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Spanking’s long-term effect on intelligence

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Spanking lowers IQ

Disciplining your child can be a challenge, but new research suggests that parents may wish to adopt methods other than spanking to manage their child’s behaviour. A recent study by University of New Hampshire professor Murray Straus shows that children who are spanked have lower IQs than children who are not spanked. 

Straus and colleagues measured spanking and IQ level in 806 children aged two to four and 704 children aged five to nine. Four years later, children aged two to four who were spanked had IQ scores on average five points lower than children who were not spanked in the same age group. Similarly, children aged five to nine who were spanked had IQ scores 2.8 points lower than children who were not spanked in the same age group. The researchers also found that the greater the number of times a child was spanked, the slower the development of the child’s mental ability.

Chicken or egg?

Other research by Straus may help to explain his latest findings; previous studies suggest that if spanking becomes a chronic stressor in a child’s life, the child may show an increase in post-traumatic stress symptoms, such as being fearful or easily startled. These types of anxious feelings can have a negative impact on cognitive ability.

Although this explanation appears logical, the relationship between spanking and IQ level needs to be examined more carefully. While Straus’ study shows an association between spanking and IQ level, it does not show cause and effect. It is not clear if spanking causes lower cognitive ability or if lower cognitive ability might lead to more spanking. For example, children with low cognitive ability may have associated behavior problems that are frustrating for parents to deal with. Low cognitive ability would be the cause, and parents spanking more often would be the effect. In this scenario, there is still the same relationship between IQ level and spanking as that found in Straus’ study, however we are able to identify the direction of the relationship. 

Undecidedly, there could be other factors influencing the relationship between IQ level and spanking. Parents who are spanking are using other forms of discipline less. The parent who explains to their child why what they are doing is wrong is increasing verbal interaction and stimulating cognitive development for their child. This could mean that a lack of verbal discipline combined with the spanking behavior itself, causes a low IQ level.

When spanking gets out of hand

There is a difference between giving your child the belt and spanking, at least according to Straus. He defines corporal punishment as the use of physical force with the intention of causing a child to experience pain but not injury for the purpose of correction or control of the child’s behavior.

These criteria, physical force, intent to cause pain, and the goal of managing behavior, must all be present at the same moment for corporal punishment to be identified. Think about removing a splinter from your child’s hand. You are using physical force and causing pain, but only to get that pesky splinter out. There is no effort to influence behavior. Furthermore, it is important to make a distinction between pain and injury. Giving your child the belt poses a significant risk of injury and is considered physical abuse instead of corporal punishment.

However, the line between corporal punishment and physical abuse can become blurred. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “although spanking may immediately reduce or stop an undesirable behavior, its effectiveness decreases with subsequent use. The only way to maintain the initial effect of spanking is to increase systematically the intensity with which it is delivered.” This means that if a certain behavior is not corrected after the first spank, the parent will hit the child again, but harder, perpetuating a cycle of punishment that can easily escalate into physical injury or physical abuse.

Theory vs. practice

Straus discriminates between spanking and more severe forms of assault in theory, but in practice these behaviors are more closely related. Data reported as corporal punishment by parents can be easily confounded with more severe forms of assault, making it difficult to discern the level of severity that leads to negative effects on child development.

Along with severity, there are problems with collecting data about the frequency of spanking found in Straus’ study. Mothers of the children in the two age groups were asked how many times they spanked their children during a two week period. This means that any spanking behavior that occurred outside of the time interval was not recorded. The behavior of fathers or other caregivers was not taken into consideration within or outside of the time interval.

Mothers reported the number of instances the child was spanked, which does not accurately reflect severity or frequency of spanking behavior. Whether the child was spanked hard five times on one occasion, or lightly just once, the act was reported as one instance of spanking. Also, we cannot forget that pain is a subjective experience. What is considered a hard painful slap on the behind to one child, may feel like a light touch to another.

Spanking affects emotions and mental health as well as intelligence

Looking beyond its effect on IQ, it is perhaps not a surprise that young children also experience stressful and negative emotions when faced with corporal punishment. Negative reactions to threatening stimuli, like those that affect behavior and development in humans, are parallel in the animal kingdom. Researchers observed two rats in a cage with an electric grid floor. As soon as the researchers administered a stressful shock through the floor the rats became violent, attacked each other, and fought to the point of drawing blood.

Corporal punishment contains an element of shock to a child. Children who are spanked or hit experience a range of emotional or behavioral probems through to adulthood, including aggression and anxiety, leading to violence in the home, depression, and substance abuse or dependence. 

The effects of spanking transcend culture and age

Straus’ findings appeared universal: around the world, a strong link exists between corporal punishment and IQ for adults who received corporal punishment as teenagers. Using data from 32 nations, Straus found the higher the percent of university students who received corporal punishment as teenagers, the lower the national average IQ. Most likely, adults who received corporal punishment as teenagers, also received it as children.

International organizations are beginning to take notice. Both the European Union and the United Nations have advised all member nations to prohibit corporal punishment by parents. In response, 24 nations have committed to legally banning corporal punishment by this year.

Tawnya Pancharovski  Medical Writer  AboutKidsHealth



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