Corporal punishment takes research hit

At some time or another, most children in the United States experience corporal punishment, such as spanking, without suffering harmful effects on their behavior or mental health. However, studies conducted over the past 62 years indicate that the more often and the more harshly parents resort to physical reprimands, the more likely their kids are to become aggressive, delinquent, and depressed, contends psychologist Elizabeth T. Gershoff of Columbia University.

In the absence of reports of any long-term benefit to behavior from corporal punishment, “we as psychologists cannot responsibly recommend its use,” she concludes. Her analysis of 88 past studies of corporal punishment appears in the July Psychological Bulletin.

Children do comply with their parents’ demands more quickly just after being physically punished, Gershoff says. However, there’s no evidence that the practice instills a sense of right from wrong to guide behavior when parents aren’t around, in her view.

Parents who use corporal punishment are more likely than those who don’t to physically abuse their children, Gershoff adds. Physical abuse is defined as inflicting injuries through acts such as punching, kicking, and burning.

Several commenters registered contrasting views in the same issue of Psychological Bulletin. The data indicate only that some parents use excessive force in punishing their children, contributing to later problems for those kids, say psychologist Diana Baumrind of the University of California, Berkeley and her colleagues. “A blanket injunction against spanking is not justified by the evidence,” they argue.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.