Societies that do not permit parents or teachers to spank or slap children as punishment for unwanted behavior have less youth violence, according to a study published recently in the journal BMJ Open.
For the study, researchers at McGill University in Canada analyzed global data collected on more than 400,000 adolescents (aged 13 to 17) in 88 countries. The data included findings from a survey that asked young people of varying ages how often they had gotten into fights during the previous 12 months.
According to the survey, frequent fighting was three times more common in teenage boys (9.9 percent) then in teenage girls (2.8 percent). It also varied widely among countries, from less than 1 percent in Costa Rican teenage girls to almost 35 percent in Somoan teenage boys.
The researchers then compared that data with information regarding the prohibition of corporal punishment in the countries where those children lived. Thirty of the 88 countries banned corporal punishment at school and at home, while 38 had bans only for schools and 20 had no bans at all.
The analysis found that in countries where corporal punishment was completely banned, rates of physical fighting was 31 percent lower among teenage boys and 58 percent lower among teenage girls than in countries where such punishment is permitted both at home and at school.
In countries where corporal punishment was banned in schools but not in homes (a group that includes the United States), the rate of fighting was also lower, but only among teenage girls (by 56 percent).
These findings held even after accounting for other factors that might potentially affect teen behavior, such as a country’s per capita income and murder rate or whether the country offers parental education and other social programs aimed at preventing the maltreatment of children in the home.
Proof of correlation, not causation
As the McGill researchers make clear, their study shows only a correlation between nationwide bans on corporal punishment and lower rates of youth violence. What the study can’t determine is what came first: Did the bans lead to children acting out less violently, or did the bans reflect existing social environments that were already less prone to spanking and youth violence?
“All we can say, at this point, is that countries that prohibit the use of corporal punishment are less violent for children to grow up in than countries that do not,” said Frank Elgar, a developmental psychologist and the study’s lead author, in a released statement.
The findings do, however, support plenty of other evidence that has linked corporal punishment to negative health and behavioral outcomes.
One major review of 50 years of research (which I reported on here in Second Opinion in 2016) found that children who are spanked by their parents tend to exhibit more anti-social behavior, aggression, mental health problems and cognitive disabilities — effects that continue into adolescence and adulthood.
Research has also shown that parental spanking has the opposite effect to what parents want. Not only is it ineffective at improving children’s behavior, it appears to make them more likely to defy their parents.
A widespread practice
Discipline involving corporal punishment is common around the world, and most of it occurs in the home. Using data from 62 countries, Unicef estimated in 2014 that about four in five children aged 2 to 14 are subjected to such punishment at the hands of their parents or other caregivers.
Almost one in six of those children (17 percent) experience severe physical punishment in their homes — they’re hit on the head, ears or face and/or hit hard and repeatedly.
In the United States, corporal punishment has become less socially acceptable in recent years, particularly among people with higher levels of education. But a 2015 Child Trends survey found that 76 percent of men and 66 percent of women in the U.S. agree with the statement “a child sometimes should be spanked.”
“A growing number of countries have banned corporal punishment as an acceptable means of child discipline and this is an important step that should be encouraged, especially in countries that have seen an effective lobby against such prohibitive approaches,” the McGill researchers write.
“Cultural shifts from punitive to positive discipline happen slowly,” they point out. But, as they also note, “In the past, there were scant data about the detrimental consequences of adults physically punishing children. This has changed as more evidence supports regulatory and educational public health approaches to protecting children and reducing violence.”
“All children have the right to [grow up in a way] that does not endanger their well-being and respects their right to exist,” the researchers stress.
FMI: You can read the study in full on the BMJ Open website.