Will Spanking Make Your Kids Stupid?

A recent study sponsored by the American Academy of Pediatrics claims that “children who are spanked by their parents are at greater risk for later problems.” The study asserts that children who are spanked score lower on vocabulary tests and are more likely to be aggressive and break rules at school. The glaring weakness in the research – and in its reporting in the popular media – is that its definition of “spanking” is wide enough to drive a truck through.

Those who hold to spanking as a form of biblical discipline are well acquainted with this problem. The word has a semantic range as large as the national debt. It’s commonly used to refer to any form of physical discipline – whether the one administering it is a loving and godly parent or an alcoholic rage-monster, and whether the tool used is a hand, a wooden spoon, or a fraternity paddle. So as we assess the merits of a study like this one, we must be careful to define terms. And because the study’s authors failed to do that, their conclusions are spurious.

The biblical form of discipline advocated by many Christian parents is categorically different from what many people envision when they hear the word “spanking.” To many, the term connotes an angry parent who’s “had it up to here” with some unruly kids. She’s exhausted her regimen of I’m-counting-to-three and go-to-your-room and if-you-don’t-obey-right-now-you’ll-regret-it. In exasperation or maybe even violent aggression, she grabs her child, throws him over her knee, and administers a lashing to his backside, resulting in loud wails and a momentary reprieve from rebellion before the cycle begins again. And this is the more serene version. In extreme cases, the word “spanking” is co-opted by parents who are downright physically abusive and want a culturally acceptable term under which to hide their wicked behavior.

Will children who are spanked in this way grow up to be a) more aggressive and b) less verbal? You bet they will. Does the Christian version of spanking – biblical discipline – bear any resemblance to this picture? Hardly. To be sure, it does involve a parent using physical means to discipline and train a child. But in motive, in method, in means, and in outcome, it is something else entirely.

Therefore, any research study that asks a general question about “spanking” – without further clarification or explanation – is likely to generate disparate results that muddy the picture rather than making it clear. And that’s exactly what happened in this study. The researchers asked parents one simple question: “In the past month, have you spanked (child) because (he/she) was misbehaving or acting up?” This query fails to discern the respondents’ actual practice of spanking. The only thing we know is that all 1933 families studied used some form of physical discipline. We have no idea whether they beat their children in anger or lovingly disciplined them in obedience to Scripture. And it’s the HOW of spanking, not the WHAT, that makes the difference.

At the very least, this study is guilty of poor method. At the most, it may reflect an attempt to manipulate the data to sway public opinion against spanking. The report’s authors reveal their bias in the first paragraph: “Corporal punishment remains a widely endorsed parenting tool in US families, and the United States stands out as one of the few high-income countries that have not followed Sweden’s lead in banning spanking. This is despite the warnings of the American Academy of Pediatrics about the potentially deleterious effects of spanking…” Welcome to the “objectivity” of modern social science.

In the face of such prejudiced research, Christian parents need to remain resolute in their commitment to biblical discipline. The academic elite will continue to publish dubious studies that reinforce their foregone conclusions. The media will continue to seize upon sensational stories of abusers who defend their actions under the rubric of “spanking.” And activists will continue to rack up miles on their Volvos as they lobby for the US to be more like Sweden. Meanwhile, Christian children will continue to grow up respectful, submissive, and self-controlled due to the proper and biblical use of spanking. And that’s what will win the day in the end.

In the meantime, expect to have lots of terse conversations with friends, in-laws, and babysitters who can’t believe that you – [gasp] – spank your children. And who can’t understand how they could still be smart and well-behaved.

[If this post raises questions you’d like to explore further, consider joining us for the Raising Godly Kids conference, where we’ll talk about this and much more.]

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  1. I think you’re criticizing this study for not answering a question that the authors didn’t set out to ask. They didn’t examine whether your particular take of “biblical” corporeal punishment does affect childhood outcome.

    What they did do is try to control for as many variables as possible to see if any of them could explain the effect. Likely ones are measures of parental stress/depression/impulsivity (all of which might actually be pretty good indications of the manner in which a parent spanks – quick and angry lashing out vs the more measured version for which you advocate).

    However, given the controls for parental mental health (and a few others such as home stability, etc), it does seem that spanking, as it’s practiced by the population as a whole, does have a small adverse effect on child outcome when viewed on a systemic level. Remember, it’s a measure of the population and not an indication of how any individual child will respond to being spanked. Nor is it asking whether or not “biblical” spanking is right or wrong.

    So, yes, it’s true they didn’t define “spanking” for their study. It was based off of a large survey designed to provide a database containing a diverse array of information on parenting and child well-being. But, it would definitely be interesting to break down the population based on the type of spanking and parental attitudes surrounding corporeal punishment. But that’s not the point of the study. The point is that, whatever it is that the population is calling “spanking,” it’s by and large not good for kids. So, because spanking is likely to be broadly defined within the population (meaning, as the population practices it, it could range from the “biblical” version to the “I’ve-had-it-up-to-here” lashing out), a prudent recommendation to parents is that they stop doing whatever it is that they’re doing. Of course, the point that you’re trying to make is that perhaps another, better, solution would be to tell parents to spank “biblically.” In terms of population-level recommendations, however, it’s simpler to recommend that parents don’t. It’d be a more efficacious way to promote a positive childhood outcome than telling the population to go ahead and spank, while having to add the caveat that it needs to be done in a measured, “biblical” manner (as resisting the temptation to spank angrily is no easy task).

    Like all science, there’s always more to learn. And the fact that there’s more to learn or that the authors weren’t able to cover every possible angle is neither evidence of bias nor grounds to reject the value of the entire study. Nor is it legitimate grounds for fear mongering about Volvo-driving (seriously?) Swedish wannabes limiting the way you discipline your kids. Remember, this country is very conservative relative to Europe (much to my chagrin, but oh well) and it would be difficult to get very far with a legislation that puts a blanket-prohibition on spanking. (There hasn’t even been much by way of gun control legislation, despite the all-too-familiar news reports of mass shootings around the country).

    In fact, with future work, you could very well find that this study lends support for a “biblical” model of spanking. For instance, if you were to survey a representative sample of the population and find that most parents who spank do so in the wrong way (i.e. in burst of anger), maybe a reasonable conclusion would be that “biblical” corporeal punishment is the answer.

    So, I think an interesting future study would be a comparison of parental conceptions/practice of “spanking” in families that reported “yes” on the spanking question that practice “biblical” corporeal punishment vs those who also answered “yes” but haven’t don’t conceptualize their practice of spanking in the nuanced way you do.

    Additionally, it would be interesting to measure childhood aggression and vocabulary in evangelical families that practice “biblical” corporeal punishment vs. those that use other discipline methods. That would definitely get at the question you’re asking.

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