To spank or not to spank: The reality

Last week, I found myself sleep-deprived, struggling with my 2-year-old son to change his diaper and getting repeatedly kicked in the chest in the process. Because ordering him to stop and trying to restrain him did not work, and mostly out of anger, I ended up slapping him on the foot. It did not work either, but it caused me to be riddled with guilt (I apologized to him a few minutes later) and to wonder about slapping and spanking. Is it still legal in France, with the Equality and Citizenship Law passed last month? How many parents resort to it? Is it more harmful than effective?

Is spanking or slapping legal?

Many newspapers have announced that with the Equality and Citizenship Law voted on 22 December 2016, France had banned the use of spanking at home. It is actually not that clear. The law added the following emphasized part to article 371-1 of the Civil Code (unofficial translation): “Fathers and mothers have the parental authority […] to protect their child’s safety, health and morals, in order to ensure his or her education and foster his or her development, with all due respect owed to the child and excluding all cruel, degrading or humiliating treatment, including any use of corporal violence.”

Only 30% of French parents think that giving a hard slap on the bottom is a case of violence

The problem with this wording is that it prohibits “corporal violence”, not corporal punishment in general, and it does not define “corporal violence”. Should acts like spanking on the bottom or slapping on the hand or leg be considered forms of corporal violence? Or is corporal violence restricted to more severe acts like hitting with the fist or with an object? According to a survey carried out in 2007 on a random sample of 1000 French parents, only 30% of French parents think that giving a hard slap on the bottom is a case of violence (Bussmann and Schroth, 2009).

The law should be promulgated in February 2017. At that time the French government should issue a décret d’application, a text indicating how the law should be interpreted and applied, in concrete terms. Maybe this will clarify the definition. Depending on whether light forms of corporal punishment are actually prohibited or not, France may either join the 21 EU countries where spanking is prohibited in all settings including home, or remain one of the seven EU countries where at least some forms of corporal punishment are legal at home — the six others being Italy, Belgium, United Kingdom, Czech Republic, Lithuania and Slovakia.

Update on March 1st, 2017: Corporal punishment is now prohibited in Lithuania.

Update on January 26th, 2017: The French Constitutional Council has cancelled the part of the Equality and Citizenship law that prohibited corporal violence at home. The evoked reason was that this part had been added as an amendment without a direct link with the initial version of the law, which is not a constitutional procedure. Thus France will have to find another way to change its legislation if it is to comply with the European Social Charter. Indeed, in March 2015, the European Committee of Social Rights had established that France violated article 17 of the Charter, which says that states must take the necessary measures to protect children from all forms of violence. In the meantime, corporal punishment remains legal in France, as long as it does not fall under child abuse.

Corporal punishment by parents is lawful in Canada as well. Section 43 of the Criminal Code 1985 (“Protection of Persons in Authority”) states: “Every schoolteacher, parent or person standing in the place of a parent is justified in using force by way of correction toward a pupil or child, as the case may be, who is under his care, if the force does not exceed what is reasonable under the circumstances.” A Supreme Court ruling on 30 January 2004 stated that this section justifies only “minor corrective force of a transitory and trifling nature” and that it rules out corporal punishment of children under the age of two years or over the age of 12 years, as well as degrading, inhuman or harmful conduct, discipline using objects such as rulers or belts and blows or slaps to the head. (source: http://www.endcorporalpunishment.org/progress/country-reports/canada.html).

Spanking and slapping are also legal in the United States, where state laws confirm the right of parents to inflict physical punishment on their children. The legal provisions against violence and abuse are not interpreted as prohibiting all corporal punishment in childrearing (source: http://www.endcorporalpunishment.org/progress/country-reports/usa.html).

Spanking or slapping is widespread both in France and in the US

Corporal punishment is widespread both in France and in the US. In a survey done in 1995 on a random sample of 991 parents in the United States, 94% of US parents of 4-year-olds reported using corporal punishment, 16 times per year on average (Straus and Stewart, 1999). At this age, most of those parents reported “spanking on bottom with hand” and “slapping on hand, arm or leg”. The reported use of corporal punishment drops with child age, but parents who still practice it with older children tend to use more severe forms of punishments. For example, among parents of children aged 9 to 12, around 43% reported spanking on the bottom with hand, 27% slapping on the hand, arm or leg, and as much as 29% reported hitting on the bottom with an object.

In addition to the age of the child, other factors were found to significantly influence the use of corporal punishment in this survey, like the socioeconomic status, the region in the United States, and the gender of the child. Parents reported using CP with 65% of boys compared to 58% of girls. It is not known whether this is because the behavior of boys elicits more punishment, or because parents tend to raise boys in a harsher way, or both.

Graph showing the percentage of French parents using different types of corporal punishmentIn the 2007 survey done in France and four other EU countries, 72% of the surveyed French parents reported “giving mild slap on the face”, 51% “spanking the bottom with an open hand” and 32% “giving a resounding slap on the face” (Bussmann and Schroth, 2009). By contrast, in Sweden, where corporal punishment is banned since 1979 and where nationwide public awareness campaigns are regularly issued, the corresponding figures are as low as 14%, 4% and 4%, respectively.

In France, a large proportion of respondents justified corporal punishment by occasional helplessness or a lack of alternatives (well, that rings a bell…). Around 26% of French parents (versus 4% of Swedish parents) think that “a slap is sometimes the best or quickest way to deal with a situation” and 30% (vs 6% in Sweden) agree with “better a slap than to ignore and no longer talk to the child”. Yet 82% of the surveyed French parents also agree that nonviolent childrearing is the ideal. They do not see a contradiction here, because they do not define what they do as violence.

Spanking: Controversial efficacy and multiple risks

When I dug into the scientific literature on the effects of spanking, I found that it is one of the most studied aspects of parenting. Several hundred studies have investigated the immediate and the long-term effects of corporal punishment. Therefore, I focus here on meta-analyses, that is to say, statistical analyses that combine the results of multiple similar scientific studies.

In a meta-analysis of 26 studies comparing corporal punishment to other disciplinary tactics, Robert Larzelere and Brett Kuhn, from University of Nebraska Medical Center, found that the results depend on the type of usage that parents make of corporal punishment. They found that only a “conditional” usage of corporal punishment could do significantly better than some other tactics, in terms of immediate compliance or reduced antisocial behavior (Larzelere and Kuhn 2005). By “conditional” corporal punishment, they meant that it was either: only used for defiance, or only used in a controlled manner (i.e. not out of control due to anger), or only if milder disciplinary tactics had failed, depending on the study. This supports the idea that spanking should not be the first response to a child who misbehaves.

Tactics like “privilege removal or time-out” or “reasoning plus non-physical punishment” were found as effective as conditional spanking, both in terms of compliance and reduced antisocial behavior

Note that although conditional spanking did outcompete some nonphysical tactics like reasoning or diverting, it did not outcompete all of them. For example, tactics like “privilege removal or time-out” or “reasoning plus non-physical punishment” were found as effective as conditional spanking, both in terms of compliance and reduced antisocial behavior (Larzelere and Kuhn 2005). Moreover, the authors recognize that the meta-analysis has some limitations. First, many mean effect sizes were computed based on only one or two studies. Second, the studies with the strongest causal evidence against corporal punishment were not included in the analysis, because they did not investigate an alternative disciplinary tactic.

In a broader meta-analysis of 78 studies including a total of 47,751 individuals, Elizabeth Oddone Paolucci and Claudio Violato, from University of Calgary (Canada), found that people who have experienced corporal punishment are at a small, yet statistically significant, risk for developing behavioral and emotional problems (Paolucci and Violato, 2004).

More recently, Elizabeth Gershoff, from University of Texas at Austin, and Andrew Grogan-Kaylor, from University of Michigan, compiled the results of 75 studies focusing specifically on spanking, rather than corporal punishment in general. This meta-analysis encompassed a total of 160,927 unique children. Spanking was not found to significantly reduce defiance, thereby questioning the previous conclusion that spanking can be effective. Moreover, spanking was found significantly associated with the following (rather scary) list of problems (Gershoff and Grogan-Taylor, 2016):

  • low “moral internalization” (moral internalization is the process of taking over the values, attitudes and opinions of the society as one’s own, so that socially acceptable behavior is motivated not by fear of external consequences but by internal factors),
  • aggression,
  • antisocial behavior in childhood and later in adulthood,
  • “externalizing behavior problems” (like rule-breaking or oppositional behaviors),
  • “internalizing behavior problems” (like depression, anxiety or stress),
  • mental health problems in childhood and later in adulthood,
  • negative parent–child relationships,
  • impaired cognitive ability,
  • low self-esteem,
  • risk of physical abuse from parents,
  • positive attitudes about spanking.

Of course, not every spanked or slapped child will develop all these negative outcomes, since each statistical association relies only on a fraction of the sample of children. Moreover, although a statistical association is a necessary condition for a causal link, it is not sufficient to prove it. The associations found here are thus consistent with the hypothesis that spanking causes detrimental outcomes, but do not prove it.

According to Elizabeth Gershoff (Gershoff, 2002, 2010), three psychological theories could explain why spanking could have detrimental effects:

  • Social-learning theory: When a child complies after having been spanked, he or she could learn that the use of the force allowed the parent to reach his or her goal. The child could thus be more likely to imitate the aggressive behavior in the future to reach his or her own goals.
  • Social cognitive theory: Harsh treatment from parents could influence the way children process and interpret social information. It could make them hypervigilant to hostile cues and inaccurately attribute hostile intent to others, which, in turn, would increase the likelihood that they behave inappropriately in social interactions.
  • Attribution theory: When they experience corporal punishment, children comply because of an external force, not because they have integrated the social rules as their own. Hence they would have no reason to behave appropriately when their parents are not around to provide an external reason for doing so.

However, these mechanisms are still hypothetical, and one could also explain the statistical association between spanking and problems with the reverse causation. Indeed, children with more behavioral problems could elicit more discipline in general and thus more spanking in particular (Larzelere, Kuhn, & Johnson, 2004).

Experiments found barrier time-out as effective as spanking

What would be needed to test the existence and direction of a causal link is a so-called “randomized controlled experiment”. To establish what spanking really causes, one needs a study that would randomly assign parents to spank, or not to spank, their children. Absolutely no modern ethic committee would allow for this, but such an experiment was actually performed in the eighties by Dan Day and Mark Roberts at University of Idaho (Day and Roberts, 1983). They randomly assigned sixteen mother-child pairs to either a “spank-enforced” or a “barrier-enforced” (also known as room time-out) chair time-out strategy. The children, aged 2 to 5, had been referred by local professionals for treatment of conduct problems. This study aimed at comparing the efficacy of both strategies in terms of immediate compliance (they did not try to assess long-term effects).

Photo of a young child sitting on a chair for a time out

© Susan Stevenson | Fotolia

Each mother-child pair interacted in a clinic playroom. The mother followed instructions given by the experimenter via a bug-in-the-ear device. She issued 30 chore-like commands (e.g., “Put this (block) in the (box).”) and otherwise silently watched the child. She praised compliance (e.g., “Thank you; you’re a good helper, etc.”) to commands and warnings, warned the child following noncompliance to commands (“If you don’t put this (block) in the (box), you will have to sit in the corner”), and initiated a time-out routine for noncompliance to warnings. The mother would say, “Since you did not put the (block) in the (box), you have to sit in the corner”. She would then guide the child to a chair in a corner of the room, say “Stay there” and ignore all child behavior during time-out, other than escape. The child had to sit on the chair for at least 2 minutes. Once those two minutes were over, he or she would be allowed to come out as soon as he or she remained quiet for 15 seconds.

If he or she tried to leave the chair, the reaction of the mother depended on the group assigned by the researchers. In the “spanking” group, the mother would guide the child back to the chair and say, “Since you left the chair, I am going to spank you.” She would then spank the child twice on the buttocks with her hand, place the child back on the chair, say, “Stay there”, and the time-out would start over. In the “barrier” group, she would say, “Since you left the chair, you must stay by yourself” and guide the child into a small adjacent empty room. The time-out would start over in this room, where the light would be turned on, the door left open, and a plywood sheet (i.e., the “barrier”) slid into the door slot. The mother, in the playroom, would lean against the barrier to prevent the child from knocking it down and to provide visual assurance to the child that she had not left her/him alone. Her back would be turned to the child and she would ignore all child behavior. However, all mothers were encouraged to visually “check” the child if they experienced any concern about the child’s safety.

Spanking-enforced and barrier-enforced time-out procedures were equally effective in improving compliance

Measures of compliance rates revealed that spanking- and barrier-enforced time-out procedures were equally effective in improving compliance from these initially noncompliant pre-school children (Day and Roberts, 1983). The same conclusion was obtained a few years later on a larger sample of 36 children, aged 2 to 6 (Roberts and Powers, 1990).

Thus, research indicates that spanking is statistically associated with long-term detrimental outcomes and that alternative strategies exist that are equally effective, at least when parents apply them in a consistent manner.

Instead of slapping my toddler on his foot, I should probably have accepted the risk of a pee accident and tried a chair time-out strategy, possibly enforced with a barrier strategy. It would not be safe, however, to leave him alone in his bedroom with a closed door, as he is barely 2. Hence my next task is to arrange a place in the house where I could safely place him when necessary and still see him (the easiest way is probably to bring his playpen out again). Overall, I feel that there is a need for more practical, evidence-based information about the best ways to redirect a child to a socially acceptable behavior. If you want to share your own experience, feel free to leave a comment!

References

Bussmann, K. D., Erthal, C., & Schroth, A. (2011). Effects of banning corporal punishment in Europe–a five-nation comparison. Joan, E. Durrant/Smith, Anne (Hg.): Global pathways to abolishing physical punishment, 299-322.

Day, D. E., & Roberts, M. W. (1983). An analysis of the physical punishment component of a parent training program. Journal of abnormal child psychology, 11(1), 141-152.

Gershoff, E. T. (2002). Corporal punishment by parents and associated child behaviors and experiences: a meta-analytic and theoretical review. Psychological bulletin, 128(4), 539.

Gershoff, E. T. (2010). More harm than good: A summary of scientific research on the intended and unintended effects of corporal punishment on children. Law & Contemp. Probs., 73, 31.

Gershoff, E. T., & Grogan-Kaylor, A. (2016). Spanking and child outcomes: Old controversies and new meta-analyses. Journal of family psychology, 30(4), 453-469.

Larzelere, R. E., Kuhn, B. R., & Johnson, B. (2004). The intervention selection bias: an underrecognized confound in intervention research. Psychological bulletin, 130(2), 289.

Larzelere, R. E., & Kuhn, B. R. (2005). Comparing child outcomes of physical punishment and alternative disciplinary tactics: A meta-analysis. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 8(1), 1-37.

Paolucci, E. O., & Violato, C. (2004). A meta-analysis of the published research on the affective, cognitive, and behavioral effects of corporal punishment. The Journal of Psychology, 138(3), 197-222.

Roberts, M. W., & Powers, S. W. (1990). Adjusting chair timeout enforcement procedures for oppositional children. Behavior Therapy, 21(3), 257-271.

Straus, M. A., & Stewart, J. H. (1999). Corporal punishment by American parents: National data on prevalence, chronicity, severity, and duration, in relation to child and family characteristics. Clinical child and family psychology review, 2(2), 55-70.

Carole Knibbe is the founder of Familimage.com. She is the mother of a 5-year-old girl and a 2-year-old boy, and the stepmother of a 11-year-old girl. She works at Université Lyon 1, France, as an associate professor in Computational Biology. Probably because of this main occupation as a researcher, she likes to find experimental evidence backing (or disproving!) parenting practices.

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