A study out of the University of New Hampshire found that those children who received spankings between the ages of 2-4 tested lower on IQ tests than the children who weren’t spanked.
If it wasn’t for bratty kids and their exasperated parents, television shows like SuperNanny and Nanny 911 wouldn’t be so incredibly popular. The child-rearing experts on those shows make it look like an effortless deal to turn kids who curse, bite, and throw spinach at the wall into civilized beings. But unlike those calm, in-charge TV nannies, the typical parent still flounders through the discipline quagmire — pleading, cajoling, yelling, screaming, punishing, and finally spanking or hitting the errant child in desperate hope of effecting some change.
And spanking — that last-resort tactic–does indeed effect changes in kids, but those changes tend to be for the worse. That’s what numerous studies have confirmed, including a new study out of the University of New Hampshire. The study followed 806 children aged two to four, and 704 children ages five to nine. The children took IQ tests at the start of the study and then four years later. Those children who had been spanked during those years tested lower on the IQ tests than the children who weren’t spanked — five points lower in the case of the younger group and 2.8 points for the five to nine year olds. The researchers had controlled for socioeconomic status, level of parental education, amount of cognitive stimulation the children received, and so on. They also noted how often the child was spanked and found that the more spanking the child received, the greater the negative impact on intelligence. “But even small amounts of spanking made a difference,” said study director Murray Straus.
So how does a bop on the butt translate into lost IQ points? According to Dr. Straus, “Contrary to what everyone believes, being hit by parents is a traumatic experience. We know from lots of research that traumatic stresses affect the brain adversely.” He says that most children who receive spankings get hit at least three times a week, which over the years creates post-traumatic stress symptoms (PTSD). PTSD is associated with lower IQ. This especially holds true for children who get hit into adolescence, as he found in a separate study that confirmed a link between spanking prevalence in countries around the world and the national IQ, using data on over 17,000 university students worldwide. That study found that in places where spanking flourished, the national IQ tended to be lower.
Another expert, Elizabeth Gershoff of the University of Texas, Austin, says, “With spanking, a parent is delivering a punishment to get the child’s attention and to get them to behave in a certain way. It’s not fostering children’s independent thinking.”
Some fed up parents may not care about knocking a few IQ points out of their kids, but even the most diehard spanking-enthusiasts might decide to spare the rod if they review the results of other studies on the subject. Earlier studies almost universally have found that spanking makes kids meaner and more aggressive. A recent study found that spanking tends to lead to sexual dysfunction in adulthood. (Maybe spanking would be more effective if you could actually communicate that down-the-road effect to the child being punished.) And yet another study that just came out, involving 2,500 toddlers from low-income families, found that spanking at age one led to increased aggressive behavior by age two and poorer performance on mental ability tests by age three. In other words, spanking may provoke the very behavior that it’s intended to stop. In this study, one-third of the one-year-olds, and about half of the two to three year olds had received spankings in the week prior according to reports filled out by the parents. And those are just the parents who admitted hitting their kids! If one-year-olds commonly get hit, no wonder so many people grow up ornery!
Interestingly, verbal punishment, including screaming, yelling, and so on, didn’t have the same negative effect on the kids, according to the study results. This is good news, if an article in the New York Times is to be believed. The article quotes Amy McCready, a parenting skills expert who founded Positive Parenting Solutions, who says, “I’ve worked with thousands of parents and I can tell you, without question, that screaming is the new spanking. This is so the issue right now.” In other words, at least in New York, spanking is popularly considered taboo, so parents scream instead. (But truly, isn’t that so New York?)
The article refers to one study that asked 1300 parents what created the most guilt for them, and over two-thirds named yelling at their kids as the single biggest source of guilt, though other choices included hitting the kids or failing them in some other way. Another study found that of 991 parents interviewed, 88 percent admitted screaming at their children within the past year.
The article ends with plenty of ammunition to convince parents that yelling is bad, and that it undermines kids (despite the findings of the Straus study). But an editorial in The Last Psychiatrist makes an interesting point. It says that the problem isn’t so much the disciplinary tactic used, it’s the fact that so many parents discipline kids willy nilly for shaming or burdening the parents rather than for doing something intrinsically wrong. For instance, a kid who spills milk on a clean floor may get punished as harshly as a kid who lies, leaving the kid confused about the difference between right and wrong and about what really counts.
And perhaps that’s true. Perhaps many parents do spout off because of their own frustrations and stresses rather than responding wisely and reasonably. But clearly, if almost 90 percent of all parents scream at their kids and a large percentage spank, it won’t work to simply say, “It’s bad for your kids — don’t do it.” So what should parents do when kids act out? For one thing, they should care for themselves. They should get enough exercise, meditate, eat well, and if necessary, take some herbal or nutraceutical relaxants so that they react to exasperating kid behavior from a place of poise rather than a place of frenzy. They also might find that the kids behave better if they follow a similar regimen — eating well, avoiding sugar, getting enough exercise, and yes — meditating. But if de-stressing the adult and dealing with the child’s excess physical energy doesn’t help, you can always get in line for a spot on the Nanny 911 show.