The writer is the Co-Director of the Family Research Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire and a former president of the National Council on Family Relations. He is the author of Beating The Devil Out of Them: Corporal Punishment In American Families.
Oklahoma and Nevada recently passed laws to remind parents and teachers that they have the right to use corporal punishment such as spanking and slapping children. These laws were prompted by the recent shootings in schools. As one Oklahoma legislator reasoned, "Back when I grew up, we got our tails whipped at school, then got it again when we got home. We didn't have shootings."
This opinion does not square with the fact that seven of the eight school shooting sprees in the last three years occurred in states that do use corporal punishment in the schools. However, since only a very small fraction of murders by youth are in schools, I decided to check on all murders by children age 17 and under in each of the states.
If the Oklahoma and Nevada legislators are correct, the states that permit the widest use of corporal punishment should have the lowest rate of homicides by children. But if the research on corporal punishment that has been conducted over the last 45 years is correct, those states are likely to have the most murders by children. To find out which is true, I classified the states into three groups on the basis of the degree to which they permitted corporal punishment: The low group are states that prohibit corporal punishment in the schools and also in day care, group homes, and foster care (no state prohibits corporal punishment by parents). The middle group permitted corporal punishment in only one of these settings, and the high group permitted it in two or more of these settings. I found that the rate of murders by children was 13 per million in the low corporal punishment states, was 19 per million (or 46 percent higher) in the middle group, and almost doubled to 24 in the high corporal punishment states.
It seems that, instead of being a deterrent, corporal punishment provides an example for children. When parents or teachers hit children for misbehaving, it teaches the child that if someone misbehaves towards them (an everyday event in the lives of children), hitting is a way to correct the problem. Corporal punishment also creates resentment and anger in many children, which further increases the probability of violence.
Spanking does work in the short run. However, the research which shows that spanking works also shows that non-violent methods of discipline work just as well. So there is no need to use corporal punishment. But what about the long-run effect? Parents spank to stop misbehavior and also to "teach a lesson." Spanking does teach a lesson, but study after study in the past 40 years provides evidence suggesting, but not proving, that children also learn violence and other antisocial behavior. However, 1997 marked a turning point in research on spanking.
Since 1997 five studies have used the amount of misbehavior that led to the corporal punishment as the baseline. These studies then reexamined children after a year, two years, or five years to determine if things had stayed the same, changed for the better, or gotten worse. My own study, and all others, found that, on average, the behavior of the children of parents who spanked got worse. Of course some spanked children improved and some whose parents used other modes of discipline got worse. But on the average, spanking boomeranged. These studies are especially important because all were based on large and representative samples of families, and all took into account many other factors that affect the behavior of children, such as the education level of the parents, and whether the parents were also emotionally warm and supportive.
Yes, spanking teaches a lesson. Unfortunately, there is also a hidden curriculum. It is the teaching of violence. If we want a less violent society, one of the many steps is to stop bringing up children by the violent methods that go under the euphemism of spanking.