Spanking is one of the many things about which parents agree — passionately — to disagree. Most American parents swear by the old adage “Spare the rod, spoil the child,” but others are horrified by the very thought of raising a hand to a kid.
And that’s why corporal punishment in schools is an even thornier issue, as highlighted by a Texas school district’s recent decision to change its spanking policy. After two parents complained that their daughters had been beaten hard enough to develop bruises and burnlike redness on their skin, the Springtown school board voted last week to amend its corporal-punishment rules. Rather than abolishing the practice, however, the board members took pains to preserve teachers’ ability to physically discipline students: parents must now opt in with written permission allowing their children to be paddled when teachers feel it’s justified; previously, parents had to opt out of corporal punishment.
The school board also expanded its spanking policy overall by deciding to allow teachers to punish students of the opposite gender. Parents can now designate whether they’re O.K. with a male or female school official doling out the paddling. The initial complaints from the two parents had centered on the fact that their daughters were punished by a male teacher, violating Springtown’s then requirement that same-gender teachers carry out any physical punishment.
A bigger question for many is why some states still allow corporal punishment in schools at all. Texas is one of 19 states that permit principals or teachers to put kids under the paddle. (However, 97 of the U.S.’s 100 largest school districts have banned corporal punishment.)
While there isn’t much research specifically on the effects of corporal punishment in schools, the matter has been studied extensively in the home. And the consensus is that spanking isn’t effective in properly disciplining children, at least not if the goal is to control children’s behavior over the long term or help them understand what’s appropriate behavior. “There isn’t a single study that shows kids’ behavior gets better over time,” says Elizabeth Gershoff, an associate professor of human development and family sciences at the University of Texas at Austin. “Every study I’ve looked at that links parent spanking and kids’ aggression found that the more kids are spanked, the more aggressive and problematic their behavior is.”
Gershoff should know. She has conducted the most comprehensive analysis of the existing research on the effects of spanking by parents. In the variety of studies she has reviewed — in which spanking was reported by parents or children themselves, and children’s behavior was measured by a standardized survey that asked parents and teachers how often children acted out, talked back or were disobedient or delinquent in any way — all the results point in one direction: the more children were spanked, the more aggressive they became.
So what of that old adage about sparing the rod? “Dozens of studies now show quite the opposite,” says Dr. Robert Block, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics. “Corporal punishment is a physically stressful situation that is embedded biologically in some kids to the detriment of their health and well-being later on in terms of their own acceptance of aggression and violence.”
(MORE: Why Spanking Doesn’t Work)
The most recent polls show that approval of corporal punishment in general, and in schools in particular, is waning. But the percentage of parents who are in favor of spanking is still surprisingly high: in the 1960s, for example, 94% of adults approved of physical punishment both at home and in schools; by 2004, that proportion had dropped to 71.3%. Mostly, however, that figure appears to represent spanking by parents in the home, since only 23% of adults say it’s O.K. for teachers to spank students in school.
Indeed, there is the possibility that physical punishment delivered by a non–family member may be perceived by children as being different from and more harmful than that meted out by parents. “Any kind of discipline has to be motivated by love and concern,” says Robert Larzelere, a professor of human development and family science at Oklahoma State University. “And in a crowded classroom or school setting, there is more risk of the teacher or principal coming across as rejecting of the child.”
Gershoff says children who are spanked are more likely to develop depression, anxiety and even thoughts of suicide, not to mention antisocial behavior that can lead to difficult relationships as adults. In a 2009 study on the effects of spanking, some researchers even suggested that corporal punishment can lead to problems in kids’ cognitive development and lower IQs.
There’s also the delicate issue of distinguishing between discipline and abuse. It’s a fine line that is difficult to define by any measure, and it’s one that can be easily crossed, especially in schools. Further, there’s a disturbing trend showing a close relationship between abuse and corporal punishment; while not every child who is spanked is physically abused, nearly every abused child has been spanked. About two-thirds of parents in abuse cases say the abuse started out as an attempt to discipline their child but escalated into something more. “It’s a really troubling finding,” says Gershoff. “It means we wouldn’t have as much physical abuse if we weren’t spanking our kids.”
She points out that American society doesn’t allow physical aggression under any circumstances — not between husbands and wives, not between adult strangers and not even against animals. Yet some states allow teachers to hit children, albeit for disciplinary reasons, not as aggression. But as the data increasingly show, young children aren’t able to distinguish the difference, and they interpret any violence, regardless of the reason, in the same way, which explains why they end up incorporating aggression into their own reactions and behavior.
Larzelere says such studies are finding only correlations between punishment and negative outcomes, however, noting that they are biased by the fact that they involve children who have behavior problems to start with. These kids are more likely both to be punished and to continue to exhibit aggression or other behavior issues. Because of this bias, he says, any form of punishment — from spanking to nonphysical forms of discipline such as verbal correction, time-outs and even pharmaceutical interventions like Ritalin for hyperactivity — is correlated with negative behavior outcomes.
In a review, Larzelere and his colleagues looked at disobedience and aggression after children were given scoldings or verbal threats, deprived of privileges or sent to time-outs; he says children’s behavior remained unchanged. “If you look at alternatives that parents could use instead, everything else looks just as harmful as routine spanking,” he says.
He argues that what researchers are measuring is really the extent of the child’s misbehavior. In other words, disobedient children are more likely to elicit disciplinary action. Gershoff counters that even after adjusting for the extent of disobedience, corporal punishment is still associated with more negative outcomes for children; those who are spanked are worse off than those who aren’t.
How can the data be applied to school-district policies? Larzelere says more research is needed: it would be worth exploring, for example, whether districts that ban corporal punishment have higher rates of suspensions or expulsions than those that allow the practice; if that’s the case, then alternatives to physical discipline, such as removing problem students from the classroom, may not be so desirable, since they may be associated with greater delinquency.
It’s a difficult line to walk for both parents and teachers, and one solution isn’t likely to fit all needs. Gershoff agrees that spanking, particularly for very young children, can bring a quick end to a tantrum, but she notes that the short-term relief comes at the price of longer-term health. While parents may disagree about whether it’s acceptable to raise their hand against their own children, many governments have decided on one solution to the problem: banning violence of any kind, by anyone, against children. “Societies around the world have decided that violence in general is not O.K.,” says Gershoff. “It violates kids’ right not to be hit. So 31 countries have banned spanking of children by anybody. Then they don’t have to worry about a line, because it’s all or nothing.”
The U.S. hasn’t adopted such a ban; a bill to end corporal punishment in schools was introduced in Congress in 2011 but remains in committee. In the meantime, spanking is likely to continue generating high passions and even higher stakes as individual states and school districts decide how to interpret the available evidence on the effect of corporal punishment on our children’s health.