Children in homes full of books and educational games are less likely to get spanked, new research shows.
Recent studies have found that corporal punishment can cause significant antisocial behavioral, such as lying, cheating, and hitting, in children as they grow older. So Andrew Grogan-Kaylor of the University of Michigan and his colleague Melanie D. Otis of the University of Kentucky wanted to find out what factors, independent of others, predict whether or not a parent is likely to “spare the rod.”
Their analysis of answers from 800 respondents on questions about their use of corporal punishment as well as many other family issues arrived at the intellectual stimulation factor.
“This is a little bit surprising for parenting researchers that cognitive or intellectual stuff would cross over into behavioral stuff,” Grogan-Kaylor told LiveScience. “Real people may know this altogether, but researchers have tended to separate the two areas.”
A home environment that is intellectually stimulating gives children an opportunity to work through and practice their emotions, think through the consequences of their actions and imagine possibilities for alternative actions in the future, he said. “Allowing children to stretch their brains in that kind of way is allowing children to behave less anti-socially down the road,” he said.
The researchers also found that Protestants were more likely to spank than parents with other religious affiliations.
The neighborhood, geographic region or economic status of a family made no difference in the use of spanking, but children’s odds of getting whacked decreases as they grow older by 3 percent per year, Grogan-Kaylor said. And parents of black children were more likely to use corporal punishment than parents of white children.
“To reduce the use of physical punishment, it may be beneficial to focus on interventions that teach parents to increase the amount of intellectual stimulation in the home,” said Grogan-Kaylor, who has also done research showing that children with fewer behavioral problems come from homes with increased intellectual stimulation.
Social workers and child and family advocates trying to reduce the use of corporal punishment should pay attention to the role of cultural factors in parents’ beliefs about spanking, Grogan-Kaylor and Otis write in the journal Family Relations. Parents often spank because they think it is an effective approach to discipline. Child and family advocates should suggest to parents more effective alternatives to spanking, they write, while acknowledging mothers’ and fathers’ desire to be good parents.
It’s easy enough to justify disciplining a child, physically or otherwise, and the spanking study found what you might expect—kids who act out, or externalize their problematic behavior, are more likely to be spanked, while children who tend to withdraw inwards and become anxious or depressed, are less likely to be spanked.
The researchers were surprised to find that factors other than bad behavior have an effect on whether or not kids are spanked.
“The interesting thing is that there are a lot of other things in the model, aside from what parents tell us kids are doing, that have an effect on whether or not they are spanking,” Grogan-Kaylor said. “Kids’ behavior is only one of a whole bunch of things that go into the decision as to whether or not to use corporal punishment.”
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Robin Lloyd was a senior editor at Space.com and Live Science from 2007 to 2009. She holds a B.A. degree in sociology from Smith College and a Ph.D. and M.A. degree in sociology from the University of California at Santa Barbara. She is currently a freelance science writer based in New York City and a contributing editor at Scientific American, as well as an adjunct professor at New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program.