Spanking Good For Future Education, Income: Researchers

                   Spanked as a child?

A new peer-reviewed paper in the journal Pediatrics shows that girls are luckier than boys in avoiding spankings, that those who were spanked as children went on to greater education than those unfortunates biffed on the butts, and that those spanked had higher incomes as adults.

Yet in the paper’s abstract, we read

Harsh physical punishment in the absence of child maltreatment is associated with mood disorders, anxiety disorders, substance abuse/dependence, and personality disorders in a general population sample. These findings inform the ongoing debate around the use of physical punishment and provide evidence that harsh physical punishment independent of child maltreatment is related to mental disorders.

And then there are these summary headlines in the popular press:

The paper is “Physical Punishment and Mental Disorders: Results From a Nationally Representative US Sample” by Afifi and others. What Afifi did was to have a browse through the the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions and gleaned from that data those who had self-reported mental maladies and those who self-reported being spanked as a kid. This data was the result of face-to-face interviews with U.S. Census workers (surely government workers probing for intimate for-the-record details was no bar to honesty?).

Afifi, a Canuk, starts by telling us that, “The parent or caregiver’s right to use physical punishment has currently been abolished in 32 nations.” And is there a hint of lamentation when she continues, “Canada and the United States
are not included among these countries”?

Adults who answered at least “sometimes” to the question, “As a child how often were you ever pushed, grabbed, shoved, slapped or hit by your parents or any adult living in your house?” were classified as “having experienced harsh physical punishment.” Before questioning the use of harsh for something as small as being “grabbed”, let’s recall that Canada is a foreign country and they use words differently up there, eh?

A more rough-and-tumble interpretation of harsh would be “severe physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, physical neglect, emotional neglect, or exposure to intimate partner violence” But we can’t use this definition because the poor folks who admitted to suffering this kind of “harsh” treatment “were excluded from the current sample.” Sigh.

Afifi and crew then checked off whether each remaining individual scored highly on various questionnaires for “major depression, dysthymia, mania, hypomania, any mood disorder, panic disorder with or without agoraphobia, social phobia, specific phobia, generalized anxiety disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, agoraphobia, any anxiety disorder, any alcohol abuse/dependence, and any drug abuse/dependence.” She even grouped various of these into “clusters.” According to Tables 2 and 3 in the paper, they have 25 separate ways to be (to use a common Canadian phrase) a jelly donut short of a filling.

Anyway, the whole lot was fed into a series of logistic regression models, first adjusting for this, and then later adjusting for that. We can be grateful that Afifi eschewed the normally sacrosanct 0.95% confidence intervals and instead called “significant” those results which had p-values less than 0.01.

Unfortunately, after this promising start, Afifi forgot to adjust for all the different tests she ran. Using (for example), the Bonferroni method, to maintain that “0.01” level of significance, actual p-values would have to be 0.0004 or lower. That means a lot of the mental maladies Afifi thought were associated with mental maladies actually weren’t. Ah, well.

Then it appears she has sometimes mixed up the idea of confidence intervals and p-values. For example, in Table 1, “Widowed/divorced/separated” are given three asterisks (supposedly significant) with a confidence interval that includes 1 (which is not significant). And this happens in Table 2, too.

There were 20,607 individuals in the database (after culling). But only 1,258, or 6%, reported having remembered, or were willing to report to a government worker, “harsh” treatment. Only 6%? Really? I emphasize this to show that measurement error is in play here, which means (in frequentist theory) that p-values are too high.

The mean age of these folks was 48.4 plus-or-minus 0.2 years. Odd, that. And, for example, of those 1,258 “harshies” just 53 reported “Schizoid personality disorder”, yet this was “significantly” higher than the “un-grabbbed.” Small numbers here.

The authors also try to forget those results which appear at the start of this post: effects which show that “harsh” treatment can be good for some (the first link recognizes this). The big question any defender (even you) of this study must answer is: what other effects were positively associated with “harsh” treatment?

It is a disservice (at the least) to go into a database and look only for what you hope to find, to ignore evidence which does not support your theory. Yet that is what appears to have happened here.


  1. William Sears

    Quote: “The parent or caregiver’s right to use physical punishment has currently been abolished in 32 nations.”

    I like the weasel words. It is the right that has been abolished, not the physical punishment itself. Of course the later is impossible but we are invited to believe that in these countries physical punishment has been reduced (an unwarranted assumption).

    It also never occurs to researchers in sociological studies (?) that children are genetically related to their parents. An odd oversight.

    Finally, stop bashing Canadians, Briggs!

  2. Briggs

    William Sears,

    Bashing? O, Canada, I would never!

  3. William Sears

    Especially on the anniversary of the war of 1812. This war definitely needs a better name. How about the Loyalist War in honour of my ancestors?

  4. max

    3rd link, the one to the study itself, is returning a 404 for me.

  5. Wayne

    The same problem crops up in all of these articles that I’ve seen over the years. The discussion is framed in terms of “spanking” or “corporal punishment” or “physical discipline”, all of which should have the connotation of considered application. But when you delve down into the details, they’re talking about things like slapping, pushing, shoving, hitting, and a host of other activities whose connotation is a violent outburst.

    Yes, if your parents routinely got pissed off at you and pushed, shoved, slapped, and hit you, I can imagine it could lead to problems. But if your parents, after due consideration decided that your behavior required spanking, that’s another thing entirely. Spanking, done properly, is taken as seriously as a sort of capital punishment: it’s not doled out in situations where other measures are appropriate, it’s not doled out quickly or in anger, and it is the ultimate punishment for outright rebellion.

    This “study” is no different.

  6. Will

    I’m so glad you covered this one. I’ve been hearing about it all over the radio.

  7. Will

    Wayne: well said. There is a big difference between a beating and a spanking.

    I imagine that in homes where beatings/abuse happen, there is a certain amount of psychological warfare going on as well.

  8. Once again we get a failure to ask the right question. “Spare the rod spoil the child” does necessitate “Spank or your child will be a failure”.

    There is an amount of salt intake below which, your body starts behaving badly. There is an amount of salt above which your body will start behaving badly. Those amount vary from person to person. There is a broad range of salt intake that is “okay”. Debating the exact lines to too great an extreme is a good sign that the people debating have failed to comprehend the start point.

    If you are evaluating whether or not spanking is good or bad and measuring its goodness or badness, you failed to understand the question. Successful parenting is a non-linear coupled process. I have my own rules. They antagonize the study.

    1. Don’t reward behavior you would rather not observe.
    2. Don’t punish behavior you would like to see more of.
    3. Don’t discuss rules 1 and 2 in front of the children because of that couple above…

    You can bat nature and nurture around to your hearts content, untangling them perfectly another case of infinites gone wrong. The more you attempt to optimize the worse the result.

    If you manage to make spanking a reward, I hope that is part of your profession, because your efforts at parenting will suddenly become beyond calculation.

  9. Am I misunderstanding, or does this study — assuming away the problems you’ve identified — establish nothing more than a correlation between harsh physical punishment and poor mental health outcomes?

    What about a little causality?

    Could it be that where there is an associated A and B neither A causes B nor B causes A but that some C causes both A and B.

    For example, might not there be a category of people with mental health problems who both exhibit violent behaviour and pass on genes to their children which contain a predisposition to such mental health problems?

    Ever since Benjamin Spock — perhaps even before — the fingered culprit in any and every unfortunate adult has been the awful parenting skins of that person’s mum and dad.

    Horribly unfairly.

  10. JH

    “Spare the rod spoil the child”

    At least now I know why I am so rotten. I am also crazy due to the Grandma’s constant barrage of “you’ll be a pig in your next life if you don’t behave” when I was little. She didn’t mean a pet pig.

    Every child responds to different punishments in different ways. I don’t believe in spanking.

  11. dixonstalbert

    First Sentence of Paper:

    Physical punishment (also referred to as spanking, smacking, and corporal punishment) involves acts of hitting a child as a means of discipline.

    From the Page 3 of the paper:

    The term harsh physical punishment was used for this study because the measure includes acts of physical force beyond slapping, which some may consider more severe than “customary” physical punishment (ie, spanking)

    Despite the reference to ‘Spanking’ in the introduction, they actually chose to select based on “physical force beyond … spanking”.

    A more honest headline would be: “New Study shows using physical force beyond spanking may screw up your kids”

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