Study Links Childhood Spanking To Violent Future Relationhips

Spanking doesn't work. unguryanu/Shutterstock

Although arguably not as common as it once was, spanking a child as a punitive measure still occurs more often than you might think, and evidence is mounting that it’s not a wise thing to do. Some academics remain skeptical when it comes to connecting spanking with future behavioral problems, but the general consensus is to err on the side of caution and not do it.

Adding fuel to the fire is a fresh study published in the Journal of Pediatrics. Led by a team of behavioral experts at the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) at Galveston, it concludes that childhood corporal punishment correlates with increased incidences of violence in future, young adult relationships.

“Even after controlling for several demographic variables and childhood physical abuse, [our study] adds to the growing literature demonstrating deleterious outcomes associated with corporal punishment,” the team explain.

The study focused on the lives of young adults, both male and female, aged 20. They were originally recruited for a longitudinal (long-term) study when they were still in the 9th or 10th grade in various Texas high schools – meaning they were originally 14 to 16 years of age.

The participants were queried throughout their years with respect to both corporal punishment and physical abuse, as well as times they experienced or perpetrated violence in their relationships.

Out of a modest population of 758 young adults, 19 percent reported that they were themselves physically violent in their relationships. Conversely, 68 percent reported that they were the victims of corporal punishment as children.

A painstaking analysis of the two found a strong positive correlation between them. Yes, correlation isn’t causation, but the team controlled for sex, age, ethnicity, parental education, and physical abuse.

Teenage relationships are more likely to be violent if corporal punishment was a factor earlier on in life. View Apart/Shutterstock

This paper doesn’t stand in isolation; there are several other robust studies that come to much the same conclusion. One particularly notable example, a 2006 study looking at young adults across 19 different countries, found a strong link between childhood corporal punishment and violence in university-age relationships.

“We know that experiencing adverse child events (ACEs) is linked to a host of short- and long-term mental and physical health problems, and spanking should be considered an ACE,” lead author Professor Jeff Temple, the director of Behavioral Health and Research at UTMB, tells IFLScience.

“This study is just one piece of evidence – but it adds to the growing body of literature that spanking is harmful and should be discontinued,” he adds.

“Parents, legislators, and educators should be provided with this information so that we can make more informed decisions.”

This work follows on from a recent meta-analysis focusing on childhood spanking, one that caused something of a furore back in 2016. The team behind that research evaluated 75 pre-existing studies and found that for the majority of cases, spanking was linked to 13 out of 17 negative behavioral and psychological problems.

As pointed out by Scientific American, the study was lauded for focusing on just spanking, not other forms of corporal punishment. Some worry that by taking all forms into account, it exaggerates the dangers of spanking.

Although definitive cause and effect associations were considered to still be elusive by some researchers, Temple says the expansive study makes a “strong case for the detrimental effects of spanking,” despite the criticisms of the paper remaining fair.

All in all, “there is mounting evidence that corporal punishment has a negative impact on health and does not work,” he notes.

Undoubtedly, more research will be conducted on this difficult subject. This new paper is certain to reignite a sometimes acrimonious debate, but it's probable that, as time goes on, spanking will be seen as something increasingly archaic and erroneous.

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