Research: To spank or not to spank? SMU studies show research can change minds about corporal punishment

Some parents who spank their children believe it’s an effective form of discipline. But decades of studies have found that spanking is linked to short- and long-term child behavior problems.

Is there any way to get parents to change their minds and stop spanking? Child psychologist George Holden, a professor in SMU’s Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences, wanted to see if parents’ positive views toward spanking could be reversed if they were made aware of the research.

Holden and three colleagues in the Department of Psychology used a simple, fast, inexpensive method to briefly expose subjects to short research summaries that detailed spanking’s negative impact. With Professor Alan Brown, Assistant Professor Austin Baldwin and graduate student Kathryn Croft Caderao, he carried out two studies: one with non-parents and one with parents. They found that attitudes were significantly altered.

“Parents spank with good intentions – they believe it will promote good behavior, and they don’t intend to harm the child. But research increasingly indicates that spanking is actually a harmful practice,” said Holden, lead author on the study. “These studies demonstrate that a brief exposure to research findings can reduce positive corporal punishment attitudes in parents and non-parents.”

The findings, “Research findings can change attitudes about corporal punishment,” have been published in the international journal Child Abuse & Neglect. The researchers believe the study is the first of its kind to find that brief exposure to spanking research can alter people’s views toward spanking. Previous studies in the field have relied on more intensive, time-consuming and costly methods to attempt to change attitudes toward spanking.

Research has found that parents who spank believe spanking can make children behave or respect them. That belief drives parental behavior, more so than their level of anger, the seriousness of the child’s misbehavior or the parent’s perceived intent of the child’s misbehavior.

In the first SMU study, the subjects were 118 non-parent college students divided into two groups: one that actively processed web-based information about spanking research; and one that passively read web summaries.

The summary consisted of several sentences describing the link between spanking and short- and long-term child behavior problems, including aggressive and delinquent acts, poor quality of parent-child relationships and an increased risk of child physical abuse.

The majority of the participants in the study, 74.6 percent, thought less favorably of spanking after reading the summary. Unexpectedly, the researchers said, attitude change was significant for both active and passive participants.

A second study replicated the first study, but with 263 parent participants, predominantly white mothers. The researchers suspected parents might be more resistant to change their attitudes. Parents already have established disciplinary practices, are more invested in their current practices and have sought advice from trusted individuals.

But the results indicated otherwise. After reading brief research statements on the web, 46.7 percent of the parents changed their attitudes and expressed less approval of spanking.

“If we can educate people about this issue of corporal punishment, these studies show that we can in a very quick way begin changing attitudes,” said Holden.

Written by Margaret Allen

> Read the full story at the SMU Research blog

About Kathleen Tibbetts

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