Letter to the Wall Street Journal
By Murray A. Straus, June 11, 2000

Murray A. Straus, Professor of Sociology
& Co-Director, Family Research Laboratory
University of New Hampshire, Durham, NH 03824
Phone: 603 862-2594 Fax: 603 862-1122
E-mail Murray.Straus@UNH.EDU

Weekend Journal
200 Liberty Street
New York, NY 10281

Dear SWJ Weekend Editor:

Almost everything about trends in spanking and the behavior of children who are not spanked in Daniel Costello’s article “Spanking Makes A Comeback" (June 9, page W1) is contrary to the research evidence.

The article claims that Americans are returning to spanking. Mr. Costello bases this on the opinion of parents and of psychologists who have never done research on trends and ignores the scientific research on trends. This research shows a continuing decreases in the percent of the public who favor spanking. Nine national surveys have asked “Do you agree or disagree that it is sometimes necessary to give a child a good hard spanking.” In 1968, just about everyone (94%) agreed. Since then, the rate of agreement has declined with succeeding surveys. The most recent, in 1999, found it was down to 55%. Of course, that is still a majority, but it is a far cry from 94%.

Psychologists who defend spanking and web sites filled with parents who are pro-spankers is not evidence of change. They are the 55% who continue to believe in spanking. They do not represent a “comeback.” The change is that when 94% of the population believed in spanking, pro-spanking psychologists did not have to be advocates. Now that only 55% believe in spanking, they have to defend their long-held commitments. Rather than a “comeback,” these are better thought of as “dying gasps” of a mode of violent child rearing that is disappearing. This is happening slowly in the US and more rapidly in countries like Sweden where there is a declared national policy of “no-spanking”

In regard to the behavior of children who are not spanked, Mr. Costello again fails to mention a single scientific study indicating they are less well behaved. One can find little horrors among both spanked and unspanked children. However, the research shows that there are more of them in the spanked group. Indeed, Mairin Dugan, whose mother spanks and whose tantrums and disobedience are described in Mr. Costello’s first two paragraphs, illustrates that spanking is not a cure-all. My research (published in the Archives of Adolescent and Pediatric Medicine) followed up 1,770 children for two and four years to measure the long-term effects of spanking. The results show that, although spanking may have secured compliance at the time of the misbehavior, the more spanking, the worse the behavior of the child two and four years later compared to children whose parents used other methods of correction and control for the same misbehavior. Unfortunately, parents can only see the immediate effect, and not the long term boomerang effect of spanking.

Forty years ago, smokers could experience the pleasure from smoking, but they could not foresee the damage that might show up years later. When they were informed about the results of the research, millions stopped smoking. We are now at the same point in research on spanking. In the last three years, several definitive studies have shown what parents cannot foresee -- that although spanking works in the short run, it is less effective in the long run and it increases the chances of a child later experiencing serious behavioral and psychological problems such as delinquency, hitting dating partners or spouses, and depression. The well-being of America’s children requires that we inform parents of these risks and urge them not to spank, just as we inform smokers of the risks of lung cancer and heart disease and urge them not to smoke.

Murray A. Straus

See the Family Research Laboratory web site www.unh.edu/frl for conference and fellowship announcements and for bibliographies of books and papers by members of the lab, and information about the lab faculty and research program.

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