Scientists have a reputation of making philosophical claims and practical recommendations without a solid body of rigorous empirical research. Far be it from me to ruin the track record. Truth be told, the empirical research (and there’s lots of it) isn’t perfect. A lot of it’s shoddily done; the constructs (e.g., physical punishment) are poorly operationalized, the dependent measures are often cringe-worthy (e.g., self-report), etc. Furthermore – and this should come as no surprise whatsoever – none of the research I’m familiar with has been experimental. And as you know, correlation does not entail causation. But enough qualification. I’ll justify my position on smacking despite the methodological weaknesses of the studies after I summarize the findings of Elizabeth Gershoff’s (2002) meta-analysis of 88 empirical studies, and famous (and game-changing) Lansford et al. (2005) cross-cultural study.
Gershoff (2002) collected 88 studies from the past 4 decades, which looked at physical punishment that did not include anything that might be construed as physical abuse. She found that although physical punishment did increase immediate compliance (i.e., kids do what you want when you hit them, though this effect isn’t much stronger than the predictive power of physical punishment for criminality), this came as the cost of significantly less moral internalization, increased aggression as a child and adult, increased delinquent and anti-social behaviour, decreased parent-child relationship quality, worse mental health as a child and adult, and higher rates of child abuse as parents. But of course, Gershoff speculated that cultural acceptability might moderate these effects.
In 2005, Lansford et al. published a game-changing study, a collaboration of over a dozen researchers from all over the world, looking at the correlates of physical punishment in China, India, Kenya, Italy, the Philippines, and Thailand. As Gershoff (2002) speculated, cultural acceptability did indeed moderate the effects of physical punishment, but by no means did it render it innocuous. Even in countries in which the children themselves consider physical punishment to be normative, it increases anxiety and aggression.
So, as far as I know, there are no definitive studies on the matter. There are no elegant longitudinal studies looking at large samples of children from different cultures, socio-economic statuses, and <enter list of relevant demographic variables here>, following them throughout their lives to see if physical punishment has a detrimental effect on them. But I don’t think we need this kind of data to inform our opinions on this matter. What evidence we do have, as incomplete as it is, is overwhelmingly negative. There’s no evidence that it does any long term good, and there’s a whole bunch of evidence that it does a lot of harm, especially in cultures in which such punishment is not considered normative (by children, more significantly than by parents, the inflicters of the punishment). The most rational position on the matter is therefore to be against any form of physical punishment.
However, I realize that the legislative question is a different one from that of the effects of physical punishment. We don’t legislate against all harmful acts. We don’t legislate against bad parental habits with respect to diet, media exposure, etc. Why should we legislate against smacking? That’s a problem for political scientists and philosophers, I suppose, but I’ll say that if there was an option to vote for bills against feeding kids crap and letting them play gory games, I’d vote for it. Heck, I’d vote for legislation that required parents to pass some sort of parental competence exam. But this isn’t my field anymore, so I’ll pipe down.
- Jonathan Jong
- Gershoff, Elizabeth Thompson. 2002. Corporal Punishment by Parents and Associated Child Behaviors and Experiences: A Meta-Analytic and Theoretical Review. Psychological Bulletin 128: 539-579.
- Gershoff, Elizabeth Thompson. 2008. Report on Physical Punishment in the United States: What Research Tells Us About Its Effects on Children. Columbus, OH: Centre for Effective Discipline.
- Lansford, Jennifer E. 2005. Physical Discipline and Children’s Adjustment: Cultural Normativeness as a Moderator. Child Development 76: 1234-1246.