According to the medical journal Pediatrics, there appears to be a link between childhood spanking and adult mental illness … or at least that’s the headline making the rounds. (And, in case you can’t tell from my tone here, I’m calling shenanigans on this one)
Researchers examined data from more than 34,000 adults and found that being spanked significantly increased the risk of developing mental health issues as adults. According to their results, corporal punishment is associated with mood disorders, including depression and anxiety, as well as personality disorders and alcohol and drug abuse. They estimate that as much as 7 percent of adult mental illness may be attributable to childhood physical punishment, including slapping, shoving, grabbing, and hitting.
I guess my concern is, what exactly is the definition of “spanking” we’re working with here?
I know very few adults, both in my age group and on either end of it, that were not spanked as children at one point or another. I personally was spanked pretty consistently (which should probably have demonstrated to my parents how ineffective beating on your kid’s butt is as punishment, but that’s a different story), and I don’t think being spanked as a child had any impact on the adult I am whatsoever.
When you get into the stuff that goes beyond spanking, though, the punching and the kicking and the throwing down stairs and smashing little kids into walls, I’m sure the correlation exists. It’s just the way the reporting out of the study is spun in terms of its title that pisses me off, I guess.
And the fact that it’s pretty much an outrageous attempt to control parenting.
Before I go any further, I feel like I need to state that I have never spanked either of my children. This has nothing to do with any sort of noble mindset or belief that it’ll screw them up or anything, but more because I have found that either logical consequences (you hit a kid with a baseball bat, so we’re canceling your birthday party) or revoking privileges are far more effective. I mean, if she thinks her iPhone is at stake, my older daughter will do pretty much anything I ask.
The thing is, though, establishing the idea of logical consequences and revoking privileges is something that needs to be started at …
… an early age (both of my daughters had to be lugged kicking and screaming out of Chuck E. Cheese as toddlers before recognizing that, if they didn’t leave quietly when it was time to go home, they wouldn’t be going back to hang with the big Cheese any time soon). In fact, let’s face it, parenting is hard.
And the study’s author, Dr. Tracie Afifi from the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, makes very clearly that the research was focused on “people who used physical punishment as a regular means to discipline their children.” It’s easy to miss this little fact of extreme significance after reading that spanking your children as a means of discipline sets up your kids for a life of mental malaise.
The analysis excluded individuals who reported more severe maltreatment such as physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, physical neglect, emotional neglect, or exposure to intimate partner violence.
In other words, I think the more important question at hand is where the line is between spanking and abuse.
Although I was spanked regularly (and my father didn’t pull punches, so to speak), I do not remember any specific spanking he administered that stands out. What I do remember, in excruciating detail, are other punishments.
For example, I had an obsession with a baseball card of Paul Molitor given to me by my brother when I was four or five. I know this sounds bizarre, but I brought it everywhere with me, slept with it under my pillow, just loved that stupid piece of cardboard. My dad got really pissed off at me one day and tore up my baseball card. I started screaming, “Daddy ripped Paul! Daddy ripped Paul!” and went sobbing to my bedroom. He knocked on my door an hour later, and he’d put the pieces of Paul back together with scotch tape. It was his way of saying he was sorry.
It traumatized the hell out of me, and that and stories like it have come up when I tried counseling following a devastating life event and again when I was trying to save my marriage. My dad destroying something dear to me (and then trying to fix something irreparable, which is I suppose a metaphor of some sort) scarred me in a way that being spanked never did.
So the idea that Professor Afifi is trying to knock on spanking bothers me in large part because the study is inherently flawed by implying that childhood spanking is a cause of mental illness. Hard-core physical abuse? Emotional cruelty? Sexual abuse? Neglect? Sure, I’ll buy any of those contributing to mental illness. But spanking?
And I was once married to a statistician, which taught me that you can twist any number to prove your hypothesis if you design your experiment the right way. And, taking that into consideration, 7% doesn’t exactly strike me as statistically significant.
What I fear is that people will read this ridiculous study and swing the pendulum too far the other way. There is a serious problem with kids being enabled in this day and age, with parents trying to be friends with their kids instead of figures of guidance and authority.
I truly believe that allowing your kids to get away with murder will ultimately cause more harm to their psyches than being spanked. In the real world, if you misbehave, you lose your job, you go to jail, you could even get killed.
Am I way off-base here?