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U. C. Berkeley Study Finds No Lasting Harm among Adolescents from Moderate Spanking Earlier in Childhood   

Occasional spanking does not damage a child social or emotional development, according to a study of long-term consequences in the lives of more than 100 families.....  The study [details below] separates out parents who use spanking frequently and severely -- resulting in evidence of harm -- and focuses on those families who occasionally spank their children, a practice that Baumrind calls normal for the population sampled. "We found no evidence for unique detrimental effects of normative physical punishment. I am not an advocate of spanking," said Baumrind, "but a blanket injunction against its use is not warranted by the evidence.  It is reliance on physical punishment, not whether or not it is used at all, that is associated with harm to the child."

 Does Causally Relevant Research Support a Blanket Injunction Against Disciplinary Spanking by Parents?

Diana Baumrind PhD, invited address at the 109th annual convention of the American Psychological Association August 24th 2001. (The data included in this address have not completed peer review.  Therefore readers and media should reserve judgment.)

It is generally acknowledged that the methodology used to address at the effects of spanking on children's adjustment is too problematic to support a causal argument.  Nevertheless findings from these problematic studies have been used, as though they were causally relevant, to support and unconditional anti-spanking position by organisations such as EPOCH.....  For that reason it is timely to remind ourselves of the elementary methodological criteria that correlational data must meet to support causal conclusions, especially conclusions intended to affect social policy -- in this case to criminalise at normative disciplinary practice, namely spanking.

I use the term "spanking" to refer to striking the child on the buttocks or extremities with an open hand without inflicting physical injury with the intention to modify behaviour.

Unconditional anti-spanking advocates such as Murray Straus argued that any level of physical punishment is harmful so that in affect the consequences of normative and abusive physical punishment differ in degree, not in kind. However, Larzelere (2000) concluded from his review of child outcomes associated with not abusive physical punishment that "not one of the 17 causally relevant studies found predominantly detrimental outcomes if they did anything to rule out parents who used physical punishment too severely".

The majority of U.S. adults questioned in a recent survey by Yankelovich (2000) continue to regard that as "appropriate to spend a child as a regular form of punishment", and their position is shared by most children and adolescents. Several studies report a high level of acceptance by young adults, including college students, of the use of spanking by their parents during childhood, and respondents generally state that they intend to spank their own children.

Parents in a democratic society rear their offspring with different values and perspectives that ensure desirable diversity and child-rearing brawls and outcomes.  The state has significant interests in the well-being of its youth, but in the absence of compelling evidence that socially approved practices have harmful effects, it promotes children's welfare by respecting family privacy and parental autonomy and child-rearing decisions, thus protecting the supportive and the guiding features of family life that contribute to children's well-being and minimizing unnecessary intrusions into family life that are psychologically threatening to children by undermining their trust and parental authority, even when intended to advance their "best interests".  The ethical problem governing state intervention into family life is to determine when on balance state intervention will yield greater benefit than harm to children.

Similarly, consultants should weigh the potential costs to children against the expected benefits of the advice they give parents.  Professional advice that categorically rejects any and all use of a disciplinary practice favoured and considered functional by parents is more likely to alienate than educate them.  Patterson's research documents the high rate of parental non-compliance with professional advice that contradicts parents' own disciplinary preferences based on their personal experience and cultural norms (Patterson and Chamberlain, 1988).

The implication that spanking is a proven cause of personal and social pathology is not only scientifically misleading, but also diverts attention from physical abuse, systemic causes of violence associated with injustice and poverty, and neglect of children's best interests in foster care and child welfare.

If the effectiveness of a disciplinary practice is the extent to which it has the desired outcome as typically used, and efficacy is the power of practice to produce the desired effect when properly used, then efficacy should concern practitioners (e.g. paediatricians, clinicians, and parent educators) more than effectiveness.  By being consistently firm, rational, and responsive and by proactively teaching the child to behave morally, caregivers can minimise the need for spanking or other punishment, as well as render punishment more efficacious.

In this study Authoritative, and to a somewhat lesser extent Democratic, parents were optimally efficacious, whether or not they spanked their children, as almost all did when their children were preschoolers.  Although optimal parenting may vary across cultures, it is likely in any culture to have certain of the generic features that characterise authoritative parents.  These features include deep and abiding commitment to the parenting role, intimate knowledge of children's developmental needs; respect for a particular child's individuality and desires; provision of structure and regimen appropriate to the child's development level; readiness to establish, and disciplinary strategies to enforce, behavioural guidelines; and cognitive stimulation, effective communication, and use of reasoning to ensure children's understanding of parents goals and disciplinary strategies.  Clear limits that are firmly enforced during the early years and that occur within the context of a rational-authoritative parent-child relationship should maximise committed compliance and the minimise the need for punishment as the child matures.


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