Throughout history spanking has been commonly viewed as necessary and effective mean of conditioning children to good behaviour. Partly the practice has religious roots, as Bible is often interpreted to require parental corporal punishment (Latif, 2003). Psychological research has yet been unable to draw conclusive understanding of whether and how corporal punishment affects children.
Over the past two or three decades corporal punishment of children has no longer been viewed as private family affair but an issue of public concern (Bachar et al., 1997). In increasingly many countries, including the whole Scandinavia, all corporal punishment of children is legally banned. In Britain, however, the government still accepts parental corporal punishment as “reasonable chastisement” (Gershoff, 2002).
Conflict on the topic elicits passionate debates within both private and public sphere and even psychologists and other professionals disagree over the use of corporal punishment (Holden, 2002). The controversial and emotionally charged nature of the topic highlights the need to approach the issue of corporal punishment and its effects on child behaviour through scientific and thus objective means, rather than simply relying on ideologically motivated arguments (Holden, 2002; Freeman, 2002).
In this paper we shall evaluate some of the psychological evidence that would support the full legal ban of corporal punishment of children in the UK and other countries. A good starting point is to look at Gershoff’s (2002) article, in which she investigates associations between parental corporal punishment and various child behaviours and experiences as well as how other factors might moderate or mediate such correlations. While causal inferences cannot be drawn from these studies, Gershoff (2002) also summarizes extensive amount of literature, which suggests reasons for abandoning the practice of spanking. Through word limit restrictions we shall focus on the findings of Gershoff’s empirical data, rather than summarizing her theoretical review. We will then look at the critical accounts published in conjunction with Gershoff’s study in Psychological Bulletin as well as Gershoff’s reply to the criticism.
The attempt to define corporal punishment is complex as “there is no one definition that would satisfy all researchers and cover all cases and conditions of child spanking” (Latif, 2003:1). Straus (1994) defines corporal punishment as “the use of physical force with the intention of causing a child to experience pain but not injury for the purposes of correction or control of the child’s behaviour” (p.4; cited in Gershoff, 2002).
This definition was also used by Gershoff (2002) in her meta-analysis of 88 studies including 62 years of collected data. Gershoff looked for both positive and negative associations between parental use of corporal punishment and 11 child behaviours and experiences, including moral internalization, immediate compliance, delinquent behaviour, aggression, quality of relationship with parent and physical abuse from the parent. The study found correlations, but no causal link, between corporal punishment and all the eleven variables of which ten were negative: such as increased aggression (Gershoff, 2002).
The two largest effect sizes with corporal punishment in Gershoff’s (2002) meta-analysis were increased risk of becoming an abuse victim and immediate compliance with parental demands. Gershoff states: “The fact that these disparate constructs show the strongest links to corporal punishment underlines the controversy over this practice” (cited in Campbell, 2002:1). The potential tendency of spanking to escalate into physical abuse has influenced the social policy implications in many countries to legally ban the practice (Gershoff, 2002).
Holden (2002) points out that higher level of immediate compliance after being hit is not a meaningful positive outcome, when recognizing that it applies only for short-term compliance. Moreover, the fact that corporal punishment was not positively associated with moral internalization strongly suggests that spanking is ineffective method in child rearing (Holden, 2002). Many authors agree that spanking promotes children’s external rather than internal attributions for their behaviour.
In this way the fear of punishment and physical pain will make children to obey in the presence of their parents but not when they are absent, while as explaining the reasoning for socially acceptable behaviour has been shown to be effective method in promoting long term compliance through internal motivation for good behaviour (Beck, 1996; Freeman, 2002). Another negative consequence of the use of spanking can be that the adult may lose the child’s confidence and the child may withdraw avoiding the administrator of the physical punishment (Beck, 1996).