Academic journal article Law and Contemporary Problems

Are Spanking Injunctions Scientifically Supported?

Academic journal article Law and Contemporary Problems

Are Spanking Injunctions Scientifically Supported?

Article excerpt



This special issue on corporal punishment addresses arguments for and against prohibitions of the historically widespread practice of disciplinary spanking by parents. A recent national survey estimated that ninety-four percent of American parents of four- and five-year-olds spanked their children at least occasionally. (1) Yet there is a growing trend for countries to ban corporal punishment by parents through family law or criminal law. (2) This article evaluates whether the current empirical evidence supports spanking prohibitions.

Does the scientific evidence show that spanking is invariably detrimental regardless of how it is used? Or can parents use spanking in nonharmful or beneficial ways, at least under some conditions? Should all corporal punishment be enjoined, or should a legal distinction be retained between spanking and physical abuse? These crucial questions compare the validity of two scientific perspectives, "anticorporal punishment" and "conditional corporal punishment," (3) both of which are represented in this issue. (4) In this article, we will use the terms spanking prohibition and conditional spanking to differentiate these two positions. The conditional-spanking viewpoint holds that spanking may be an appropriate disciplinary option under some conditions but not others. The conditions under which spanking may be a viable disciplinary method need to be investigated before applying a blanket prohibition. Because advocates of both positions are opposed to overly severe and abusive corporal punishment, (5) evidence about the effects of excessively severe punishment does not differentiate the two positions and is not directly relevant to the desirability of spanking prohibitions. Evidence about using corporal punishment too severely would be indirectly relevant, however, if it could be shown that a spanking prohibition and conditional spanking differ in their abilities to prevent disciplinary actions from escalating to physical abuse, an issue addressed in section V.

Spanking-prohibition and conditional-spanking positions differ, too, on whether the use of disciplinary spanking is always or generally harmful in a cost-benefit analysis. The spanking-prohibition viewpoint necessarily implies that any nonharmful or beneficial subset of parental corporal punishment is so small a proportion or so minor in its benefits that it is outweighed by the detrimental effects of retaining any spanking option for parents.

To justify removing this option from parents, spanking prohibitionists first need to show causal evidence that spanking is detrimental in situations where it is considered most appropriate by parents, children, and psychologists. (6) Second, prohibitionists need to compare the effects of spanking with the effects of alternative disciplinary tactics available to parents in the same disciplinary situations. Third, prohibitionists need evidence that parenting improves when parents are prevented from using disciplinary spanking. Fourth, prohibitionists need to show that adverse outcomes associated with spanking remain associated with spanking after eliminating the influences of several prevalent confounding variables, such as difficult child temperaments and socioeconomic disadvantages. If these confounding factors together account for the associations between spanking and adverse outcomes, those associations would be spurious and therefore misinterpreted as causal influences of spanking.

It is well known that children thrive under authoritative parenting, (7) recently confirmed by ten-year outcomes from Baumrind's classic longitudinal data. (8) Authoritative parenting combines nurturance, give-and-take communication, and support for age-appropriate independence with firm, confrontive discipline and maturity demands. It is critically distinguishable from authoritarian parenting, which is equally firm but shares none of the other aspects of authoritative parenting and is characterized instead by the use of hostile verbal discipline and severe corporal punishment. …

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