Effect same regardless of parenting style, socioeconomic status, sex of child or ethnic background
By Murray Straus, Ph.D.

Excerpt from the "American Medical Association News Update," August 13, 1997

CHICAGO--Spanking children to correct or control their behavior may seem to work in the short term, but has the opposite effect in the long term, according to an article in the August issue of the AMA's Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.

Murray A. Straus, Ph.D., University of New Hampshire, Durham, and colleagues studied data on 807 mothers. Each had at least one child age 6-9 years when they were interviewed as part of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth-Child Supplement in 1988.

The researchers found that 44 percent of the mothers reported spanking their children at least once during the week prior to the interview. On average, the children were spanked 2.1 times during that week.

After measuring the children's antisocial behavior scores through interviews with the mothers, the researchers found that children who were spanked even once during the week prior to the base interview, showed an increase in antisocial behavior two years after the base interview. They also found that the more times a child is spanked, also known as corporal punishment, the more likely the child is to display antisocial behavior.

Antisocial behavior in this study is based on six items:

  • cheats or tells lies
  • bullies or is cruel or mean to others
  • does not feel sorry after misbehaving
  • breaks things deliberately
  • is disobedient at school
  • has trouble getting along with teachers

The researchers write: "We suggest that reduction or elimination of corporal punishment could have major benefits for children and for reducing antisocial behavior in society."

Unlike previous studies, this study was able to separate corporal punishment and antisocial behavior from parenting style, socioeconomic status, sex of the child and ethnic background.

Despite the fact that some parents believe that emotional warmth and cognitive stimulation can override the effects of corporal punishment, the researchers found that it had no bearing on the situation.

In addition, the link between corporal punishment and antisocial behavior remained valid after adjusting for socioeconomic status, the sex of the child and ethnic background. The increase in antisocial behavior because of spanking was smaller for girls and minority children; however, the researchers caution that the increase was in direct proportion to the amount of corporal punishment the children received.

They write: "Considering research showing that antisocial behavior in childhood is associated with violence and other crime as an adult, society as whole, not just children, could benefit from ending the system of violent childrearing that goes under the euphemism of spanking." Spanking has also been linked to low self-esteem, depression and low educational attainment.

They add: "If the finding in minority group children is valid, it is particularly important because many minority group parents believe that under the conditions of inner-city life their children 'need strong discipline' ... Children growing up in those difficult circumstances no doubt need closer supervision and control, but attempting to do this by corporal punishment may exacerbate rather than help the situation."

Corporal punishment in this study is defined as "the use of physical force with the intention of causing a child to experience pain, but not injury, for the purpose of correction or control of the child's behavior." Parents using corporal punishment almost never use the term, rather they call it "a swat, "a spanking," or "a whooping."

In the current sample, 10 percent of mothers reported spanking their children three or more times during the week preceding the original interview; 14.1 percent spanked their children twice; and 19.8 percent spanked their children once.
(Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 1997;151:761-767)

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