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I Admit It: Spanking My Kids Is Not Causing Them Mental Illness

When I lived in New York and Philadelphia, I was cautious about publicly disciplining my children, since I knew mothers in liberal northeastern cities differed greatly with my approach. For example, I once was chided by a mom in a library for getting on to my daughter for wandering off while I was trying to check out her books.

“You get back over here,” I said quietly, and my daughter began to throw a bit of a fit. In my urgency to avoid a public confrontation, I lapsed into the very unoriginal but still effective, “Keep it up, and I’ll really give you something to cry about!”

Another mom, ever so gently, pulled me aside. “You know, you really needn’t be so sharp with her,” she said. “The girl is obviously just trying to read books, and you will intellectually stunt her.”

The only thing I was trying to stunt was her defiance of basic instruction — a battle I fight with all three of my children. My insistence that my kids actually obey me put me at odds with friends who laughed when they saw me correct the kids at the playground. My friend Rene once said memorably, “I don’t use the word ‘obey’ with my kids, because it sounds so . . . Biblical.”

Incredulous, I asked her, “What do you do with the speed limit?”

I thought of these incidents when an incendiary headline popped up my Facebook and Twitter feeds repeatedly: Spanking Linked to Mental Illness. With great hesitation, I clicked through to read this first paragraph:

Although the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) strongly discourages spanking, at least half of parents admit to physically punishing their children. Some research suggests that as many as 70-90 percent of mothers have resorted to spanking at one time or another. A new study published in the journal Pediatrics may cause parents to think more carefully before laying a hand on their little ones.

How do you like that language? Half of parents “admit” to physically punishing their kids, as if it’s a drug habit or a tax fraud that requires confession.

Well, I “admit it.” I spank my kids.

What damage does the article say I’m doing to my children? I braced myself and read on:

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.

This includes: mood disorders, depression, anxiety, personality disorders, as well as alcohol and drug abuse.

Feeling guilty yet? Don’t. Because there’s an interesting tidbit of information buried in the article that the alarming headline obscures:

“We’re not talking about just a tap on the bum,” study author Tracie Afifi, PhD, of the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, explained in a statement. “We were looking at people who used physical punishment as a regular means to discipline their children.” However, 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, this study is not about spanking at all. It’s about slapping, shoving, grabbing, hitting, physical/sexual/emotional, and more. Did we need a study to tell us that abusive behavior is, well, abusive? Slate writer — and mom — Melinda Wenner Moyer tried to get to the bottom of the issue, but found inherent difficulties in studies trying to determine the effects of disciplinary measures:

Researchers at Oklahoma State University investigated whether nonphysical punishments are also associated with delinquent behavior later in life. They found that psychotherapy, grounding, and sending children to their rooms all make kids more antisocial. The researchers don’t actually believe that psychotherapy causes behavioral problems—they just wanted to show that these kinds of studies identify associations that aren’t necessarily causally linked the way you would expect.

In other words, as she summed up nicely, “Discipline is associated with behavioral problems in part because discipline is caused by behavioral problems.”

So where does that leave the parent? In the same place we were before this misleading article came out: in charge of our own families, responsible for the spiritual, physical, and emotional well being of our little ones, and not affected by headlines on Facebook.

I admit it. 

I’m sick of researchers trying to shame me with a misleading study and a scary headline, which could’ve more accurately read, “Spanking Causes Mental Illness . . . in Social Scientists Who Hate Spanking.”


Thank you, Loraine, for pointing out the mistakes in the way I presented the case in the above article.  The quotation I cited did explicitly state that 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.”

However, I went back to the original study on which the article with the “Spanking Causes Mental Illness” headline was based, my assertion that the study is flawed still stands (notwithstanding my carelessness above!)  Melinda Wenner Moyner explained the flaws of the study, which was in the July issue of Pediatrics, :

In fact, the study has nothing to do with spanking at all. Canadian researchers asked 34,000 adults how often they had been pushed, grabbed, shoved, slapped, or hit by their parents or other adults when they were children. The authors explain that they were trying to assess the long-term effects of regular harsh physical punishment, which, they write, “some may consider more severe than ‘customary’ physical punishment (i.e., spanking).” Ultimately, the researchers reported that adults who have mental problems are more likely to say they were pushed, grabbed, shoved, slapped, or hit by their parents than healthy adults are.


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