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 are 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.