Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

Spanking hurts kids in the long run, too

By Michael MacKenzie, Special to CNN
updated 4:42 PM EDT, Tue October 22, 2013
A study finds that children who were spanked had more vocabulary and behavior problems when they were older.
A study finds that children who were spanked had more vocabulary and behavior problems when they were older.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Michael MacKenzie: Spanking gets results but can harm development
  • He says kids who are spanked are at greater risk for behavior, speech problems
  • MacKenzie: How parents discipline kids is tied to cultural, religious, family traditions
  • He says researchers and health practitioners must teach parents alternatives to spanking

Editor's note: Michael MacKenzie is an associate professor at the Columbia University School of Social Work. His research involves stress and risk in early parenting and the effects and reasons behind children going into and through the child welfare system.

(CNN) -- In my first job in high school stocking the shelves with fresh produce at the grocery store, I often saw parents struggling with misbehaving children. Some would scream, while others would spank their kids.

It was always awkward to witness, because I felt sympathy for both sides. Were the children choosing to act out because the parents were busy and stressed buying food? But surely the parents could think of a better way to handle a defiant child?

I'm now a researcher at the Columbia School of Social Work and a specialist in child welfare, and I have just completed a study of this very issue. Columbia colleagues Eric Nicklas, Jane Waldfogel and Jeanne Brooks-Gunn and I published findings in the journal Pediatrics (PDF) this week showing that the children who are spanked by their parents are at greater risk for later problems in both vocabulary and behavior.

Michael MacKenzie
Michael MacKenzie

We found that children who were spanked by their mothers at age 5, even relatively infrequently, went on to have higher levels of behavior problems at age 9, even after taking into account other family risk factors that also affect child behavior. Given the chicken vs. egg cyclical nature of this, we also controlled for earlier problems with the children to ensure that it wasn't just that kids who acted out were simply being spanked more.

And 5-year-olds who were spanked frequently, defined as two or more times a week, by their fathers also went on to have lower vocabulary scores at age 9, even after controlling for an array of other risk factors and earlier child vocabulary. This is an important finding, because few studies in this area have examined effects on cognitive development.

A leading researcher on child spanking, Elizabeth Gershoff from the University of Texas at Austin, correctly suggests that some of these cognitive effects may be indirect rather than a result of spanking only. Parents who spank may not talk to their children as often, or kids with behavioral problems may be more distracted at school. To account for some of these possibilities, we did control for a host of other family factors, such as the mom's IQ, the child's earlier verbal intelligence, the child's behavioral problems as well as a measure of how cognitively stimulating the home environment was. So, it appears that spanking is having an effect on vocabulary above and beyond those other factors.

Changing people's minds about something they care about by presenting data is a tough thing to do, particularly around something so emotionally laden as spanking.

Thinking back to my times in that grocery store and what the parents were going through, spanking actually worked for immediate compliance: It gets the child to stop misbehaving. The child stops grabbing food off the shelves; at home, the child stops touching the outlet or breaking his sister's toy, providing parents with immediate feedback that what they are doing is working. But that makes it more difficult to see what is happening in the long term.

How parents discipline their kids is intimately tied to cultural, religious and family traditions, including the meaning parents attach to their own experiences. Many of us say to ourselves, "I was spanked as a kid, and it made me a good person. So what's wrong with spanking my own kids?"

This is a very sensitive topic. That might explain why, even though the evidence is mounting that spanking leads to the very acting-out behavior most parents want to stop and even hurts a child's development, many parents in the United States continue to spank. More than half of the parents we questioned reported spanking their kids at age 3 and at age 5, even though our question just focused on spanking in the past month. Studies that simply look at whether children have been spanked at all find that the vast majority of American children are still spanked today.

Parents who are interested in exploring alternatives to spanking that might be a good fit for their family can talk to their pediatrician about effective strategies. They can also check out healthychildren.org from the American Academy of Pediatrics, which has some guides for parents on communication and discipline techniques.

Perhaps we researchers need to get better at telling the story. Families sometimes think we are accusing them of abusing their kids and challenging who they are as parents, and in turn they dismiss our findings as coming from out-of-touch academics. Most parents are doing the best they can by their children and must contend with advice from many corners, whether solicited or not.

Researchers and health practitioners must not lose sight of the burden and stress faced by so many families today, particularly since the tools we hope to see replace spanking sometimes require more upfront effort and consistency in implementation, which can be difficult to maintain without support.

We also need to do a better job of conveying to parents what they could do instead of spanking. Parents have a host of tools they can use -- talking, using time-outs and so on -- and all of us who see young parents and children can help demonstrate how effective these other forms of discipline can be.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Michael MacKenzie.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:46 AM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 1:43 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
updated 5:29 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Sun April 13, 2014
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
updated 3:06 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
updated 12:49 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
updated 10:16 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
updated 9:21 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
updated 1:31 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
updated 5:28 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Simon Tisdall: Has John Kerry's recent track record left Russia's wily leader ever more convinced of U.S. weakness?
updated 12:40 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Mel Robbins says Nate Scimio deserves credit for acting bravely in a frightening attack and shouldn't be criticized for posting a selfie afterward
updated 2:39 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Dr. Mary Mulcahy says doctors who tell their patients the truth risk getting bad ratings from them
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Peggy Drexler says the married Rep. McAllister, caught on video making out with a staffer, won't get a pass from voters who elected him as a Christian conservative with family values
updated 7:43 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
David Frum says the president has failed to react strongly to crises in Iran, Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela, encouraging others to act out
updated 4:57 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Eric Liu says Paul Ryan gets it very wrong: The U.S.'s problem is not a culture of poverty, it is a culture of wealth that is destroying the American value linking work and reward
updated 7:51 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Frida Ghitis writes: "We are still seeing the world mostly through men's eyes. We are still hearing it explained to us mostly by men."
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Chester Wisniewski says the Heartbleed bug shows how we're all tangled together, relying on each other for Internet security
updated 3:26 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Danny Cevallos says an Ohio school that suspended a little kid for pointing his finger at another kid and pretending to shoot shows the growth in "zero tolerance" policies at school run amok
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT