MSNBC - LiveScience.com September 25, 2009
Children who are spanked have lower IQs
Physical punishment slows kids' intellectual growth, researcher says
Spanking can get kids to behave in a hurry, but new research suggests it can do more harm than good to their noggins. The study, involving hundreds of U.S. children, showed the more a child was spanked, the lower his or her IQ compared with others.
"All parents want smart children," said study researcher Murray Straus of the University of New Hampshire. "This research shows that avoiding spanking and correcting misbehavior in other ways can help that happen."
One might ask, however, whether children who are spanked tend to come from backgrounds in which education opportunities are less or inherited intelligence lower.
But while the results only show an association between spanking and intelligence, Straus says his methodology and the fact that he took into account other factors that could be at play (such as parents' socioeconomic status) make a good case for a causal link.
"You can't say it proves it, but I think it rules out so many other alternatives; I am convinced that spanking does cause a slowdown in a child's development of mental abilities," Straus told LiveScience.
Straus and his colleague Mallie Paschall of the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation in Maryland studied nationally representative samples of two age groups: 806 children ages 2 to 4, and 704 ages 5 to 9. The researchers tested the kids' IQs initially and then four years later.
Both groups of kids got smarter after four years. But the 2- to 4-year-olds who were spanked scored 5 points lower on the IQ test than those not spanked. For children ages 5 to 9, the spanked ones scored on average 2.8 points lower than their unspanked counterparts.
The results, he said, were statistically significant. And they held even after accounting for parental education, income, cognitive stimulation by parents and other factors that could affect children's mental abilities.
Straus will present the study results, along with research on the relationship between average national IQ and prevalence of spanking around the world, Friday at the 14th International Conference on Violence, Abuse and Trauma, in San Diego, Calif.
Whether or not spanking equates with dumber kids is not known, and may never be known. That's because the only way to truly show cause and effect would be to follow over time two groups of kids, one randomly assigned to get spanked and another who would not get spanked. Barring that method, which is unfeasible, Straus considers his study the next best thing, as he looked back at a nationally representative set of kids who were followed over time.
Jennifer Lansford of Duke University's Center for Child and Family Policy and Social Science Research Institute called the study "interesting," and agrees the method is a strong one. Lansford, who was not involved with the study, said following kids over time as this study did rules out the possibility that children with lower IQs somehow elicit more physical discipline.
However, unlike research showing the link between spanking and a kid's aggressive behavior, in which kids model parents' actions, this link is less clear to her. She added that a question still left unanswered is "what are some of the other mechanisms that could be responsible for this link between physical discipline and lower IQ?"
How spanking harms
If spanking does send IQ scores down, Straus and others offer some explanations for what might be going on.
"Contrary to what everyone believes, being hit by parents is a traumatic experience," Straus said. "We know from lots of research that traumatic stresses affect the brain adversely." Also, the trauma could cause kids to have more stressful responses in difficult situations, and so may not perform as well cognitively.
By using hitting rather than words or other means of discipline, parents could be depriving kids of learning opportunities. "With spanking, a parent is delivering a punishment to get the child's attention and to get them to behave in a certain way," said Elizabeth Gershoff, who studies childhood development at the University of Texas, Austin. "It's not fostering children's independent thinking."
So when a child gets in a bind, he or she might do the right thing to keep from a spanking rather than figuring out the best decision independently, added Gershoff, who was not involved in Straus's current study.
And then there are genes, as some kids are just born smarter than others.
Even though spanking has been shown to cause negative consequences, Gershoff said many parents still fall back on the behavior-shaping tool. As for why, she says it's a quick fix, though its seeming success is short-lived and the negative consequences often outweigh the positives. Parents also might have been spanked themselves and so continue the tradition.
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Time Magazine - September 26, 2009
Why Kids Who Get Spanked Have Lower IQs
by John Cloud
The debate over spanking goes back many years, but the essential question often evades discussion: does spanking actually work? In the short term, yes. You can correct immediate misbehavior with a slap or two on the rear-end or hand. But what about the long-term impact? Can spanking lead to permanent, hidden scars on children years later?
On Friday, a sociologist from the University of New Hampshire, Murray Straus, presented a paper at the International Conference on Violence, Abuse and Trauma, in San Diego, suggesting that corporal punishment does leave a long-lasting mark - in the form of lower IQ. Straus, who is 83 and has been studying corporal punishment since 1969, found that kids who were physically punished had up to a five-point lower IQ score than kids who weren't - the more children were spanked, the lower their IQ - and that the effect could be seen not only in individual children, but across entire nations. Among 32 countries Straus studied, in those where spanking was accepted, the average IQ of the survey population was lower than in nations where spanking was rare, the researcher says.
In the U.S., Straus and his colleague Mallie Paschall of the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, looked at 1,510 children - 806 kids ages 2 to 4, and 704 ages 5 to 9 - and found that roughly three-quarters had endured some kind of corporal punishment in the previous two weeks, according to interviews with the mothers. Researchers measured the children's IQ initially, then again four years later. Those kids who hadn't been spanked in the initial survey period scored significantly better on intelligence and achievement tests than those who had been hit. Among the 2-to-4-year-olds, the difference in IQ was five points; among the older kids, there was a 2.8-point gap. That association held after taking into account parental education, income and other environmental factors, says Straus.
So how might getting spanked on the butt actually affect the workings of the brain? Straus notes that being spanked or hit is associated with fright and stress; kids who experience that kind of trauma have a harder time focusing and learning. In another recent paper that he coauthored with Paschall, Straus writes that previous research has found that even after you control for parental education and occupation, children of parents who use corporal punishment are less likely than other kids to graduate from college.
Still, it's not clear if spanking causes lower cognitive ability or if lower cognitive ability might somehow lead to more spanking. It's quite possible that kids with poor reasoning skills misbehave more often and therefore elicit harsher punishment. "It could be that lower IQ causes parents to get exasperated and hit more," Straus says, although he notes that a recent Duke University study of low-income families found that toddlers' low mental ability did not predict an increase in spanking. (The study did find, however, that kids who were spanked at age 1 displayed more aggressive behavior by age 2, and scored lower on cognitive development tests by age 3.) "I believe the relationship [between corporal punishment and IQ] is probably bidirectional," says Straus. "There has to be something the kid is doing that's wrong that leads to corporal punishment. The problem is, when the parent does that, it seems to have counterproductive results to cognitive ability in the long term."
One problem with Straus' data is that some of the parents who tended to spank may also have been engaging in actual physical abuse of their children. Researchers define corporal punishment as physical force intended to cause pain - but not injury - for the purpose of correcting a child's behavior, not simply hurting him. Studies have shown that very few parents who use corporal punishment also beat their kids, but Straus can't rule out the possibility that his data is confounded by the presence of child abuse, which past research has shown to affect victims' development.
The preponderance of evidence points away from corporal punishment, which the European Union and the United Nations have recommended against, but the data suggest that most parents, especially those in the U.S., still spank their kids. Based on his international data, collected by surveying more than 17,000 college students in various countries, Straus found that countries with higher GDP tended to be those where corporal punishment was used less often. In the U.S., the tendency to hit also varies with income, along with geography and culture; it's most common among African-American families, Southern families, parents who were spanked as children themselves and those who identify themselves as conservative Christians.
But overall the percentage of parents who spank has been steadily declining. Straus says that in 1968, 94% of Americans told surveyors they agreed with spanking. By 2005, the proportion who said it is "sometimes O.K. to spank a child" had fallen to 72%, although most researchers believe the actual incidence of corporal punishment is higher.
The practice has its defenders, and Straus himself admits, with chagrin in his voice, that he spanked his own son. In the 1990s, the American Academy of Pediatrics underwent a bitter fight before finally declaring in 1998 that "corporal punishment is of limited effectiveness and has potentially deleterious side effects."
Sometimes spanking seems like the only way to get through to an unruly toddler. But the price for fixing his poor short-term conduct might be an even more troublesome outcome in the future.
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