Elizabeth Gershoff is a developmental psychologist and associate professor at the Department of Human Development and Family Science at the University of Texas at Austin. One important part of her research is about the effects of physical punishment on children.
Gershoff has a number of interesting publications on the matter, such as:
—> The article “More Harm Than Good: A Summary of Scientific Research on the Intended and Unintended Effects of Corporal Punishment on Children” published in the journal Law and Contemporary Problems (a publication of Duke Law School) back in 2010. Go here for the full article.
—> The article “Corporal Punishment by Parents and Associated Child Behaviors and Experiences: A Meta-Analytic and Theoretical Review” published in Psychological Bulletin in 2002. An online copy can be found here.
—> A report titled “Report on Physical Punishment in the United States: What Research Tells Us About Its Effects on Children” from 2008. Can be found here.
—> The article “The Case Against Corporal Punishment of Children: Converging Evidence from Social Science Research and International Human Rights Law and Implications for U. S. Public Policy” from 2007 in the journal Psychology, Public Policy, and Law. Go here for the full text.
In this overview, I will focus on Gershoff (2008).
What is physical punishment of children?
The Gershoff (2008) report defines physical punishment as “the use of physical force with the intention of causing the child to experience bodily pain or discomfort so as to correct or punish the child’s behavior” and argues that it includes such actions as slapping a child’s hand, hitting children with a paddle, washing a child’s mouth with soap and torture-like actions like forcing a child to sit in painful positions. The report also quickly points the difference between physical punishment and protective physical restraint, such as holding a child to prevent him or her from running into traffic. As far as I can tell, it is common for those who are in favor of physical punishment of children to equivocate these two actions in order to justify physical punishment.
A Long Series of Disturbing Findings
Gershoff (2008) lists a number of results from the research that delivers a decisive empirical blow against physical punishment of children. As far as prevalence goes 80% of American children have received physical punishment from their parents by the time they reach the 5th and over 70% of parents agree or strongly agree with the sentiment that “children sometimes need a good, hard spanking”
1. People who are more likely to use physical punishment on children have themselves been on the receiving end of physical punishment when they were children.
2. Physical punishment is detrimental to long-term compliance.
3. Physical punishment of children leads to less internalization of moral norms, more physical and verbal aggression, physical fighting and bullying, antisocial behavior and less ability for the child to feel empathy. In other words, the more physical punishment the child receives, the more disobedient the child becomes.The results cannot be explained by the fact that aggressive children receive more physical punishment from parents. Longitudinal studies show that more physical punishment the parents uses, the more aggressive behavior the child displays over time, even controlling for initial aggression. A randomized control trial supports this result.
4. The more physical punishment and the stronger it is, the more likely the child is to experience mental health issues as an adult, such as depression and anxiety as well as alcohol and drug use, even into adulthood. The mechanism is thought to be increased psychological distress.
5. All studies carried out on the issue shows that more physical punishment is associated with lower quality of the parent-child relationship.
6. The more a child is physically punished, the more likely he or she is to hit family members, spouse or dating partner.
7. Children who are subjected to physical punishment like spanking has a seven times higher risk of getting severely assaulted.
Why doesn’t physical punishment work?
The Gershoff (2008) report suggests a number of reasons, such as the fact that it does not teach children why their behavior was wrong, it does not teach children what appropriate behavior should have been used instead. it makes parents appear as social models, suggesting that violence is morally acceptable, children fear parents, and this damages the parent-child relationship etc.