Chicago - Parents who spank their children are provoking the very misbehavior they are trying to stop, but they don't see the boomerang effect because it happens over weeks or months, a new study suggests.
Many past studies have linked spanking with increased aggressiveness in children, but authors of the new study say they have found the strongest evidence yet of a cause-and-effect relationship.
"When parents use corporal punishment to reduce the antisocial behavior, the long-term effect tends to be the opposite," the researchers wrote in the August issue of the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.
Parents "have no way of looking down the road a month, two months, a year, two years...and that is what this study did," said the lead author, sociologist Murray A. Straus, co-director of the Family Research Laboratory at University of New Hampshire.
The study showed spanking is "counterproductive, it boomerangs, it makes things worse," he said.
His team analyzed 1998 and 1990 national survey data from 807 mothers of children ages 6 to 9, and compared levels of antisocial behavior among spanked and unspanked children over the interval.
Forty-four percent of mothers reported spanking their children in the week before they were interviewed and they spanked them an average of twice that week, the researchers said.
The more spanking at the beginning of the study period, the higher the level of antisocial behavior at the end, independent of other traits that can affect such behavior, such as the family's socioeconomic status and the amount of love and support parents give their children, researchers said.
Antisocial behavior was defined as cheating or lying, bullying or being cruel or mean to others, not feeling sorry after misbehaving, breaking things deliberately, disobeying at school or not getting along with teachers.
"Many people, probably most people, believe that if spanking is done by warm and loving parents, it has no harmful side effects, because kids know it's for their own good. That turns out not to be true," Straus said.
Although parental warmth and support lessen the harmful effects of spanking, they don't cancel those effects, he said.
"Considering research showing that antisocial behavior in childhood is associated with violence and other crime as an adult, society as a whole, and not just children, could benefit from ending the system of violent child rearing that goes under the euphemism of spanking," the researchers wrote.
His team avoided two handicaps of many previous studies - the failure to measure changes in children's aggressiveness over time and the failure to separate spanking from other physical punishments, Straus said.
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