Friday, September 25, 2009

Spanking makes kids stupid?

That's what a researcher's latest study says -- kids who are spanked often are dumber than kids who aren't spanked. That's even if the parents are of equal educational status and equal socio-economic status.

So does a swat on the rear reach right on in to a kid's brains and kill neurons? Oh puh-LEEZE. That's not the problem at all. The problem is that spanking is just too easy, and replaces actual teaching.

Here's the deal: Punishment doesn't teach anything (by "teach" I am using the professional definition for the word -- "instillation of new knowledge or behaviors"). Rather, it reduces the occurrence of a behavior. It doesn't teach a kid what he should be doing instead of whatever bad thing he did. It just teaches the kid to avoid doing that particular behavior whenever a parent is around. It's like a cat and a table. You can squirt the cat every time he gets up on the table. But that won't do anything about his behavior when you *aren't* in the room. He'll just jump off the table every time you enter the room and run and hide under the couch.

To teach, you have to tell a kid a) what he's doing wrong, b) what he *should* have been doing, and c) make sure that you've been rewarding him all along for doing what he *should* be doing. By "reward" I am again using the professional term, not the common usage -- i.e., not a bribe, but, rather, if he asks you nicely for something rather than screaming and throwing a temper tantrum, engage with him and reward him with your attention and, occasionally, even give him whatever he's asking for if it's reasonable and he's being reasonable. The problem is, spanking is just too easy. If the kid is whining and throwing a tantrum because you're not buying the latest toy for him, it's easy to spank him to make him stop whining. But that just turns him into a whiny kid who thinks Mommy is a violent bitch. It doesn't teach him what he should be doing (i.e., asking politely, trying to persuade Mom via reason and kindness, etc.). It doesn't teach him how to do the kind of creative thinking that's going to get him ahead in life -- or get him higher scores on an IQ test.

So I'm not surprised at all by the outcome of this study. Note that I'm not vehemently anti-spanking as such. There are some behaviors that simply must be suppressed, by any means possible, because they present a threat to the child's safety or otherwise are socially unacceptable in ways that could harm the child's future. The problem is when it's used as a crutch, as a usual way of disciplining a child, rather than as a last resort when redirection to desired behavior, logical consequences, and other such actual *educational* discipline methods fail to do the job. There's a difference between teaching a child to NOT do something, and teaching a child TO do something. Spanking does the former, not the latter, and using it as the first resort rather than the last resort teaches the child nothing -- and, as this study shows, makes him stupid (at least on IQ tests) compared to his peers.

-- Badtux the Psychology Penguin


  1. Having actually raised 4 kids I must admit I approve of Spanking ;
    IF the child will not listen to you and Only IF you can do it without being Angry . It has to be a teachable thing , mostly like "Listen to me" , but if you apply it in an angry state you are already out of control .
    Once you get a kid to listen to you then you build respect upon that and then they listen next time . Easy to say now that the youngest is 24 . Grand kids Are a trip tho !

  2. My dad was a High School teacher in San Jose. He joked about the basebal bat under his desk. (There wasn't one)

    "I don't use it to teach them - it's just there to get their attention".

    A judicious swat on the fanny does wonders to get a childs attention. It's no substitute for love and time spent teaching. But it's a useful tool when used sparingly.

  3. The problem is that it works a bit *too* well. It's too easy, and thus parents tend to overuse it once they've decided that spanking is okay. The problem there is that then they omit teaching the kid how to behave, and instead teach the kid how NOT to behave, which is useful but won't get the kid doing what he's supposed to be doing. Behavioral psychologists experimenting with all sorts of animals have discovered that any environment where punishment is more prevalent than rewards (talking about psychological definition of those terms, not the common definition) leads to psychotic or depressed rats, pigeons, dogs, or chimpanzees. Or humans. And depression does tend to push down your IQ, deary, because when your mentality is "fuck it all", taking the energy to think and perform well on an IQ test doesn't work at all.

    Problem with American society today is that it's all about punishment, and nothing about rewards. There's no reward for working hard and behaving well. So kids sell drugs on street corners, cook meth in abandoned houses, and otherwise do shit they shouldn't be doing. And punishment only works to stop a behavior if you're there and they see you before the behavior starts -- the cats on the table, remember? You can squirt these kids after the fact (or arrest them and toss them in jail) all you want, but unless you come up with a society where working hard and doing well in school leads to getting ahead in life (when they can look around and see that it's not happening, the only people getting ahead in life are vicious, venal rich bastards, all that working hard does nowdays in America is get you tired and poor) they aren't going to buy it.

    So basically we have a psychotic society. And spanking on a regular basis (as vs. a very rare event) doesn't help with that, it just reinforces the fact that we live in a sick, punitive society and leads to the attitude, "fuck it all" and a society-wide funk that hardly lends itself to building a future for the nation...

  4. I have a daughter 6 YO. She gets a LOT of attention. Mom does most of her education - so Kathy is not only speaking English and Russian, she's learning to read Russian as well as speak it. On Wednesday she goes to gymnastics - on Friday, piano lessons. On Sunday we go to Bush Gardens or Sea World. (We are theme park junkies.)

    Offhand, I did a piss-poor job with my first three kids. My second wife is teaching me how it SHOULD be done.

  5. There might be a correlation-cause logical fallacy here too. I haven't looked at the link yet, but I can tell you, as an ex-teacher, that's the first thing that comes to mind: the high performers (who will most often- not always, but most often- do better on standard intelligence tests) are not the ones who "test" the teachers.

  6. Lockwood, it's possible to adjust for that with careful enough measurements. There are parents of difficult children who have never spanked their child, and parents of easy children who regularly spank their child. There's certainly a correlation between undesired behavior and physical discipline, but it is hardly the perfect one that you hypothesize.

    From a practical point of view, once a child becomes verbal and capable of understanding basic cause and effect, the need for spanking ceases. I taught in a behavior center one year and was taught techniques for dealing with even the most difficult children that required zero (no) physical punishment of any kind. The closest we got to physical violence was taking a child down to the floor if he became physically violent, restraining him there until he was ready to go to an isolated area removed from all the fun happening in the classroom (something the kids *hated*). Otherwise we operated by making sure the kids knew at all times what they were supposed to be doing, and that the kids got rewarded for that, and because they swiftly learned the consequences they generally only tested the limits once or twice and then went along with us. Not always, these kids were certified crazy after all, but certainly no more than in any regular classroom I ever taught in.

    So anyhow: This isn't to say that a swat on the fanny will turn your kid into a moron. Just that not all parents of difficult children use physical punishment, and not all parents of easy children avoid physical punishment. There are parents of difficult children who learn to have decent results without physical punishment... indeed, I recall one parent that I taught about timeouts, who reported that her daughter hated timeouts far more than she ever hated being spanked. Said daughter was crazy and violent and physical punishment had done nothing to stop that, it just fed into her crazy. I'm not saying timeouts cured her, the girl had some things wrong in her brain, but what I *am* saying is that spanking is not always how parents and professionals deal with difficult children, and thus the 100% correlation notion just doesn't work.

  7. Sorry, I didn't mean to imply that the correlation was necessarily that strong. I grew up in a state that allowed physical punishment in the school setting during the 60's and 70's. I never got paddled, but couldn't help but notice who did. It was and is illegal in Oregon, where I taught. Again, I've set the link aside for when I have more time to look at it carefully; you're quite correct that it's possible to adjust. I simply meant point out that the first thing that came to MY mind when I read your post was cause-correlation problems.

  8. Don't even have to explain what's 'wrong'.. Simply make the 'right' action more enjoyable & you're off.. We learn by our emotions (which is where punishment/pain comes in), not our intellect.. The intellectualization comes after the experience..

    Let the flames begin..proving me correct ;-)

    from one whose dad thought a stick carried all knowledge.. & was ever so wrong..

  9. This is a big issue in New Zealand, where it's called "smacking." The country passed a law against letting parents do it in 2007, but there was a national referendum a couple months ago that said it SHOULD be legal.

    I never hit my daughter when she was growing up. I reckoned that I'm big, she was small, and I didn't need to smack. I yelled a lot. (Plus much positive attention and rewarding of good behaviour.) She turned out to be a tattooed punk rocker, but she's also smart as me and doing OK in university, so she turned out all right.

  10. There are many dimentions to the issue - the big vs little not the least among them.

    I wonder about the native intelligence level of spankers vs non. Equal economic staus and education will not correlate with intelligenc, will it?

    And I think people who spank tend to do it A LOT. Is it about correction or dominance? Or abuse? I rather suspect abuse can drop the smart a noych or two.

    JzB the non-spanking trombonist

  11. Ahem -

    . . . drop the smartS a noTch or two.

    JzB the slightly embarrassed tromonist

  12. They adjusted for parental income and education level (e.g., compared parents with college degrees and six-figure salaries against each other, not against middle school dropouts on welfare). As for the dominance aspect, there's probably some of that in it, but let's face it, you have to discipline the little savages or they turn out to be total assholes, so there's always going to be dominance games being played when you're bringing up children, whether you're spanking them or sending them to their room without supper after they act like a total heel.

  13. My experience is that adhering to a pefectionist way of parenting whether involving spanking or other behavior makes children fear to speak out, to take bold action, or to work with a group, as a leader or equal. I know children from the same family. The later kids (after parents mellowed) got better grades, and are very successful while the older ones struggle, though I know they really have the same intelligence. If you take the time to talk to them very gently, they can show they have brains, but they can't deal with our tough world as effectively as those raised with less punishment and push for perfection.
    And about spanking itself, I think you are absolutely right there, Badtux.

  14. Child buttock-battering vs. DISCIPLINE:

    Child buttock-battering for the purpose of gaining compliance is nothing more than an inherited bad habit.

    Its a good idea for people to take a look at what they are doing, and learn how to DISCIPLINE instead of hit.

    I think the reason why television shows like "Supernanny" and "Dr. Phil" are so popular is because that is precisely what many (not all) people are trying to do.

    There are several reasons why child bottom-slapping isn't a good idea. Here are some good, quick reads recommended by professionals:

    Plain Talk About Spanking
    by Jordan Riak,

    The Sexual Dangers of Spanking Children
    by Tom Johnson,

    by Lesli Taylor M.D. and Adah Maurer Ph.D.

    Most compelling of all reasons to abandon this worst of all bad habits is the fact that buttock-battering can be unintentional sexual abuse for some children. There is an abundance of educational resources, testimony, documentation, etc available on the subject that can easily be found by doing a little research with the recommended reads-visit

    Just a handful of those helping to raise awareness of why child bottom-slapping isn't a good idea:

    American Academy of Pediatrics,
    American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry,
    Center For Effective Discipline,
    PsycHealth Ltd Behavioral Health Professionals,
    Churches' Network For Non-Violence,
    Nobel Peace Prize recipient Archbishop Desmond Tutu,
    Parenting In Jesus' Footsteps,
    Global Initiative To End All Corporal Punishment of Children,
    United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

    In 26 countries, child corporal punishment is prohibited by law (with more in process). In fact, the US was the only UN member that did not ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child.


Ground rules: Comments that consist solely of insults, fact-free talking points, are off-topic, or simply spam the same argument over and over will be deleted. The penguin is the only one allowed to be an ass here. All viewpoints, however, are welcomed, even if I disagree vehemently with you.

WARNING: You are entitled to create your own arguments, but you are NOT entitled to create your own facts. If you spew scientific denialism, or insist that the sky is purple, or otherwise insist that your made-up universe of pink unicorns and cotton candy trees is "real", well -- expect the banhammer.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.