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Study: Dad's Spanking Can Lead To Cognitive Problems For Children

Spanking is bad. We know that. Early-childhood spanking has been consistently linked to troubled and troubling behavior later in life.

But new research out of the Columbia University School of Social Work sheds light on the particulars of that bad-ness, and offers details on how spanking may impact a child's cognitive development. The new data, published in the journal Pediatrics, suggests that paternal spanking at age 5 is connected to verbal skill deficits at age 9.

Researchers, led by Dr. Michael MacKenzie, looked at data from the Fragile Families and Child Well-Being (FFCW) Study. The FFCW gathered information on more than 4,000 children born between 1998 and 2000 in 20 average-sized U.S. cities; researchers assessed reports of spanking at age 3 and 5 along with results from behavioral and cognitive tests at age 9.

The percentage of parents responding "yes" to spanking their child in the past month. (Source: Pediatrics, graphics by Rachel Bloom)
The percentage of parents responding "yes" to spanking their child in the past month. (Source: Pediatrics, graphics by Rachel Bloom)

So, what did spanking do to these kids? Frequent (at least twice per week) spanking at age 3 and any spanking at age 5 by mom predicted bad behavior at age 9; and frequent spanking by dad at age 5 predicted vocabulary deficits.

MacKenzie says that the new research is important because few other studies in this arena "have examined effects on cognitive development.”

But just because two things seem to be related to each other, it doesn’t mean that there is a clear cause-and-effect relationship. Does spanking have a direct effect on the developing brain, or might it be an indicator of some other bad, potentially harmful parenting practice?

According to the study:

...the researchers controlled for an extensive set of factors that might also influence spanking and children’s development, including other risk factors (late prenatal care, risky health behavior, intimate partner violence, and father supportiveness during pregnancy, maternal IQ, parenting stress, depression or anxiety, and impulsivity, and mothers’ cognitively stimulating activities with the child) as well as factors related to the child and family background (maternal age, race/ethnicity, immigration status, educational attainment, employment status, and family structure growing up; family structure and income; and child gender, age, low birth weight, birth order, and temperament). Taking advantage of the longitudinal data in the FFS, the researchers also controlled for children’s prior levels of behavior or development.

Even an infant’s temperament and a mother’s level of stress were treated as controls, researchers report. With these and other controls in place, the report says, the results still apply across gender and ethnic lines.

The bottom line? While spanking may seem like a quick fix for an immediate problem, this study suggests that it can cause issues later on that are much more difficult to tackle.

This program aired on October 22, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

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