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Study Finds the Only Thing That May Soften the Harm of Spanking

Photograph by Twenty20

There have been no recent (scientific, peer reviewed) studies that have concluded spanking, in any form, does anything other than damage a child. Still, the practice persists.

Adding to the pile of evidence that spanking, as a method for behavior modification and "raising good kids," should stop is this new study published in the Journal of Family Psychology. It found that spanking 2-year-olds produced kids who were more aggressive later and who also had attention problems.

And only one thing that could potentially put the brakes on some of these harmful effects.

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The effects of corporal punishment carried out by fathers were especially pronounced, but a mother's discipline methods in a family with a spanking father could either exacerbate or mitigate the negative effects. So children who experienced regular spanking by their dads and also had moms who used harsh methods, the likelihood the child would experience problems later in their childhoods was greater. Those whose mothers showed warmth and use more positive parenting methods may have lowered the risk for later-in-life problems.

The study followed 500 children and their families from toddlerhood and in to adulthood. It was led by Marcos Mendez of Kansas State University's Department of Family Studies and Human Services. His team of researchers used data taken from the Family Transitions Project, which was funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. The research data extends back to 1994 and includes participants in two earlier FTP projects.

The teamed used information for 218 couples, whom they interviewed and observed around the time their first-born child was 2. They interviwed the families again the following year.

Researchers took into account the child's behavior, whether at 2 years old the child showed significant signs of aggression or attention problems.

The family then set out to put together a puzzle too difficult for the child to do alone, while trained observers assessed how both parents interacted with the child. Parents were told to assist the child if necessary. Based on observations of this task, parents were rated on a scale for their response to the child's frustration or resistence in working on the puzzle. Scores were based on the harshness of the parents' interactions with the child.

Researchers also asked the parents, "How often do you spank or slap your child when your child does something wrong?” Spankers made up 67 percent of the mothers and 68 percent of the dads, who reported the slapped or spanked their kid at least sometimes.

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Mendez and his co-researchers found that clear, assertive and responsive guidance protects them from developing future problems with aggression and attention. Mom's warmth was also found to be important for the younger kids, though Mendez points out that more research to understand the connection in needed.

In short, what the study shows is that while spanking can get parents the behavior they want in the short term, it could be setting the stage for problems later on. And when co-parents don't see eye-to-eye on spanking as a workable form of discipline, positive parenting (at least from mothers) may help mitigate some of the damage.

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