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New study links spanking to cognitive deficiency

To spank or not to spank your child, that is the question. Spanking has always been a hotly debated topic. Studies have shown that children who arespanking GETTY spanked regularly tend to develop more aggressive tendencies later in life. But when asked whether spanking is appropriate, the response from most parents raising children in the U.S. tends to be the same: “My parents spanked me, and I turned out fine.” In fact, research shows that most American children have been spanked at some point in their lives. My very un-scientific research shows that nearly all Latino children were spanked in childhood. (Disclaimer: My very un-scientific research consisted of me asking my amigas over margaritas if their parents had ever spanked them. They all answered, ¡claro que si!)

A new study performed at Columbia University confirmed that children who are spanked in early childhood are more likely to be aggressive as older children. However, the study also found a more surprising link to spanking. According to the study, there may be a link between spanking and cognitive behavior. Namely, children who are spanked do worse on vocabulary tests than children who are not spanked. Of the 1,500 families who participated in the study, 57 percent of mothers and 40 percent of fathers reported spanking their 3-year-old children, while 52 percent of mothers and 33 percent of father reported spanking their 5-year-old children. When these same children reached the age of 9, their parents were asked to evaluate their conduct, and the children were presented with a test to assess their vocabulary. The researchers collected additional information that may otherwise influence the child’s behavior or performance on the test, including whether the child had a low-birth weight, the age of the mother when the child was born, the mother’s intelligence scores and self-reported stress levels, the child’s temperament during the first year of life, and other factors.  When all these external factors were taken into consideration, spanking remained a compelling factor.

Michael MacKenzie, lead author of the study and associate professor at Columbia University, said, “If you were just to compare kids who were spanked and not spanked, the differences may not relate to the spanking, because the families that do spank may look different from non-spanking families in lots of ways. But even when the researchers controlled for these differences, we still saw that spanking is an influencing factor in future behaviors.” What I found most interesting was that the research suggested that spanking by mothers led to aggressive behavior in children, while spanking by fathers led to lower cognitive scores.

As a parent, I am a strong defender of a parent’s right to raise his or her child as he or she sees fit.  Spanking is not against the law, and it is widely accepted, even encouraged, in many cultures. However, I do feel that parents have an obligation to do better when they know better. “My parents spanked me, and I turned out fine,” is not an adequate rebuttal to scientific research.

About Adriana Villavicencio

Dr. Adriana Villavicencio is the youngest child of Ecuadorian immigrants. She has moved 29 times in her life, taking her on a journey from California to Bangalore, India, and New York City, where she recently earned a Ph.D. in Education Leadership and works as a Research Associate at New York University. An avid traveler, Adriana has collected experiences in four different continents and 16 different countries. But as a former high school English teacher, some of her fondest memories are those of her brilliant and brilliantly funny students in Brooklyn and Oakland. Adriana has contributed to several publications including the Daily News and, and is a managing editor for the Journal of Equity in Education. She earned a B.A. in English and an M.A. in English Education at Columbia University, and currently serves on the board of Columbia’s Latino Alumni Association (LAACU). She enjoys scary movies with red vines, Sauvignon Blanc, and her Maltese dog, Napoleon.

To learn more about Adriana’s education consulting company, please visit

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and should not be understood to be shared by Being Latino, Inc.


  1. Rodrigo Campos says:

    Here’s the sample they drew from:
    “The Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study is following a cohort of nearly 5,000 children born in large U.S. cities between 1998 and 2000 (roughly three-quarters of whom were born to unmarried parents). We refer to unmarried parents and their children as “fragile families” to underscore that they are families and that they are at greater risk of breaking up and living in poverty than more traditional

    % White, non-Hispanic 23.5
    % Black, non-Hispanic 51.9
    % Hispanic 21.4
    % Not completed high school 34.4
    % Completed high school or GED only 27.2
    % Attended some college or trade school 26.8
    % With BA or BS degree or more 11.6
    Household income/needs ratio at baseline (SD) 2.4 (2.5)
    Average WAIS-R Similarities subtest score at age 3 for mother (SD) 6.9 (2.6) (BELOW AVERAGE)

    I stopped reading the study after seeing this. We can’t start generalizing from this population.

    Disclaimer: I’m not one for spanking kids, but there are times when pow-pow goes a long way.

  2. Sonya says:

    This makes a lot of sense.

    Spanking can be done out of anger. When a child senses they are being spanked out of anger, they will associate that anger and physical action go hand in hand. The worst case scenario is a parent being frustrated with a child’s behavior and spanks them, so the child internalizes that the correct response to frustration is physical action – hitting something. Parents can also lose control while spanking the child. The child learns that a “healthy” way to release your frustration is to hit something and that it is acceptable to sometimes lose control that way.

    Also, I imagine that families that don’t spank TALK. They would need to talk to dole out the discipline. This is different from “spank now, talk later”. Very different.

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