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Exposing the poor research fueling the anti-spanking campaign

“Spanking is linked to aggression, antisocial behavior, mental health problems, cognitive difficulties, low self-esteem, and a whole host of other negative outcomes.”

So declared a 2016 news article from Good Housekeeping, one of dozens of articles reporting on the latest overview of research on physical discipline. That 2016 overview not only condemned spanking, but went out of its way to make the case that its results also applied to the type of physical discipline that is both legal and commonly practiced. In other words, it argued that all forms of spanking are bad all the time.1

So where does such research leave all those who thought that physical discipline can be beneficial and appropriate when done in a controlled and loving way? The answer matters a lot, especially since the anti-spanking movement has received a lot of momentum in Canada. During the 2015 federal election, Canada’s Liberal party promised that, if elected, it would get rid of Section 43 of our Criminal Code – this is the section that allows parents to use appropriate physical discipline. Thankfully that did not follow through on that promise. But if that section is ever removed, the result will be that all parents who use physical discipline will be treated by the law as criminals and abusers.

So it is important, then, that we take a closer look at the research. And when we do so, we’ll discover our confidence in the appropriateness and legality of physical discipline doesn’t need to be shaken. It is vital that we educate not only ourselves, but share this truth with our neighbors, and especially our legislators, before it’s too late.

New spin – same flawed research

The lead author of the 2016 study was Dr. Elizabeth Gershoff, a University of Texas researcher who has dedicated much of her career to opposing physical discipline.

Her overview was an updated version of a previous meta-analysis she did (a meta-analysis uses statistics to combine the results of many studies on the same topic, with the goal of getting more precise average results). The news stories explained that her overview was based on studies of over 150,000 children, spanning over 50 years, which sounds really impressive but really just amounts to running new statistical analyses on the same kind of research that several experts have been summarizing for the past decades. None of the other experts supported an absolute anti-spanking conclusion from their summaries of the same kind of research.2-7

One of the reasons why Dr. Gershoff and her research partner Dr. Andrew Gorgan-Kaylor (hereafter G&G) updated their meta-analysis was to address a concern expressed about her previous research, namely that it failed to distinguish appropriate physical discipline from types of physical aggression that the law already criminalizes as abuse. It lumped measured, calm spankings in with the beatings given by enraged, out-of-control parents. So how useful could these findings be when it comes to evaluating the effectiveness of just the calm and collected spankings?

The answer is, not very. Indeed, that is one of the arguments that ARPA Canada made in our policy report on corporal discipline that we sent to all MPs and Senators in 2014, and have defended on CBC radio and in the Vancouver Sun since. Those advocating that spanking be a criminal activity have never been able to respond to the contrary.

We explained over and again that research that did take the time to isolate appropriate physical discipline did not find negative outcomes – in fact, physical discipline was shown to be as good as or better than all other forms of discipline.

Three fallacies

Another expert on the topic is Dr. Robert E. Larzelere, from Oklahoma State University (hereafter RL). He examined G&G’s latest overview and quickly found it to be wanting. RL pointed out that only four of the 75 studies in the meta analysis examined whether appropriate spanking does more harm than good when nonphysical methods were ineffective. Those four studies proved that spanking was better than two of the three alternatives investigated, and was equally as effective as the third alternative (forced isolation).8-11

So how then did G&G come to the conclusion that spanking was always bad? Her conclusion came from the other 71 studies and included three fallacies. RL exposed the following three fallacies: 

Fallacy #1 – Correlation

G&G’s conclusions rely entirely on the studies’ correlations – for example, children who were spanked more often tend to be more aggressive.

But even a high school student understands that correlation does not prove causation. In fact, it could well be that aggressive children were spanked more often because they were aggressive. As RL points out, this type of research would even make radiation treatment look harmful since patients receiving radiation treatment have more cancer than those who don’t.12

Fallacy #2 – Extrapolation

G&G conclude that spanking should simply not be done. It is a similar conclusion that the Truth and Reconciliation Report came to in 2015, in their effort to address the fallout from the now-infamous  Residential Schools. That report led to the Liberal government promising to repeal Section 43 of the Criminal Code.

But do the studies actually bear this out? RL explains that only one of the studies in the entire meta-analysis compared a group that was never spanked to one that was, and that study actually proved that spanking had a beneficial effect.13 The authors wrongly extrapolated their conclusion based on the faulty correlational evidence. Even worse, two studies that did take the time to compare individuals who were never spanked with those who were, conveniently were left out of the meta-analysis.14,15

The fact that overly frequent spanking correlates with worse child outcomes does not necessarily mean that no spanking will lead to the best outcomes. It could instead mean that the best parents use spanking only when needed – but not more often than that.

Fallacy # 3 – Lumping

Although G&G went out of their way to emphasize that this study proves that spanking is bad even when done carefully and in keeping with the law, the reality is that only 4 of the 75 studies relied specifically on “hitting a child on their buttocks…using an open hand.” The truth has not changed, no matter how it is hidden or confused – the research that properly examines the effect of appropriate spanking shows it to be as good as, or better than, all other disciplinary tactics.

RL expressed his regrets about the poor research exemplified in G&G’s overview, not just because it undermines appropriate physical discipline but also because it undermines efforts to discover other disciplinary tactics that may also be effective. Their reliance on correlational evidence is biased against every form of discipline, including time-outs, making the most effective disciplinary responses appear to be harmful. Does that mean that all discipline is harmful? The authors don’t go that far in this overview, but they have already claimed that “we don’t know anything that works” based on another study in which they investigated 10 other disciplinary methods using the same biased correlations.16

We all need to expose the dangerous research

The sad reality is that truth and objectivity don’t matter much when a publication comes to the conclusion that others want to see to bolster their worldview or political objectives. The mainstream media loves to publish stories like these, and the fact that they come from peer-reviewed journals means they accept the conclusions as fact.

To add to this, there are very, very few people who are willing to publicly defend something as politically incorrect as spanking. Who wants to be lumped in with child abusers? This risk of being misquoted is too great. I’m aware of only two or three people/organizations in this country that are willing to even touch this issue.

The Overton Window concept explains that there is a range of ideas that the public will accept. That range shifts over time. An idea can move from something that is considered radical, to controversial, to acceptable, to popular, to public policy. Alternatively, it can go the other way too. Something like euthanasia was controversial five years ago but has quickly shifted to public policy today. Likewise, spanking can go from being lawful today to being criminalized ten years from now.

If we believe parents are the appropriate authorities to determine which form of loving discipline is most appropriate for their children (so long as it is not abusive), it is crucial that we seize the opportunity to speak up in defense of Section 43 while it is still considered acceptable. Not only is the research on our side, the Supreme Court of Canada already examined this issue in 2004 and upheld Section 43. They went so far as to conclude that the

decision not to criminalize such conduct is not grounded in devaluation of the child, but in a concern that to do so risks ruining lives and breaking up families — a burden that in large part would be borne by children and outweigh any benefit derived from applying the criminal process.

Conclusion

This is an example of an issue where education is vital – we need to educate our legislators about the facts of the matter before they step in line with a government bill that would criminalize spanking. Once a law is passed, most parents would understandably not want to risk having their children removed from their homes and will likely abandon physical discipline.

If you want to uphold parental authority in child-rearing, please consider doing the following:

  • Pray for courage, grace, and winsomeness;
  • Read ARPA’s policy report on the matter at ARPACanada.ca (click on the publications menu)
  • Email your MP to ask for a meeting to discuss this matter – follow up with a phone call if they don’t respond. Take a friend/family member along with you;
  • Use the meeting to present them with the solid research and be sure to communicate your motivation so they don’t wrongly conclude we are seeking to hurt children in any way;
  • Spread the word – share this article and encourage others to do the same.

End Notes

  1. Gershoff ET, Grogan-Kaylor A. Spanking and child outcomes: Old controversies and new meta-analyses. Journal of Family Psychology. 2016.
  2. Larzelere RE. A review of the outcomes of parental use of nonabusive or customary physical punishment. Pediatrics. 1996;98:824-828.
  3. Larzelere RE. Child outcomes of nonabusive and customary physical punishment by parents: An updated literature review. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review.2000;3:199-221.
  4. Horn IB, Joseph JG, Cheng TL. Nonabusive physical punishment and child behavior among African-American children: A systematic review. Journal of the National Medical Association. Sep 2004;96(9):1162-1168.
  5. Larzelere RE, Kuhn BR. Comparing child outcomes of physical punishment and alternative disciplinary tactics: A meta-analysis. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review. 2005;8:1-37.
  6. Paolucci EO, Violato C. A meta-analysis of the published research on the affective, cognitive, and behavioral effects of corporal punishment. Journal of Psychology. 2004;138:197-221.
  7. Ferguson CJ. Spanking, corporal punishment and negative long-term outcomes: A meta-analytic review of longitudinal studies. Clinical Psychology Review. 2013;33:196-208.
  8. Roberts MW, Powers SW. Adjusting chair timeout enforcement procedures for oppositional children. Behavior Therapy. 1990;21:257-271.
  9. Bean AW, Roberts MW. The effect of time-out release contingencies on changes in child noncompliance. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology. 1981;9:95-105.
  10. Day DE, Roberts MW. An analysis of the physical punishment component of a parent training program. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology. 1983;11:141-152.
  11. Roberts MW. Enforcing chair timeouts with room timeouts. Behavior Modification. 1988;12:353-370.
  12. Larzelere RE, Baumrind D. Are spanking injunctions scientifically supported? Law and Contemporary Problems. 2010;73(2):57-88.
  13. Tennant FS, Jr., Detels R, Clark V. Some childhood antecedents of drug and alcohol abuse. American Journal of Epidemiology. 1975;102:377-385.
  14. Gunnoe ML. Associations between parenting style, physical discipline, and adjustment in adolescents’ reports. Psychological Reports: Disability & Trauma. 2013;112(3):933-975.
  15. Ellison CG, Musick MA, Holden GW. Does conservative Protestantism moderate the association between corporal punishment and child outcomes? Journal of Marriage and Family. 2011;73(5):946-961.
  16. Gershoff ET, Grogan-Kaylor A, Lansford JE, et al. Parent discipline practices in an international sample: Associations with child behaviors and moderation by perceived normativeness. Child Development. 2010;81(2):487-502.

A version of this article first appeared in the July/August 2016 issue under the title “New spin – same flawed research.” Mark Penninga is the Executive Director of ARPA Canada.


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