Moderate spanking leaves no lasting mark, study says

By Patricia McBroom, Public Affairs

29 August 2001 | Occasional spanking does not damage a child’s social or emotional development, according to a long-term study of more than 100 families, reported last week by a campus psycholgist.

The research by Diana Baumrind and Elizabeth Owens, both research psychologists at Berkeley’s Institute of Human Development, calls into question the claim that any physical punishment is harmful to a child.

The study separates out parents who use spanking frequently and severely — resulting in evidence of harm — to focus on those who occasionally spank their children.

By “spanking,” Baumrind refers to striking the child on the buttocks, hands or legs with an open hand without inflicting physical injury and with the intention of modifying the child’s behavior.

The study also compares spanking with another kind of discipline, namely verbal punishment.

“I am not an advocate of spanking,” Baumrind told the American Psychological Association annual meeting in San Francisco. “But a blanket injunction against its use is not warranted by the evidence. It is reliance on physical punishment, not whether or not it is used at all, that is associated with harm to the child.”

The study of spanking in middle-class, white families was undertaken in response to anti-spanking advocates, who have claimed that physical punishment, by itself, has harmful psychological effects on children and hurts society as a whole.

These claims, Baumrind said, have not distinguished the effects of occasional mild to moderate spanking from more severe punishment. Nor have they taken into account factors like overall child-rearing patterns —from rejection, on the one hand, to warmth and explanation, on the other.

The study relies on a data base, drawn from longitudinal records of child rearing and child outcome in East Bay families collected at the Institute of Human Development between 1968 and 1980.

In addition to the rich archival material on parental styles and discipline, combined with independent observations and interviews with the children, Baumrind’s team created an instrument that rates parents on their strategies for using discipline.

A small minority of parents, from 4 to 7 percent, used physical punishment often and with some intensity — sometimes using a paddle or other instrument to strike the child, hitting on the face or torso, or lifting to throw or shake the child.

These parents, she said, “are rejecting, exploitative and impulsive. They are parents who punish beyond the norm.” When this group of parents is removed from the study, “you have very little to explain,” Baumrind said.


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