In an article late last year, “Spanking has no place in Canada, period” – Globe and Mail reporter André Picard argued that physical discipline is at best ineffective and at worst harmful. He concludes it is “well past time” that the government scrap Section 43 of the Criminal Code, making spanking illegal.
The truth is that physical discipline, when administered in keeping with Canadian law, not only has better outcomes than other disciplinary techniques, but is preferred by children as less cruel than other techniques, such as privilege loss or isolation. We can learn from countries that have gone ahead with banning spanking, and have regretted it.
How can Picard and many well-intentioned child advocates get this issue so wrong? Part of the problem is that they go only skin deep into the research. Picard notes:
“there has been a significant body of research showing that the real harm from spanking and other forms of corporal punishment is not the immediate physical harm, but the lasting psychological harm.”
That is about as deep as almost any mainstream media analysis goes. But if we dig deeper, we discover that the truth is far more nuanced and, in some respects, completely contradicts the mainstream spin replicated in Picard’s article.
Digging into the data
Picard cites a 2012 American Academy of Pediatrics study that correlates harsh physical punishment with higher rates of mental illness and drug and alcohol abuse. He correctly acknowledges that this is correlation, not proof that spanking causes these things. This is an important distinction that is lost on almost all the research that attracts mainstream attention. And the distinction matters.
It could well be that aggressive children were spanked more often because they were aggressive. The heavy reliance on correlational evidence makes even the most effective disciplinary tactics appear harmful. Dr. Elizabeth Gershoff, a well-known researcher on the topic, concluded:
…if we found that people who have undergone radiation treatment have a higher likelihood of having cancer, we should not conclude that the treatment is the problem or that it doesn’t work.
Will anti-spanking advocates follow their logic and also argue that all discipline tactics should be banned?
We need to dig deeper into the research.
Picard, along with other anti-spanking activists, constantly appeal to research that lumps together harsh physical punishments, such as slapping and pushing, with the kind of mild physical discipline that our Supreme Court studied and approved.
In 2007, researchers conducted a scientific review of studies that compared physical discipline with alternative methods. Twenty-six studies from the past fifty years were examined. They also examined the “optimal” type of physical discipline – conditional spanking. As reflected in the parameters laid out by our Supreme Court, conditional spanking is non-abusive, and done sparingly and under control. The conclusion of the study: “Conditional spanking was more strongly associated with reductions in noncompliance or antisocial behavior than 10 of 13 alternate disciplinary tactics.”
In other words, when physical discipline is administered in keeping with Canadian law, it came out as good as, or better than, all other forms of discipline studied.
Not only can physical discipline be more beneficial than other commonly used methods, a 2006 study came to another surprising finding:
non-physical punishment was most frequently regarded [by children] as the worst punishment ever received, with 50% of [study members] naming at least one non-physical punishment method such as privilege loss.
As well-intentioned as Picard and others may be, before they proceed further with their anti-spanking crusade, they should talk to the children. Children who have experienced appropriate physical discipline will often prefer it because it resolves the matter in a timely way and makes it less likely to occur again. Contrast that with what so many parents revert to otherwise (yelling, forced isolation, long-term privilege loss and extended grumpiness) and we begin to understand why physical discipline is the preferred choice for many honest children.
Lessons learned from Sweden
Picard argues that 51 countries have outlawed spanking, and it is time for Canada to follow suit. But he fails to look at what has happened in those countries.
Take Sweden. In 1979, Sweden was the first country to ban spanking. The statistics coming from Sweden since then are downright shocking. Following the ban there was a 519% increase in criminal assaults by children under the age of 15 (born after the ban) against children age 7-14. Even more troubling, 46-60% of the cases investigated under the law resulted in children being removed from homes. That totaled 22,000 children in 1981, compared with 163 in Norway and 552 in Finland.
Picard cites the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as another reason to ban spanking. If the residential school legacy has taught us anything, it is that we better be certain we are doing the right thing when forcefully removing thousands of children from their parents’ homes.
As a side note, New Zealand followed Sweden’s example and adopted anti-spanking legislation in 2007. Just two years later, a whopping 87% of voters in a public referendum asked that the law be rescinded.
It is time to drop the rhetoric and take the time to study the issue before criminalizing a form of discipline used by half of Canadian parents.
Mark Penninga is the executive director of ARPA Canada. He has a MA in political science from the University of Lethbridge and has authored a policy report and numerous articles on corporal discipline.