A study was just published in Pediatrics stating that harsh physical punishment of children is associated with “mental disorders” later in life.  This is a topic of interest because spanking, which fits into that category, is banned in more than thirty nations but not in the U.S. or Canada.  It is a controversial topic as there are parents that still spank their kids as a form of discipline and there are those that think it is totally unacceptable.  Whatever your parenting style, the fact of the matter is that spanking is not a precursor to “mental disorders.”

First of all, this study warrants some clarifications or one could get lost in the lack of specifics.  This is not a study about spanking which other media reporters decided to use as a general term to attract attention.  It is a study about harsh physical punishment on children in the absence of more severe maltreatment.  Harsh physical punishment is defined as pushing, grabbing, shoving, slapping or hitting.  The last two terms could be interpreted as spanking but the word was never actually used in a question.  

More severe maltreatment entails physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse and also physical and emotional neglect.  With these definitions in mind, how did they draw the line between these two categories?  Doesn’t regular slapping and hitting automatically put one into the physical abuse category?  What about the ones inbetween or borderline? 

Especially with a broad term like hitting, there are various degrees ranging from light spanking to more heavy-handed spanking to outright hitting. These more specific forms of hitting were not taken into account in this study.  Without defining any of the degrees, there are two general categories that actually overlap making the data collected less comparible and less factual.  So how does this format accurately predict “mental disorders” later in life?

Additionally, it is only logical to question the diversity and reliability of the subjects in the study.  There were thirty-five thousand people that participated, yet the study showed that African-American people and any race with higher education and income levels had increased odds of experiencing harsh physical punishment.  That general conclusion is open to question, but what about the fact that the subject’s memory was the only source of information regarding punishment during childhood?  One’s memory on this subject could be totally accurate, but when you are expecting thirty-five thousand people to recall their childhood punishments one hundred percent accurately, it is not likely to happen.  Without confirmation of what took place, there is plenty of room for error.  

As a result, drawing conclusions from these general guidelines doesn’t present credible evidence, especially where “mental disorders” are concerned.  This study claims that harsh physical punishment during childhood is associated with increased odds of having anything from depression, mania, anxiety or mood “disorders,” to drug and alcohol abuse in adult life.  Since these study results are based on loose correlations, it doesn’t prove anything at all and doesn’t lend itself to further better parenting.

Psychiatry has failed to come up with any sort of scientific medical test to prove that any “mental disorder” even exists.  This study doesn’t show any direct cause, just merely associations.  So how can one do a study and suggest that harsh physical treatment of children has any connection to something unproven?  It’s just another smokescreen to claim that harsh physical punishment predisposes one to “mental disorders.”

That is not to negate that hitting, shoving, slapping and the like don’t have an effect on a child.  Indeed they do as pain has a physical effect on a child that in turn logically would have an emotional effect.  What kind of long-term effect is open to debate and this is not a forum for the pros and cons of spanking, but it is a place to steer parents towards the truth.  

It is noteworthy to mention the line of thinking of a psychologist from Oklahoma State University-Stillwater just to give a further example showing that mental health professionals are not an authority on children’s behavior or parenting.  This particular psychologist thinks spanking doesn’t have a detrimental effect if the child perceives the parent is hitting him because of concern for his behavior and welfare.  

Are we expected to believe that when a child is getting spanked he is analytically thinking that he did something that raises mom or dad’s concern for his welfare?  Not likely.  His attention is on the pain and emotional upset.  This psychologist seems to convey that parents educate their kids beforehand to the purpose of spanking when it’s more than likely reactive on the part of the parent than anything else.  So considering that this came from someone who is a supposed authority on “mental disorders,” this line of thinking is less than convincing.

Pushing, grabbing, shoving, slapping, hitting or spanking are not a factor in future “mental disorders” as it is all based on opinion and correlations, not scientific tests.  Without those tests and proof, a study like this one is of no value to parenting.  Being a parent is a tough job.  Educate yourself on the facts so that you can make informed decisions regarding your children.