Debunking Denialism

Defending science against the forces of irrationality.

There is No “Spanking Debate”

spanking article

An excellent article by journalist Lisa Belkin was posted over at Huffington Post a few days ago called Why Does Everyone Pretend There’s A ‘Spanking Debate’?. It is a decisive blow against physical punishment of children and a searing indictment of false balance in the media, giving equal time to science and quackery.

Sure, Huffington Post puts out a lot of articles that are crap, but this one is golden.

Spanking was a subject of debate on every parenting website on the continent during the past week, and I don’t understand why.

Yes, I know why it was a topic of conversation — the prestigious journal Pediatrics released a study early in the week showing a possible link between childhood spanking and mental health struggles later in that child’s life, and that was news worth talking about.

What I don’t understand is why it was a debate. By definition, that would require two sides. I see only one.

Precisely. There is no real debate. The evidence is clear-cut and it is against physical punishment of children. It is ineffective for obtaining long-term compliance. It is associated with more physical and verbal aggression and less capacity to feel empathy. Children who are physically punished are more likely to develop mental conditions as children and as an adult. It causes the relationship between the parent and child to deteriorate. The list of the negative impacts of physical punishment of children can be made long. In fact, calling it “spanking” is just an Orwellian way to make it sound less harmful.

A suitable analogy for vaccine denialism is made:

. In that way the spanking conversation is like the vaccine “debate.” In spite of no credible evidence of a link with autism, and many studies that tried and failed to find such a link, there are some minds that just won’t change.

Belkin also tackles some of the excuses people use for using physical punishment:

Your parents hit you, and you are okay? They probably smoked around you, too, and they didn’t make you wear a seatbelt, either, but we know better now. Also, might I respectfully ask how you know that you’re okay? Perhaps if your parents hadn’t hit their kids, you wouldn’t feel a need to hit your own?

It is the only thing that works when your children won’t listen? Swedish children are not running amok in the streets, and spanking has been illegal there since 1979. Sweden was the first of 32 countries — including Costa Rica, Israel, Kenya and most of Europe — to approve such a law.

Finally, Belkin points out the flawed nature of the he-said-she-said false balance in the media:

Some questions really don’t have two sides. “Is it okay to do something to your child that would land you in jail if you did it to a stranger on the street?” is one of those. You can phrase it other ways too — like “Is it okay to hurt a child because it serves your immediate goal when science shows it can lead to long-term harm?” But there is still just one answer.

And yet, we keep seeing it presented as a disagreement.

[...]

But there aren’t two sides. There is a preponderance of fact, and there are people who find it inconvenient to accept those facts.

Where, exactly is the debate?

Indeed, where exactly is the debate? Nowhere. It does not exist.

4 responses to “There is No “Spanking Debate”

  1. pulpjunk July 7, 2013 at 11:13

    I agree there is no debate in spanking, its child abuse

  2. Science Guy October 15, 2014 at 04:44

    No debate? Larzelere at Oklahoma State Universtiy:

    In a meta-analysis of 26 studies, Larzelere and a colleague found that an approach they described as “conditional spanking” led to greater reductions in child defiance or anti-social behavior than 10 of 13 alternative discipline techniques, including reasoning, removal of privileges and time out (Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 2005). Larzelere defines conditional spanking as a disciplinary technique for 2- to 6-year-old children in which parents use two open-handed swats on the buttocks only after the child has defied milder discipline such as time out.

    Gershoff herself admist: “Unfortunately, all research on parent discipline is going to be correlational because we can’t randomly assign kids to parents for an experiment. But I don’t think we have to disregard all research that has been done,”

    Correlation is not causation. Even arts students understand that.

    • Emil Karlsson October 15, 2014 at 10:05

      The quote you posted from the APA is taken out of context. You forgot to quote the last line (my bold):

      In a meta-analysis of 26 studies, Larzelere and a colleague found that an approach they described as “conditional spanking” led to greater reductions in child defiance or anti-social behavior than 10 of 13 alternative discipline techniques, including reasoning, removal of privileges and time out (Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 2005). Larzelere defines conditional spanking as a disciplinary technique for 2- to 6-year-old children in which parents use two open-handed swats on the buttocks only after the child has defied milder discipline such as time out.

      Gershoff says all of the studies on physical punishment have some shortcomings. “Unfortunately, all research on parent discipline is going to be correlational because we can’t randomly assign kids to parents for an experiment. But I don’t think we have to disregard all research that has been done,” she says. “I can just about count on one hand the studies that have found anything positive about physical punishment and hundreds that have been negative.”

      In other words, the science is settled: there are hundreds of studies against spanking and a handful in favor. Your comment shows how dangerous it is to rely on single studies in favor of something, when a more comprehensive review of published research strongly points in the opposite direction.

      The way to get around the limitation with correlational studies and the “what if it is just aggressive children that get spanked more?” objection is to control for baseline level of aggression. When that is done, the pattern of negative outcomes related to spanking persists.

      Gershoff, E. T. (2013). Spanking and Child Development: We Know Enough Now to Stop Hitting Our Children. Child Development Perspectives, 7(3), 133-137. doi: 10.1111/cdep.12038

      In the end, spanking is a method used by lazy and ignorant parents. It is clearly destructive, both in terms of the psychological well-being of the child and the parent-child relationship.

      Around 40 countries have now banned spanking. It is time that the rest of the world follows.

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