problems are tightly linked but not that the former definitively causes the latter. Children can’t be randomly assigned, for experimental purposes, to spanked and not spanked groups, so it’s hard to discern whether later behavior problems can be attributed to that one factor.

A new study led by Elizabeth Gershoff, a professor of human development at the University of Texas at Austin, aims to settle this dispute. Published last month in the journal Psychological Science, the study statistically controlled for children’s initial behavior problems and the characteristics of their parents. More than 12,000 American families were surveyed, from their children’s kindergarten year through eighth grade, as part of the nationally representative Early Childhood Longitudinal Study.

The researchers paired subjects who had and had not been spanked at 5 years old but were equivalent on 38 other factors. Those included the child’s initial level of behavior problems as rated by the teacher, and the parents’ marital status, mental health, stress levels and parenting style as defined by their answers to interview questions.

The researchers found that a child who was spanked at age 5 was far more likely to have behavior problems at age 6, and more serious ones again at age 8, according to teachers’ ratings. The relationship between corporal punishment and later acting out was even stronger if parents said that they had spanked the 5-year-olds the week before the survey, an indication that spanking may have been relatively frequent.

“This is the closest we can get, outside of an experiment, to say that spanking causes negative changes in children’s behavior. I can’t think of another way to explain our results,” Ms. Gershoff told me.

The American Pediatric Society advises parents to avoid spanking, and the American Psychological Association cautions against the practice. American parents seem to be left with a choice: To use a form of physical discipline that gambles with the future of their children or to find other ways to help them learn self-control.

Will Betsy DeVos Change Course on Racial Disparities in School Discipline?


Will the U.S. Department of Education back pedal on another key education civil rights action of the Obama administration?

As the agency reversed Obama-era civil rights policies—those related to issues like sexual assault, systemic investigations, and transgender students—policy watchers have wondered if it will next withdraw or alter 2014 guidance on racial disparities in school discipline.

That guidance, which was long anticipated by civil rights groups before it was released, put schools on notice that discipline rates that are disproportionately high for students in one race could trigger a civil rights investigation, even if the school’s policies weren’t written with discriminatory intent. For example, if a school suspends black students at higher rates than their peers, federal officials might explore data to see if they are facing harsher punishments for the same rule violations compared to their peers.

Supporters of that move said it would help to slow the so-called “school-to-prison pipeline,” a term they use to describe overly punitive discipline policies that research links to negative outcomes for students.

But critics said the guidance amounted to putting “racial quotas” on school discipline and that it had a chilling effect, causing schools to avoid disciplining students for some behaviors.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has regularly criticized the Obama administration’s aggressive approach to civil rights enforcement, referring to it as “the era of rule by letter.”

Now, DeVos plans to hire an outspoken critic of the discipline guidance to work in the the department’s office of general counsel, according to a Politico report. That reported hire, Hans Bader, previously served as a senior attorney for the Competitive Enterprise Insitute. He’s written numerous opinion pieces and letters to the editor at major newspapers on the Obama education department’s approach to discipline.

Higher suspension rates for black students “reflect higher rates of misbehavior among blacks, not zero-tolerance policies,” Bader wrote in a 2014 opinion piece in the Daily Caller.

That’s a claim that many school discipline researchers dispute.

Is Bader’s hiring a signal that the discipline guidance will be changed? Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, seems to think so.