Science Finally Proves That Spanking Leads To Terrible, Terrible Things!….Right?

Posted: July 3, 2012 in Uncategorized
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ImageYou probably heard that a study was released this week by the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics that the media has finally put the nail in the coffin on whether parents should spank their kids. The headlines all read something along the lines of, “scientists find that spanking leads to mental health problems,” or “spanking linked to increased rick of mental health problems and psychopathy,” and the liberals rejoiced. The Timeout Mafia had finally won as science ruled in their favor.


Well, actually, no. That’s not necessarily the case. At all.

I am a psychology researcher, not a journalist. I have reviewed and/or edited countless studies, and I have authored two studies about psychological distress and psychological health that are currently in press. Allow me to serve you as a middleman and interpret this study, just this once. Then, I expect you to go do the reading yourself next time.

Fact is that neither the study nor the media are correct in their conclusion that spanking leads to increased risk of mental health problems. Shocker, right?

The study says that it took a list of preexisting responses from 34,653 Americans under the age of 20 about their recollection of punishment and physical/emotional abuse as children and then compared their responses to their actual state of mental health.

(If you’re immediately rereading that sentence because the idea of basing a study on someone’s recollection of the type and severity of their own childhood punishment sounds a little silly, you’re right to. In fact, the authors note this as a limitation of the study as a whole.)

The real issue comes in with the way the actual survey that the participants were given that the results are based on was used. The survey data used is taken from the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions. The NESARC is a widely used survey that details people’s psychological wellbeing, negative childhood experiences, etc., and simply lists data bout them while making inferences about the relationships between facts. The section of the NESARC used to gauge childhood punishment was called the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, which includes scales (the framework for measuring a participant’s responses) from the Conflict Tactics Scale and the Childhood Trauma Questionnaire.

Now, the actual questions asked in this section of the survey about their childhood abuse is worded this way:

“As a child how often were you ever pushed, grabbed, shoved, slapped, or hit by your parents or any adult living in your house?”

Sounds pretty harsh, right? That’s because it is. And here comes the deception.

The study says that it excluded any responses that were considered “more severe than ‘customary’ physical punishment (ie, spanking).” These responses included severe physical, emotional, or sexual abuse. But, the sentence you read above, including pushing/grabbing/shoving/hitting, was not excluded as long as it didn’t branch into the “severe” category they noted as excluded. However, in the context they say that punishment is “considered ‘customary’” in the same way that spanking is.

Just so we’re on the same page here, if you push/grab/shove/hit your kid, you are a bad parent. That ain’t loving correction, that’s anger. There is a clear set of instruction throughout the Bible about ways to livingly correct and discipline your child using physical punishment. If you’re engaging in physical punishment like this study dictates as customary, I would urge you to take your family and seek prayer and counseling from your church or from a Christian authority on parenting. Condemn me if you will, but pushing/grabbing/shoving/hitting is not filled with love and needs to be corrected. If you’re a mother or a child who is on the receiving end of that physical punishment, I urge you to reach out to someone for help. It isn’t natural, it isn’t Biblical, and it isn’t loving. There is help, there is hope, and you’renot alone.

So, despite the fact that the data on physical punishment in childhood is being collected based on a wide array of physical harm that is not actually customary forany loving parent, they say it’s all equitable to spanking. Based on that false notion, they claim in the discussion section that parents should be discouraged from physically disciplining their children in any way for any reason.

This is essentially the same as saying that because eating 72 large orders of French fries from McDonald’s causes adverse gastrointestinal health problems that you shouldn’t eat any kind of potatoes for any reason.

What the data does in fact reveal, however, is what they say they know already in the introduction: that physical harm to children beyond normal spanking can lead to mental health problems in adulthood. This is what we, in the psychology profession, like to call “common sense” or “duh, you needed science to tell you that?” findings. Aside from this correlation, the study reveals little else.

The conclusions of the study are drawn inaccurately from the data because of what’s called a “methods assumption.” The authors make an arbitrary decision about what something is, and then from there the whole study is iffy. Mix that with the other numerous variables that the authors don’t address (like the nature or consistency of physical discipline) and the fact that they ignore their most telling finding – that the more educated and wealthy parents are, the more their kids reported harsh physical punishment – and you basically have a textbook case of flimsy science with even worse reporting. It’s almost like they didn’t care.

But oddly enough, most of the responses I’ve seen to this study either blindly accept it as true and say they knew it all along, blindly accept it as true and say they won’t spank anymore, or blindly accept that it’s true and say that they will keep doing it because their parents did it and they turned out fine. But everyone is accepting the validity of a research study based on the commentary of media outlets rather than actually reading the study.

Now, reading research studies is intimidating for several reasons, especially for lay people.

  1. Lay people usually don’t understand rules of validity and reliability in research, terms and practices of correlation and experimentation, or implications of method and interpretation. Which is fair. This means they’ll be reading lots of words, but not knowing what any of it means.
  2. Trying to review or refute a research study is not something easily done, even for researchers. Years of effort could have gone into a study, and simply dismissing it is not only difficult, but it’s irresponsible. Numerous peer reviews and consideration should go into confirming or upholding reliability and validity in a study.
  3. Research studies are quite lengthy and very dense in content and include many references to other studies that are also very lengthy and dense in content. Many lay people simply don’t have the time or discipline to read through and process all of this information appropriately.
  4. If the media says a study found something, then many people often just accept that to be the case because they expect media outlets not to distort science.

Reframing the facts or context of science by media is often done intentionally to serve an agenda. You won’t find many honest folk in media who just report the facts as-is.

Of course, even if someone dismissed the media commentary on the study and went to read it for him or herself, they might still be confused by the facts conveyed by data coupled with the conclusions drawn from the authors of the study. This confusion could usually be caused by one of two big reasons.

  1. The data seems to communicate something different from the conclusions being presented.
  2. The reader doesn’t understand the information or measures being used in the data or the means of interpreting that data.

Those reasons may arise because the reader is not familiar with the work, or, the authors may have miscalculated or misinterpreted the data (either intentionally or unintentionally).

Now, this particular study falls victim to both issues discussed above. Firstly, the data is being framed and misinterpreted by the authors of the study. Then, in turn, it is being reported mainstream because the agenda is to influence parenting styles based on the trust factor built in to the media’s ability to relay scientific fact. If CNN says it, it must be true!

And the media is banking on the fact that you will believe exactly what they say. Because you usually do. That’s the problem.

So, parents can breathe a sigh of relief over the spanking issue. Mainstream science has not ruled definitively on the matter (mainly because if they did, it’d be shooting themselves in the foot. See: cancer research, abortion/mental health problems research, adult stem cell research, etc. If they can’t make cash on it, they don’t want to tell you about it). Good parents can keep lovingly disciplining their children in accordance with the Bible, and liberals can keep telling you about how science says you’re a bad parent. Then, you can send them to this article and be done with them (joking…kind of).

Here’s the actual study itself:

Now that you’re educated on psychology research, feel free to write your local news affiliate who is reporting on this study and tell them what you think about it. Then, the next time a study comes out that claims it has linked one thing to another, read it and judge it on its own merits before you close the book on the topic.

This ends today’s lesson.

  1. Liz says:

    A disturbing new study finds that studies are disturbing! You’re great

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