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When parents lift their hands

It's better not to spank, researchers agree. But, in fact, people do. Now we're learning the consequences.

February 19, 2007|Ben Harder | Special to The Times

WHEN Murray Straus was raising his children in the 1950s and '60s, spanking was de rigueur in the American household. The Straus residence was no exception, with the father of two occasionally reacting to their misbehavior with a swat to the bottom.

But times have changed, and so has Straus' perception of spanking.

"If I knew then what I know now, I would not have spanked them at all," he says. "My research has convinced me that there should be no hitting -- never, under any circumstances."

Straus, co-director of the Family Research Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire, has long advocated doing away with spanking. And many psychologists and pediatricians also now say that parents should never strike a child. Assemblywoman Sally Lieber (D-Mountain View) has even promised to introduce a bill in the California Legislature that would make it illegal to hit those younger than 4.

Frequent and impulsive spanking is clearly detrimental, researchers agree. Other kinds of physical punishment, including hitting children with objects, are harmful as well. "Corporal punishment has really serious side effects," says Alan Kazdin, a professor of psychology at Yale University and president-elect of the American Psychological Assn. "Children who are hit become more aggressive."

Yet the mildest forms of spanking have not been proved harmful. "A family that hits once in a while? The research is equivocal about that," Kazdin says.

What the research does show is that spanking is generally no more effective than nonphysical disciplinary techniques in instilling acceptable behavior, that its effects vary from culture to culture and that a greater frequency of spanking increases the risk of negative consequences.

Although some researchers say it can play an occasional role in supporting more lenient forms of discipline, Kazdin argues that spanking should be avoided even if it is harmless.

"It suppresses [misbehavior] momentarily. But you haven't really changed its probability of occurring," Kazdin says. "Physical punishment is not needed to change behavior. It's just not needed."

Reasons not to spank

Spanking can escalate toward physical abuse, potentially injuring the child, and can contribute to later emotional and behavioral problems, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. It's also less effective than alternative disciplinary tactics, and it's a hard habit to break, the organization says. Studies have shown that people who were spanked as kids tend to spank as parents, perpetuating the cycle.

During the last decade, a raft of studies showed that kids who get spanked are more likely than their peers to display behavioral and emotional problems later in life. The more frequently they're spanked, the more harmful the consequences tend to be.

In a 1997 study in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, for example, Straus and two colleagues found that 6- to 9-year-olds whose mothers spanked them at least weekly were more likely, two years later, to behave antisocially than were kids whose moms didn't spank.

The researchers interviewed more than 800 mothers and asked how often their kids did antisocial things such as cheat, lie, bully, deliberately break objects or act disobediently at school. Taking into account the degree of antisocial behavior that each mother said her child displayed at the beginning of the study, Straus' team concluded that spanking probably contributed to increases in bad behavior seen during the study.

Nevertheless, Straus notes, a "lucky majority" of kids who get spanked suffer no discernible harm.

Another 1997 study also linked spanking to subsequent antisocial behavior, and it additionally found that children who were spanked at the beginning of the five-year study were more likely to be getting into fights at school by the end of the study. (An exception was African American kids, who were less likely to fight if they'd been spanked than if they hadn't. More on that in a bit.)

Since then, other studies that have tracked kids over time have linked corporal punishment to higher rates of children later assaulting their parents and higher rates of boys assaulting their girlfriends years after they themselves were smacked.

Spanking "gives the message that force is a justifiable method of solving conflicts," says Daphne Bugental, a psychologist at UC Santa Barbara. "The child is learning a lesson: If you run into a conflict, use power, use force."

Adds Shari Barkin, a pediatrician at the Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt in Nashville: "It teaches children that when you're angry, you should hit people." Spanking also appears to have a detrimental effect on the brain. In 1999, Straus found after a two-year study that 2- to 9-year-olds who were spanked developed less rapidly, judging from cognitive tests, than other children.

In a 2003 study, Bugental and her colleagues delved deeper, examining the effect of corporal punishment on brain chemistry in infants younger than 1.

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