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FactCheck: Are children who get smacked more successful later in life?

TheJournal.ie’s FactCheck looks into the study that caused ructions on Liveline yesterday.

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LIVELINE WAS BUSY yesterday, discussing claims repeated in a Catholic newspaper this month that children who are smacked by their parents are “more successful” later in life.

  • The article, in the Alive! newspaper, can be found on page 16 here, and you can listen to yesterday’s Liveline here.

The publication’s editor, Fr Brian McKevitt, defended the piece from criticism by callers, saying:

The article was not so much about parents smacking their children, the news item in it was the fact that, although this article was published in 2010, it continues to be one of the 10 most shared articles on the Daily Telegraph’s website.

We decided to go right to the source, and spoke to the US researcher behind the controversial study.

  • If you hear a dodgy claim out there, email factcheck@thejournal.ie.

Claim: Children who are smacked are more successful later in life

Verdict: FALSE – there is overwhelming evidence to contradict this, and even the study in question had far more modest findings that the headlines suggest.

The Facts

alivearticle Source: Alive!

Let’s follow the Alive! article back to its source. The piece, which doesn’t have a named author and has the headline ‘Study finds smacked children more successful in life’, cites this report in the Daily Telegraph, headlined ‘Smacked children more successful later in life, study finds’.

That story traces its roots back to the Grand Rapids Express, in the US state of Michigan. In January 2010, it reported that local Calvin College psychology professor Marjorie Lindner Gunnoe presented research to a conference of the Society for Research in Child Development.

A dig through the archives indicates this happened at the April 2009 conference, when she presented a paper entitled: ‘Spanking per se Is Not a Risk Factor During Childhood: Replication Across 11 Outcomes and 6 Demographic Groups’.

So the first thing we know about the study cited by Alive! this month, and the Telegraph and others back in 2010 – is that at the time, it wasn’t published in an academic journal, which requires peer review, a crucial quality control measure for serious scientific research.

However, Gunnoe did eventually publish it in 2013. We read it, and spoke to Dr Gunnoe to get her take.

What does the study say?

gunnoepaper Source: Dr Marjorie Gunnoe via Psychological Reports

In brief, the paper found that, compared to teenagers who had never been smacked in childhood, teenagers who were smacked in childhood (age 2-11) described themselves as slightly better at school, more optimistic, less depressed, and more likely to engage in volunteering work. Gunnoe told us:

When I got into the data, I couldn’t find any harmful effects for kids who just said ‘Yes I was spanked, but it was only in childhood.’

However, those who had been smacked after the age of 12 performed worst out of the three categories. She told us the differences between smacked and never-smacked children were small, but that:

The differences were quite large when you compared the kids who were still being hit into adolescence…

These very limited conclusions from self-assessment are a far cry from the headlines that followed, such as these from the Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph, Alive! and the New York Daily News:

smackingheadlines

When asked, Gunnoe somewhat diplomatically described the Alive! headline (‘Study finds smacked children more successful in life’) as “quite a generalisation”.

The Rebuttal

Dr Elizabeth Gershoff, a developmental psychologist from the University of Texas, told us that in fact, the opposite was true.

There is no evidence, that I have been able to find, showing a positive impact on children [from corporal punishment].
There is nothing showing that spanking reduces aggression or promotes pro-social behaviour. It doesn’t do any of the things that parents want it to do.
So there’s a pretty strong consensus in the field of psychology that spanking is not good for kids.

Gershoff is co-author, along with Andrew Grogan-Kaylor from the University of Michigan, of a paper published in the last week, which involves a major overview and “meta-analysis” of 75 previous studies, dating back decades.

gershoffmeta Source: Courtesy of Andrew Grogan-Kaylor

It measured the link between childhood smacking and 17 different negative outcomes in childhood and adulthood. Here’s what it found:

Thirteen of the 17 child outcomes examined were found to be significantly associated with parents’ use of spanking.

Among those, corporal punishment was associated with:

  • More aggression
  • More antisocial behaviour
  • More externalising problems
  • More internalising problems
  • More mental health problems
  • More negative relationships with parents.
  • Lower moral internalisation
  • Lower cognitive ability
  • Lower self-esteem.
  • More risk of physical abuse

In adulthood:

Three of the four adult outcomes were significantly associated with a history of spanking from parents:
  • Adult antisocial behaviour
  • Adult mental health problems
  • Adult support for physical punishment.

Marjorie Gunnoe accepts that hers is a “minority position” among academics, but criticised the consensus view as “beginning with the presumption that spanking is inherently wrong”, and having a political agenda to get corporal punishment banned.

She also claimed studies that overwhelmingly find negative effects from smacking are skewed because “most professors are in fact working with bright children who are securely attached”.

So with a lot of bright children with healthy homes, you really don’t need to use physical discipline…

Liz Gershoff again rejects this.

There are differences in how often people [smack their children] based on [socio-economic status] and particularly education level…but there’s no real difference in how it affects children. It’s equally bad, regardless of parents’ education level or income level.

Alan Kazdin, a professor psychology and child psychiatry at Yale, told us:

The weight of the evidence is huge.

Conclusion

shutterstock_173523551 Source: Shutterstock/Monkey Business Images

Because it is unethical to create controlled experiments where some children are smacked, and some aren’t, researchers have to find other ways to measure the link between corporal punishment and outcomes later in life.

Every method has flaws.

For example, it can be difficult to tell whether a child is displaying poor behaviour because they are being smacked, or being smacked because they are displaying poor behaviour.

But it is possible to control for factors like this, avoid potential biases, and – one of the keys of good scientific research – replicate findings again and again.

There is a dispute about the effects of corporal punishment (although everyone agrees that only harm can come from smacking children into their teenage years, and child abuse has unmitigated, extremely damaging effects).

However, it is also true that at this time, the overwhelming weight of evidence, over many years and dozens of scientific studies, comes down heavily on one side of that dispute.

One study doesn’t cancel that out.

Finally, the study in question wasn’t published in a journal until three years after the preliminary findings on which the Daily Telegraph based its article, which was the source of the piece in Alive! this month.

And even then, that research did not conclude in a blanket, generalised way, that children who are smacked are more successful later in life. Based on the preponderance of evidence available, and the way it was presented in this month’s Alive!, the claim is FALSE.

Send your FactCheck requests to factcheck@thejournal.ie

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About the author:

Dan MacGuill

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