But spanking is still prevalent in American families and legal in all states. Although it appears to be regularly out of favor among the younger generations, the 2018 General Social Survey – a long-running biennial national survey of American adults – found that 66% of Americans agreed that a “Good hard spanking” is sometimes necessary to discipline a child.
And a common argument in favor of spanking has persisted: How can we be sure that a child’s unsuccessful or antisocial behavior can be blamed specifically on physical punishment, as opposed to some innate or genetic factor?
Gershoff, professor of human development and family science at the University of Texas at Austin, set out to sort out the question of nature versus culture with his latest study, published in the March volume of Psychological Science. Gershoff and his research team analyzed more than a thousand pairs of twins – including more than 400 identical twins, who share the same DNA – many of whom were disciplined differently by their parents. The researchers found that a child who was punched or yelled at more often was consistently more likely to display delinquent or antisocial behavior.
“Identical twin studies are sort of the classic way psychologists use to differentiate what is innate behavior from what is learned behavior, so this study has a long tradition,” says Robert Sege. , pediatrician at Tufts Children’s Hospital and director of the Center for Community-Engaged Medicine at Tufts Medical Center, co-author of the 2018 statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics. “It’s yet another different way of looking at it, but all the data points in the same direction. As a scientist, when you see this, no matter how you experience it, no matter how you ask the question, you get the same result – it’s conclusive.
Gershoff spoke with The Washington Post about his decades of research into physical discipline in parenting and the implications of his latest study. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: You have been studying the effects of spanking for a long time. How has the scientific understanding of this question evolved over the course of your career?
A: When I first started studying physical punishment, there was a lot of resistance to the idea that it could be harmful. I walked into this with an open mind, thinking, ‘Well maybe the parents are right, maybe it works, maybe that’s what the research shows. At that point, we had several hundred studies that had looked at it, but no one had taken the big picture and said, “What did we find in the aggregate?” So that’s what I did in 2002. There have been many, many other studies since, and they have all continued to show that the more children are physically punished, the worse their behavior, the better their health. mental is bad. Now we also have research showing that they do less well in school, that they perform less well.
Q: These findings seem to be generally accepted among scientists and pediatricians, but what have you observed about our social and cultural perceptions of spanking?
A: We used to learn to parent only our own parents, that’s all, and maybe a few friends. I think over the past 20 years we’ve seen more parents accessing parenting information from parenting books, from the internet. Now we can talk to people all over the world and find out how they are parents, what works for them. There was more public talk about physical punishment than we hadn’t really seen before – you started to see figures like Oprah talking openly about how she was physically punished and how much she thought it was. ‘was harmful. It was a big deal.
But there are still a lot of parents who feel like you have to hit kids under certain circumstances. This pattern cuts across cultural and racial groups and different regions of the country. So yes, there are still a few parents to convince.
Q: Tell me about your new study and why you focused specifically on twins.
A: Our first goal was really to reach out to our colleagues who were skeptical of the data, the ones who said, “You can’t do experiments, so how do you know for sure it’s not genetic?” It’s our attempt to answer, because – they’re right, I can’t experiment. I cannot assign children to be hit at random. But there are other ways to get causal inference, and this study was really meant to address this genetic question.
This was an ongoing study of twins in Michigan, including identical twins who have the exact same genetic material, as well as fraternal twins who share half of their genetic material, following these twins since their birth. My colleagues leading the study said, “Can we look at the effects of parental rigor and can we look at it in twin families?” It’s a way of looking at the genetic impact, of answering the question “Is it nature or education?”
What we did was ask the twins and both parents to report how often the parents physically hit their children, and also how often they yelled at them or said mean things to them. And then we looked at the antisocial behavior of children – like lying, stealing, fighting, destroying people’s belongings, that sort of thing. We were looking to see: if you look within the same family, if you look at the differences in how one twin is punished versus the other, does that predict differences in their antisocial behavior? If the twin who becomes the most severe at parenting is also the most antisocial, that would suggest that there is some kind of environmental component, and it’s not genetic. That was the design of the study. And the vast majority of parents said they discipline children differently.
Q: Wow – parents treated their children differently?
A: It basically shows that parents see twins as individuals, they don’t parent them as a whole. And that’s good, but it’s just a shame that a child gets noticed for their harsh parenting. We didn’t ask them about the circumstances, so we don’t know why. But what we found was that the twin who received more spankings or yelled at more within each pair were the ones who had the most antisocial behavior. It was the same for children who were identical twins and for children who were not identical twins. It didn’t matter how much genetic material they shared. It boiled down to the severity of parenthood they were enjoying.
Q: Was it surprising how clear the results were?
A: Oh yes. My colleagues who are leading this study examine the twin differences throughout the day. They said he was one of the strongest models they had seen. When we study children’s behavior, there is often a mix of genetic and environmental factors, so we expected this when we looked at harsh parenting. But this one, it was really parenting that explained the behavior.
Q: Do you think this study then solved that question, whether a child’s innate characteristics might be to blame for their behavior, rather than harsh discipline?
A: We’re pretty sure it’s final. There is absolutely no evidence of a genetic component.
Q: You mentioned earlier that there are clearly parents to be convinced. In light of these results, what would you most like these parents to know?
A: For me, this is just more proof that the way we raise our children really does have an impact on them. And if parents are on the fence about corporal punishment, that’s just further proof that it doesn’t do any good for the children, and in fact it seems to make their behavior worse. And that makes our job as parents more difficult – that’s the irony. People try to improve their children’s behavior when they use corporal punishment, but they actually make it worse.