Applied Statistics

That’s the headline in the Daily News:

The research, by Calvin College psychology professor Marjorie Gunnoe, found that kids smacked before age 6 grew up to be more successful . . . Gunnoe, who interviewed 2,600 people about being smacked, told the [London] Daily Mail: “The claims that are made for not spanking children fail to hold up. I think of spanking as a dangerous tool, but then there are times when there is a job big enough for a dangerous tool. You don’t use it for all your jobs.”

From the Daily Mail article:

Professor Gunnoe questioned 2,600 people about being smacked, of whom a quarter had never been physically chastised. The participants’ answers then were compared with their behaviour, such as academic success, optimism about the future, antisocial behaviour, violence and bouts of depression. Teenagers in the survey who had been smacked only between the ages of two and six performed best on all the positive measures. Those who had been smacked between seven and 11 fared worse on negative behaviour but were more likely to be academically successful. Teenagers who were still smacked fared worst on all counts.

Further comments appear in this Newsweek article.

I couldn’t find a copy of Gunnoe’s report on the web. her local newspaper (the Grand Rapids News) reports that she “presented her findings at a conference of the Society for Research in Child Development,” but the link only goes to the conference website, not to any manuscript. Following the link for Marjorie Gunnoe takes me to this page at Calvin College, which describes itself as “the distinctively Christian, academically excellent liberal arts college that shapes minds for intentional participation in the renewal of all things.”

Gunnoe is quoted in the Grand Rapids Press as saying:

“This in no way should be thought of as a green light for spanking . . . This is a red light for people who want to legally limit how parents choose to discipline their children. I don’t promote spanking, but there’s not the evidence to outlaw it.”

P.S. One of the items in the Related News sidebar at the Daily News is “Identical Twins busted in $2M invest scam.” Maybe if they’d been spanked a bit harder, they would’ve performed better in school and not been so dumb as to have gotten caught!

Comments

  1. #1 Rose Colored Glasses
    January 5, 2010

    The US study was on spanking (a swat on the butt). The UK press reported it as a study on smacking, which in the UK is not slapping at all, but is beating a child on the head with an object such as a shoe, or whipping the child with an electrical cord.

    Smacking has been in the European news for over a decade, with the worry being that Brits who smack their children while visiting the Continent will be arrested and imprisoned.

    The UK and US press are clear on the difference between smacking and spanking. When the US reports on UK smacking, they reword it as ‘spanking’, and the UK changes our ‘spanking’ to their ‘smacking’.

    The Brits are fond of smacking children. I once ran across an account of a father beating his daughter for 45 minutes with a slipper to get her to stop showing him a bad attitude. Her age? 18 months.

    Brits all agree that at some point a child gets too old to be smacked, but the proposed age limit runs the gamut from 18 months to 16 years.

    It’s only a matter of time until some Brit gets arrested in France or Germany, and the dirty secrets start to come out.

  2. #2 aineolach
    January 5, 2010

    I found a paper from 1997 that was very similar to what’s being described:
    http://archpedi.highwire.org/cgi/content/abstract/151/8/768

  3. #3 Anon
    January 5, 2010

    Here at my Uni we have one of the go-to researchers on spanking; he is quite often in the news for one finding or another. A quick search of the Uni website for “spanking” finds more than a few articles (some headlines cut off):

    “Children who are spanked have lower IQs, new research finds”
    “Spanking kids increases risk of sexual problems as adults, new…”
    “Spanking by parents and subsequent antisocial behavior of children”
    “Spanking by parents: The primordial violent victimization and its…”
    “Never spanking can make life better for parents and the nation…”
    “Spanking and the making of a violent society”

    Just a few from the first page of 11 pages.

    I want to see them at the same conference. Could be fun.

  4. #4 PDeverit
    January 5, 2010

    The vast majority of professionals agree that child buttock-battering isn’t healthy. A marginal few (mostly religious fundamentalists as those at Calvin) think that child bottom-slapping is good. They use the same selective literalist interpretation of the Bible as was used to justify “witch”-burning, depraved torture methods for those accused of sin and heresy, slavery, racism, wife-beating, oppression of women and a host of other social ills.

  5. #5 Katherine
    January 5, 2010

    Parents that smack are prouder of their child’s achievements? Intelligent parents more likely to spank? Christian spankers more likely to be white, middle-upper class than brown and poor? Here’s some headlines for you.

    And in response to #1: the age is when the kid can’t feel it anymore, is bigger than you, or hits you back harder.

  6. #6 Smartmom
    January 5, 2010

    The only thing this study shows is that hitting younger children only, is less bad than hitting them as older children and teenagers. Well duh!

    So the study proves what most of the other studies on spanking show: the less hitting, the better the child does in life.

    Gunnoe is right: this study is NOT a green light to smack/spank your children. Quite the opposite.

    Over 100 research studies agree that the more you spank a child, the worse their behavior becomes in the long term, and the worse they do academically.

    My own child has never been hit, and is bright and very gifted as well as kind and polite.

  7. #7 Doug Gabbard
    January 5, 2010

    I am completely ignorant of research in this area, so I appreciate the post. However, I am disappointed by the unscientific tone.

  8. #8 Alex
    January 6, 2010

    Never, ever trust anything you read in the Daily Mail, particularly on scientific issues.

    British tabloids (even more than the rest of the Western media) are terrible when it comes to reporting science. The Daily Mail for instance is known for it’s (as Ben Goldacre likes to put it) ongoing oncological ontology project to categorize all the inanimate objects in the universe into whether they cause or cure cancer (sometimes you’ll even be told one week that coffee helps stop cancer, and the next week that it’s carcinogenic).

    And like most tabloids, it’s a populist, conservative rag. This means that the Daily Mail:

    *Denies climate change.
    *Is anti-vaccine.
    *Is anti genetically modified foods.
    *Is biased towards “faith” or religion, particularly of the Christian kind, and thinks that atheists are fundamentalist or something. It sees a society that is slowly becoming more secular/disbelieving to be one that is degrading.
    *Makes no sense on economics, instead trying to scare it’s readers with big numbers and cherry picked statistics. So expect to see the lump of labour fallacy, arguments against free trade and freedom of movement (they don’t like immigrants), as well as taxes that affect the rich being described as a tax on the middle class.
    *Promotes alternative/complementary “medicine”.
    *Is simultaneously worried about both an obesity crisis and an anorexia crisis (while of course running week-in week-out commentary on the ever so slight changes in the weight of celebrities).
    *Every now and again churns out some of the rubbish that gets put out on the fringes of evolutionary psychology and sexual psychology (so long as it agrees with their socially conservative view that women have a place, possibly in the kitchen etc).

    So here we have a science article in the Mail on spanking, a noted socially conservative parenting fetish. It’s no wonder the Mail are reporting this. It confirms their firmly held beliefs supposedly. Although, that is if the research does actually show what they say it shows. As I say, science from British tabloids is almost always untrustworthy.

    This is not to mention that the paper has not even been released, only announced (so they’ve not even read the abstract). And that is one of the worst things when science and media collide. Researchers that announce a paper with some modest fanfare but don’t release the paper, and a media that doesn’t care how good the research is, or whether it even exists, so long as it gets readers and clicks and advertisers money.

  9. #9 Gary Unruh
    January 6, 2010

    Interesting conclusions: occasional spanking is not damaging for our preteen children—that’s if a culture views spanking as the normal consequence for bad behavior. And the inferred conclusion is that occasional spanking is good for pre-teen children, good meaning fewer “bad outcomes” and more “good outcomes” (Dr. Marjorie Gunnoe’s list).
    Stop the presses. Two questions need to be addressed before these conclusions can be safely implemented by parents: (1) Do Gunnoe’s outcomes constitute what’s basically good for children, and (2) what are all the other parenting factors, besides spanking, that occurred with the occasionally spanked preteens or the never-spanked preteens? (Bronson wisely speculated “consistency of discipline is more important than the form of discipline.”) Here are my answers to these questions based upon nearly forty years as a child mental health counselor and being a dad of four grown children and seven grandchildren.
    Starting with question 2: What are all the other parenting factors besides spanking that occurred with the occasionally spanked preteens or the never-spanked preteens?
    There are two primary discipline pieces: consistency and form of discipline. Not one study shows consistent spanking is the best discipline. Many studies show consistent, respectful, firm limit-setting is the best discipline. The discipline form should be determined by the terms “respectful” and “firm.” Spanking qualifies for “firm,” but “respectful”? Well, you be the judge. And just because “I turned out okay and my kids did too with spanking being part of the discipline” doesn’t automatically qualify spanking as the best form of firm discipline.
    Question 1: Do Gunnoe’s outcomes constitute what’s basically “good” for children? No one will argue with the bad outcomes, but the good outcomes are not basic enough. (True, these outcomes are indicators of a successful teen.) Here’s what I’ve found to be the most important basic outcome from respectful, firm limit-setting: a child believing “I’m good for who I am on the inside.” Many successful indicators will flow out of this belief, including happiness and respect for others. Do we need to add “occasional spanking” to achieve this outcome? Hopefully Gunnoe’s research will answer the question.
    I offer this take-home lesson: Consistent, respectful, firm limit-setting is essential for a kid to believe “I’m good for who I am on the inside.” Don’t use spanking until you’ve exhausted all other forms of firm discipline.
    Gary M Unruh MSW LCSW Author Unleashing the Power of Parental Love

  10. #10 Rose
    January 7, 2010

    Alex,
    Thanks for you comments! Very enlightening.

    I didn’t know this paper and its reputation but I couldn’t take seriously a media that sends such a bad message to parents.

    As if the world is not bad enough with husbands ‘smacking’ partners, parents hitting their children to ‘teach’ them what? To be a good person? What makes you a good person? To hit someone, for me, it is far from being an example of a good character.

    I have a 3y old son who was never hit and will never be. And he is the most adorable and gentle and polite person you can ever see.

    He learns from his mum and dad that hitting is not cool; we help him overcome his frustration and to communicate so he doesn’t need to trow tantrums to make a point. But that is hard work. It is easier (but not as effective, I am afraid) to smack them in the bottom.

    Shame on this article. A real shame!

  11. #11 Anon
    January 18, 2010

    “Those who had been smacked up to the age of six performed better in almost all the positive categories and no worse in the negatives than those never punished physically.”

    From the Telegraph’s article: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/healthnews/6926823/Smacked-children-more-successful-later-in-life-study-finds.html

    Some comments:
    – kids who are smarter learn faster, so parents stop smacking them earlier
    – parents with poorer communication styles resort to physical punishments
    – need to find out id severity and consistency of ‘smacking’ is a factor
    – wish the article is posted on the net so we all can appraise the research methodology

  12. #12 Dr Laura Markham
    February 7, 2012

    I read Gunnoe’s study. It does NOT claim that spanking helps kids do better in school. Even Gunnoe doesn’t claim anything more than this: Youth last-spanked from 2-6 were more optimistic about their future than never-spanked youth. There is NO claim that kids who are spanked do better in school.

    Now, maybe kids who are spanked ARE more optimistic, but is that really what the study proved? Maybe not. First, it’s a VERY small sample. This finding may well not be replicated. Second, it is well established in the literature that kids who are spanked are more psychologically defended. People who are more psychologically defended tend to have less nuanced, more conventional interpretations of things and to rely on the defense of denial. Kids who are more psychologically defended might well be expected to express more determined optimism about their futures than kids who can allow themselves to see things more realistically. This is reminiscent of the kids I worked with in inner-city Newark who couldn’t get through high school. They needed their denial to survive, and often told me with great optimism how they were going to be famous rappers or basketball players.

    It’s also worth noting that no peer reviewed psychology journal was willing to publish her article, because they don’t think her methodology was good enough.

  13. #13 Dr Laura Markham
    February 7, 2012

    I read Gunnoe’s study. It does NOT claim that spanking helps kids do better in school. Even Gunnoe doesn’t claim anything more than this: Youth last-spanked from 2-6 were more optimistic about their future than never-spanked youth. There is NO claim that kids who are spanked do better in school.

    Now, maybe kids who are spanked ARE more optimistic, but is that really what the study proved? Maybe not. First, it’s a VERY small sample. This finding may well not be replicated. Second, it is well established in the literature that kids who are spanked are more psychologically defended. People who are more psychologically defended tend to have less nuanced, more conventional interpretations of things and to rely on the defense of denial. Kids who are more psychologically defended might well be expected to express more determined optimism about their futures than kids who can allow themselves to see things more realistically. This is reminiscent of the kids I worked with in inner-city Newark who couldn’t get through high school. They needed their denial to survive, and often told me with great optimism how they were going to be famous rappers or basketball players.

    It’s also worth noting that no peer reviewed psychology journal was willing to publish her article, because they don’t think her methodology was good enough.

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