I figured that spanking was long ago proved bad for kids, case closed. Yow, was I wrong!
An interview I posted last week with pediatrician Lawrence Diller, in which he said that firmer discipline—including, in some cases, spanking—might keep kids from being medicated for ADHD, sparked passionate comment, both for and against spanking. And a piece on spanking that I wrote for a larger article on evidence-based discipline methods also has generated a lot of heat. Where I live in suburban Washington, D.C., you'd think that spanking had been eradicated from family life. But preschool teachers tell me that's not so; parents just don't talk about it. I asked Murray Straus, a professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire and probably the world's expert on spanking research, to tell me what he thinks is going on.
I thought nobody spanked small kids anymore. Yet your studies say that the vast majority of parents are spanking.
This is something that is experienced by over 80 percent of toddlers. It's dropped a little bit over the years but very little. There's more corporal punishment in the South, but the difference isn't that big. The only conclusion you can come to is that everyone hits toddlers.
You've been researching the effects of spanking for almost 40 years, and you think that it's unquestionably bad for kids. Yet many people say that science hasn't proved that it's harmful. Why is that?
They take the exceptions. There is 93 percent agreement in the studies that spanking is harmful. It leads to more antisocial behavior in childhood, as well as increased aggression, spousal abuse, and child abuse in adulthood. That's an almost unheard-of consensus in parenting studies.
I think it's also a human-rights issue. Just as adults have the right to live their life without fear of attack, children should do.
And despite these findings, you say that many experts, from Dr. Spock to the American Academy of Pediatrics, don't tell parents never to spank?
In no edition of his book did Spock say, "Never spank." He would say, "You should avoid it if you can." If you have a 2-year-old, you soon presume that you can't avoid it. That's in the nature of 2-year-olds. With toddlers, in a certain sense, nothing works—including spanking. In another sense, it all works. Most of us wouldn't be here today if spanking didn't work. But it has harmful side effects. One reason that prevalence hasn't gone down is that we're dealing with children who on the surface don't seem to respond to other things. Another is that the antispanking advice is "It's best to avoid it."
The American Academy of Pediatrics came out with a statement on corporal punishment in 1998. When I first read it, I thought, wow, after eight years of debate, they've finally done it. But after you look at it word for word, it says you should not hit kids under a certain age or over 6 or 7. Implicitly, it's free rein on kids between 2 and 6.
Were you spanked as a child?
No. My parents were not following the pattern of their time.
Yet many people, including me, would say, "I was spanked as a child, and I came out OK."
That's true. But the implication is false. That's what I was saying years ago, when I was resisting stopping smoking: "I've been smoking for 35 years, and I'm OK." I was one of the lucky ones; the death rate from lung cancer for heavy smokers is about 1 in 3. That same statistic means that two thirds will not get lung cancer.
So what's the harm?
It depends on the harmful side effect. Take physical aggressiveness, one aspect I've looked into—hitting a marital or dating partner. In one of our national surveys, among adults who were not spanked as kids, 6 or 7 percent had hit their partner in the past 12 months. Among those who were spanked the most, it goes up to 25 percent. That's still 75 percent who do not hit their partner that year.
James Dobson and other proponents of spanking as a disciplinary tool say it's OK if spanking is done in love. Yet you say spanking in love can lead to sexual problems in adulthood.
I think that's what most parents who spank do. There's only a minority of parents who are aggressive, mean people. Most spank because they want to correct the behavior of their child. They want the kid to grow up to be a good, law-abiding citizen. The harmful side effects occur despite that. One of them occurs in part because of that. One of my studies is on the relationship between corporal punishment as a child and being aroused by sadomasochistic sexual behavior. What I found is that the more kids were spanked, the more likely they would want to be spanked as adults while having sex. Most kids who are spanked don't develop an interest in being spanked while having sex, but a substantial number do, particularly when their parents were high in love and support. That maximizes the fusion of love and violence. If parents spank you and you hate them, that doesn't bring about a fusion of love and violence.