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From Newsweek

Some Kids Are Never Spanked - Do They Turn Out Better?

For decades, research on spanking was challenged by the lack of a control group to compare against - almost all kids (90+%) had been spanked at least once, at some time in their early lives. New research shows that now up to 25% of kids are never spanked, so it's a fair question: How are they turning out? Are they turning out better? Surprisingly, they're not.


In NurtureShock, we described some extensive cross-ethnic and international research on spanking by Drs. Jennifer Lansford and Ken Dodge.

Their data suggested that if a culture views spanking as the normal consequence for bad behavior, kids aren’t damaged by its occasional use. 

To explain this shocker, the scholars suggested that in cultures or communities where spanking is common, parents are less agitated when administering spankings. Spanking almost never—when combined with losing your temper—can be worse than spanking frequently.*  

But what about the third option: not spanking them at all?

Unfortunately, there’s been little study of this, because children who’ve never been spanked aren’t easy to find. Most kids receive physical discipline at least once in their life. But times are changing, and parents today have numerous alternatives to spanking. The result is that kids are spanked less often overall, and kids who’ve never been spanked are becoming a bigger slice of the pie in long-term population studies.

One of those new population studies underway is called Portraits of American Life. It involves interviews of 2,600 people and their adolescent children every three years for the next 20 years. Dr. Marjorie Gunnoe is working with the first wave of data on the teens. It turns out that almost a quarter of these teens report they were never spanked.

So this is a perfect opportunity to answer a very simple question: are kids who’ve never been spanked any better off, long term?

Gunnoe’s summary is blunt: “I didn’t find that in my data.”

The study asked teens how old they were when their last spanking occurred, and how often they would get spanked as a child. That was cross-referenced against the data on bad outcomes we might fear spanking could lead to years later: antisocial behavior, early sexual activity, physical violence, and depression.

But Gunnoe went further. She also looked at many good outcomes we might want for our teens, such as academic rank, volunteer work, college aspirations, hope for the future, and confidence in their ability to earn a living when they grow up. Studies of corporal punishment almost never look at good outcomes, but Gunnoe wanted to really tease out the differences in these kids.

What she discovered was another shocker: those who’d been spanked just when they were young—ages 2 to 6—were doing a little better as teenagers than those who’d never been spanked. On almost every measure.

A separate group of teens had been spanked until they were in elementary school. Their last spanking had been between the ages of 7 and 11. These teens didn’t turn out badly, either.

Compared with the never-spanked, they were slightly worse off on negative outcomes, but a little better off on the good outcomes.

Only the teenagers who were still being spanked clearly showed problems.

Gunnoe is now looking at how parenting styles might explain these patterns—especially the mystery of why the never-spanked are doing worse than expected.

Gunnoe doesn’t know what she’ll find, but my thoughts jump immediately to the work of Dr. Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan, whom we wrote about in NurtureShock. Schoppe-Sullivan found that children of progressive dads were acting out more in school. This was likely because the fathers were inconsistent disciplinarians; they were emotionally uncertain about when and how to punish, and thus they were reinventing the wheel every time they had to reprimand their child. And there was more conflict in their marriage over how best to parent, and how to divide parenting responsibilities.

I admit to taking a leap here, but if the progressive parents are the ones who never spank (or at least there’s a large overlap), then perhaps the consistency of discipline is more important than the form of discipline. In other words, spanking regularly isn’t the problem; the problem is having no regular form of discipline at all.



* As we wrote in our book, even in cultures were spanking is more common, its use is still very rare (perhaps once or twice in a kid's entire lifetime), and we aren't talking about severe beatings of a child, but a swat across the behind. Additionally, the work of Dodge and Lansford (who remain adamantly against corporal punishment) suggests that, in societies that consider spanking unacceptable, parents still spank—but they hit in anger—when they've lost control.

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