People who spank are aggressive

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A follow up to the previous post. I keep seeing the research from this paper in the press, Spanking detrimental to children, study says:

Berlin and colleagues found that children who were spanked as 1-year-olds tended to behave more aggressively at age 2, and did not perform as well as other children on a test measuring thinking skills at age 3. The study is published in the journal Child Development.

The idea is that spanking has negative consequences, making children less intelligent and more aggressive. But what do you think? My thought was that there are two other reasons of possible interest:

1) The kids being spanked are more incorrigible in general, which results in more frustration on the part of the parents.

2) The parents themselves are less intelligent, lack impulse control and are aggressive.

The above two traits of course could exhibit heritability betwen parent and child. Yes, there are plenty of confounds; acceptability of spanking varies from culture to culture. But I think the hypothesis that this is just a correlation between heritable traits and the behavior in question explains the why the “effects were somewhat small.”

This sort of thought process kicks into action with a lot of the developmental psychology I see being reported in the press. But a headline such as “Aggressive impulsive parents more likely to beat their children” is probably less palatable….

Note: I’m against spanking personally in regards to how I’d raise my children. But I assume that my children wouldn’t be totally incorrigible because I was not (those who know me personally might consider this a mischaracterization, but I am not including outlier behavior!).



  1. Spanking a one year old strikes me as indicative of mental disorder. There’s some age at which it starts to be reasonable to try to expect good behavior of children, but it’s a lot higher than one. Even from an operant conditioning point of view it doesn’t work, since a one year old has no way of understanding exactly what they did wrong. 
    There’s spanking and spanking. Some spankers believe that it doesn’t count unless it leaves welts. In Oregon members of a religious cult basically spanked a girl to death; at some point she started resisting blindly ewithout listening, and they concluded that she was possessed by the devil.

  2. One thing I know about children is even within a family they differ a lot. Some invite spanking much more than others! This could be the extra data dimension that enables resolution of some of the confounds.

  3. How is it so many people were spanked, yet aren’t social deviants? 
    Not spanking is just a current fashion.  
    Generally high energy kids get into more trouble than the lazy, who always look for the easy way which is compliance. The timid kid who didn’t much disobey doesn’t grow up to be aggressive. Big surprise. 
    All of my mother’s siblings for a total of eight were occasionally spanked (not beaten), with the exception of the youngest who was just a toddler when her father died. All of them grew up to be normal functioning adults who are not what anyone would call aggressive. The youngest is not an achiever, but she sure isn’t aggressive. She works as a nanny. 
    I just want to know how many kids these researchers have. Some kids are just less compliant. You don’t necessarily have to spank them, but you have to address non compliance for the sake of their own safety as well as your sanity.  
    It sure would be interesting to see if kids who were non-compliant as little kids and not spanked grew up to be aggressive. How about a study of aggressiveness of adopted children whose biological parents were violent criminals. Likely kids are more like their biological parents. Also, spanking is for kids from maybe age 4 to 10. Younger or older than that is either abusive or tantamount to fighting with the kid. He should be trained by 10 four crying out loud.

  4. A cross-fostering experiment showed that infant characteristics didn’t seem to affect the abusive behavior of macaque mothers. Non-violent mothers were non-violent with infants from violent mothers, and violent mothers were violent with the infants from non-violent mothers. 
    And the non-violent macaque infants raised by violent mothers grow up to be violent mothers themselves due to early alterations in serotonin. 
    (This is all the work of Dario Maestripieri, who was involved in the recent paper on testosterone and sex differences linked here last month. His papers are available online.)

  5. John Emerson — I disagree that a one year old cannot understand exactly what they did wrong. 
    Of course, that depends on what you are expecting the child to understand!  
    But if some kind of training and discipline isn’t in place by the time a child is one, there will be problems.

  6. To me this isn’t about spanking at all, it’s about spanking one-year-olds, which to me makes no sense at all.

  7. One year old is just about walking and speaking with normal development. OMG, spanking such infant is quite abusive in my opinion. At 2- 3 years old, it is different story.

  8. Spanking a one year old is child abuse. End of story.

  9. Please don’t think I was talking about spanking a one year old. And frankly, I wouldn’t spank a 2 or 3 year old either. 
    I am merely saying that a one year definitely knows when he’s doing something he shouldn’t.  
    Time-out is very effective starting when the child begins crawling and exploring. You start with one thing you don’t want the child to do, such as touch or pull something off a low shelf. An appropriate time-out for that age is to sit on a parent’s lap, facing the parent, but the parent refuses eye contact for 10 seconds. 
    There’s a bit more to it than that, but if some sort of time-out is instituted before age one, fewer and fewer time-outs are actually required. The child will respond to “Time-out if you touch that.” 
    (A quite normal response from a one year old to that is to stare at the parent while slowly reaching for the forbidden item… I’ve had to leave the room several times when my grandchildren have done this because laughter is not the reinforcement they need at this time. Plus, my daughters have a hard enough time keeping a straight face by themselves.)

  10. Too bad about the macaque study. They were able to study the differences between mothers, but not the differences between offspring — which would have been revealing, IMHO.

  11. This paper by Lynch et. al. looks at spanking in twins and so tries to control for genes. They found that moderate punishment was ok.  

  12. It’s interesting that intellectuals keep ‘discovering’ that aspects of universal historic human behaviour are suddenly outrageously immoral. It happens again and again. Funny that… 
    My guess is that the decline in ‘corporal punishment’ is mainly related to the fact that children are no longer required to work in the economy – so their behaviour matters less. 
    My grandmother went into full time employment at age 13 (300 miles away from home, as a servant). Clearly, an education system (both home and school) designed to prepare people for that reality of c 1920 is likely to be much harsher than a modern one which prepares people for launching-out on their own in – what? – their mid-twenties?  
    According to the anthroplogy of hunter gatherers that I have perused, they have even laxer discipline than moderns – presumably because natural selection has equipped humans with the instincts necessary to develop in an H-G environment without much need for ‘education’ or other types of behavioural shaping.

  13. If you look at contemporary American society and the American society of three centuries ago, it’s strikingly different. If you look at a non-Western society, the differences are even more striking.  
    Things that were once thought of as obligatory no longer are, and things that once were forbidden no longer are. Intellectuals had a lot to do with these changes, many of which everyone, even the most conservative, accepts as positive. 
    There’s been a lot of progress since bcg’s grandmother was sent out to work as a servant girl. We have universal education, even for women. Three cheers for the intellectuals.

  14. Universal education? 
    I bet bgc’s 13 year old “child labor” grandmother could outscore plenty of the “universally educated” high school kids on a reading test! 
    More like universal babysitting. 
    Also, these wonderfully educated women who have the most quality to contribute to the gene pool end up contributing the least in quantity. 
    Yeah, intellectuals. 
    Personally I prefer empiricism to self styled “intellectuals.

  15. Have a nice vent, SG.

  16. Spanking is hitting a person. Shouldn’t your child be the last person in the world you would hit?

  17. I am reminded of a fellow grad student who believed all this nonsense about spanking being horrible. His toddler managed to pull a boiling pot off the stove onto himself: resulted in third-degree burns and years of surgery. When my kids even come _close_ to that kind of danger, I do my best to scare the living hell out of them, which certainly has included spanking. Surely I should have _reasoned_ with them (at age two) & told them about latent heat, protein denaturation and all that.

  18. gcochran. A better solution would be to always boil water on the rear burner.

  19. There are always threats: small kids need to avoid them and it can’t be based on reason.  
    Truth to tell, reason and persuasion don’t work all that well on most teenagers. Or adults.  
    The only way we managed to get more than a quarter of people to use seatbelts was by making non-use illegal: i.e. which ultimately means cops with guns. 
    And we were right to do so.

  20. With a few exceptions, I’m thinking not much experience with children and toddlers. One does not need to be an intellectual or rocket scientist to know that: 
    1) Each child is different. Spanking might work well with some, with others it renders them sullen at best. Those that spankings work well with, a harshly spoken word will likely work as well.  
    2) Training a toddler is much like training a dog. Different treats and it’s not considered good form to put a child in a crate.  
    3) The truly nutty “intellectuals” are those who now say that time-out is bad because it makes children feel un-loved, yet they offer no alternative. 
    4) A parent is fairly powerless to stop a full-blown tantrum. But tantrums are usually simply annoying. There are exceptions. (There are always exceptions.) Plus, the funniest people are young not-yet-parents who say “their” child will never act like that.  
    5) I was spanked as a child and I don’t think it did me any harm. I’m not opposed to it on any principle, I just think it’s not necessary. The only spankings I remember are those where I very definitely did something wrong (and was old enough to know it) and the worst part of the punishment was my Dad spending so much time explaining to me why it was wrong, why it disappointed him, how it embarrassed the family, etc. After 30 minutes of this, I was begging for the whooping. 
    6. It’s all a matter of degree. Time-out can be abusive if carried too far also. (What else would you consider putting a misbehaving child in a dark closet other than an abusive time-out?) 
    7. What is punished makes a difference also. For example, why punish a child for feeding the dog from his high chair? You don’t want that to happen? Remove the dog during mealtime. It is my wholly unprofessional, unintellectual opinion that most abuse of children stems from unrealistic expectations from parents.

  21. I’m with gcochran. 
    My kids are now 20 and 17. One is doing her PhD and the other is in Engineering school. 
    Getting them to their current ages has involved lots of vigilance and some punishment.  
    You cannot always put the hot stuff on the rear burner. Sometimes you have to tell them to stay out of the kitchen, stay away from the road, don’t touch the sharp knives, and sometimes you need to reinforce the message in ways that young kids who cannot reason understand.

  22. If you spank your child you better be careful. You’re giving your child vivid memories of you that he/she may have long after you’re gone.

  23. You’re making me miss my Dad.

  24. My children are now 34, 33, and 28. They are all as successful as any parent could hope. My step-children are 41 and 35… they two are successful. 
    It’s that 33 year old that I pick as the example that spanking doesn’t necessarily work. When misbehavior reaches the point where parents/caregivers can think of no other response than spanking that one must wonder if something else is going on beyond the parents’ control. 
    The reality is that if other methods of discipline don’t work, spanking is not going to work either. There’s another problem. And spanking isn’t going to solve that one either. 
    When a child has problems that disciplinary efforts excluding spanking don’t work to correct, spanking is not likely to correct them either. 
    Children who would respond to time-outs or other non-physical discipline, will likely respond as well to non-abusive spanking.  
    I think that some respondents here are refusing to see the difference between abusive and non-abusive methods of training AND how the child’s and parents’ perception of punishment and training are involved and intertwined.

  25. One thing I find interesting is the absence of intermediates in a lot of intellectual discussion. Either you are enlightened and completely hands off or you are a child abuser. Never mind that many spanked kids love their parents. And, more controversially, either you are enlightened and completely hands off or you are a wife beater. Again, never mind how many such women swear up and down how much they love their husbands. 
    What’s interesting is that the leftist intellectual endorses the use of extreme impersonal force to achieve the ends he wants (e.g. cops with guns enforcing various social worker edicts) but attacks the legitimacy of personal, calibrated force. 
    It boils down to the idea that individual humans don’t know how to manage their own affairs and that intellectuals should figure it out for them and then mass produce the solution. Doubtless this is true for things that involve abstract science, like scoliosis testing or fluoridated water. I question whether we currently know more about small group interaction, though, than we can glean from human common sense (= built in instinct). We didn’t evolve to understand the physics of DNA, but we did evolve to understand physical deterrents.

  26. Regarding the use of physical deterrent as a potentially healthy factor in a relationship, see this clip first before responding: 
    That’s mufuggin Cary Grant, who was synonymous with debonair and everything that a woman could want in a man. Yet you would never see something like that today as a model behavior for middle class men. 
    Instead you get the bizarre superimposition of Conor Friedersdorf like milquetoast emasculinity (huge woman repellent) AND the strutting animalistic masculinity of rap videos, which (to say the least) advise no restraint in how one treats a woman. 
    The funny or sad thing is that the same group of college grads who grew up on rap also spout feminist passivity doctrine. Yet they also understand at a primal level that given the choice between the man who could NEVER hit a woman and the charismatic thug who wouldn’t think twice about it, that the latter is bound to be more successful in our modern debauched sexual marketplace. 
    In other words — drive out controlled masculinity and uncontrolled masculinity (and emasculinity) is all you have left. Exeunt Main Street, enter Yale flanked by Jail.

  27. jef said: 
    If you spank your child you better be careful. You’re giving your child vivid memories of you that he/she may have long after you’re gone. 
    As Cochran intimated, can’t you do better than that old bogeyman? 
    I had an abusive-when-drunk stepfather who was otherwise an adequate but strict father, and a biological father who pissed off before I was born. I know the difference between abuse and responsible parenting. 
    My children are also half Chinese, and many a Chinese parent will tell you that, ummm, special measures are necessary … 
    Piano was one example. Getting them to sit at the piano stool and practice was always tough, and I had to learn to read music so that I could be sure their fingers were hitting the correct keys in the early days. The amount of pestering and shouting required in the those days to get the practice done was large and tiring, but both kids came to enjoy piano, and I eventually had the enormous pleasure of hearing one of them play Rachmaninov’s Prelude in C# minor relatively well. 
    However, there are some folks around who would regard the methods we used to ensure that our children succeeded as abusive. I could almost regard such views as a conspiracy to ensure that promising youngsters do not achieve to their potential.

  28. Don’t have the reference off hand, but an adoption study was conducted showing that the level of aggression or criminality of the biological parents predicted the harshness of discipline used by the adoptive parents. Evocative gene-environment correlation. By the way the latest research by Kochanska at the University of Iowa suggests that it is the warmth and level of harshness of discipline interact so that parents that are harsh, but still warm have kids that seem okay.  
    On the personal level I remember my grandmother saying that she had to kiss a hot stove as punishment. My father beat my brother with a 2×4 and a hose leaving welts and I never thought of it as abuse, but we were not supposed to tell the neighbors. Still can’t get my mind around that it is abuse. Of course my brother who is quite the badass would still, as an adult, do anything to please my father.

  29. There seems to be a wide range of definitions of abuse in these comments. 
    Though my father spanked me, I never considered it abuse. When my alcoholic husband spanked my 18 mo old for “reading” a book wrong, I thought it was abuse and it triggered my divorce from him.  
    I would likely have endured years of abuse to myself, but I could not endure abuse of my children. Perhaps I didn’t consider myself innocent, but I knew beyond a doubt that they were. 
    Punishment is so very complicated. If the punishment is designed solely to inflict physical pain, I deem it abuse. Yes, this physical pain might very well discourage certain behaviors… but if the idea is punishment rather than training, it seems to me it is abuse.  
    It is “I am bigger and stronger than you and I can demand some behavior.” 
    I’m willing to admit that my experience as an abused spouse colors my opinions. However, I was never able to connect the abuse to anything I’d actually done.

  30. Donna said: 
    A quite normal response from a one year old to that is to stare at the parent while slowly reaching for the forbidden item.. 
    Absolutely, my son, who has just turned 11 months, will do exactly this. In his case, it is attempting to climb shelves and trying to eat out of the garbage bins. He will even wait till we are eating and the coast is clear, then slyly try to engage in either of these activities. I have had to give him a swat on the ass more than once to stop him. Now I just need to look at him sternly and say, “NO!”, for him to stop.