Sparing the Rod, Reading the Research

[content warning: this whole article is about corporal punishment.]

Via the ever-charmingly named holygoddamnshitballs on tumblr. I saw this quoted piece from CNN.

The only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child.

Hit your partner, and you’ll be arrested for domestic violence. Hit another adult, and you’ll be arrested for assault. But hit a 4-year-old, and you can call yourself a “loving father”. That’s completely screwed up.

It should be against the law for a fully grown adult to slap, hit, spank, punch, switch, whoop, whip, paddle, kick or belt a defenseless child in the name of discipline. But it is legal, and new research in the Journal of Family Psychology suggests that the average 4-year-old is hit 936 times a year.

If study after study conclusively proves that hitting your kids doesn’t work as a disciplinary method, and worse, it has long-term damaging impact to their psychology and makes your kids more aggressive, why do we as a society allow it?

And while I find corporal punishment appalling, 936 times as an average amount of violence per year seemed astronomical to me. That’s very, very frequent, or a series of very long spankings. I assumed something had gone wrong. (In my defense, people on tumblr get research wrong a lot.)

So, I tracked down the study. I sort of assumed it would be some issue of inaccurate self-report by children being extrapolated out to how many times a child was hit a year. But….actually this was a pilot study using audio recorders. (It’s worth noting that it was a small study, averaging only 12.95 hours of recording per family.) This was going to be much more accurate data then I’d have expected from spanking research at all.

Even more confusingly, each time I poked about at methods and sample, I found things that made me wonder if a larger, longer sample wouldn’t find even more instances of corporal punishment (CP in the research). The only part that might indicate a sample skewed towards higher physical punishment was that it selected for parents of 2-to-5 year olds who admitted they yelled in anger at least twice a week. Perhaps someone with a two-to-five-year-old can chime in if this seems excessively frequent? I imagine that between the Terrible Twos and still having someone dependent on you for everything, this isn’t more than one standard deviation above average.

But at the same time, consider this: the parents had some inkling that this was research about child discipline. They were interviewed over the phone prior to the research study, as well as possibly given a series of questionnaires prior to beginning the data collection. (I’m hoping the researchers waited until after, but the wording did not specify.) This makes me expect lower amounts of CP, with parents assuming that the weird psych people giving them audio recorders weren’t going to be enthusiastic about parents hitting their children.* Additionally, spanking publicly is socially frowned upon (hence, spanking in bathrooms or promising a spanking at home) and I expect that adding in audio recorders made the home seem less private. Further, the mothers were more educated than the population at large, which makes me wonder if they’re a sample with higher impulse control than average.

So, all in all, I’m leaning towards this being a fair, but possibly skewed lower than reality sample. But, a quibble in terms of reporting: the number, which is reported at Raw Story and CNN as the average number of times a four year old child is hit per year isn’t an average at all. The median number of times a child in the study was hit per week was 18, which when multiplied out, to 52 weeks, is 936 per year. (I’m unclear if in this section of the research, the writers were describing the subset of data for parents using corporal punishment, or the numbers on all parents in the study. The answer to that question would further clarify.)

The researchers noted that most parents who did use CP also failed to follow proponents’ guidelines about how to use spanking/hitting. Approximately half the time the punishment was given while audibly angry (advised against) and the vast majority—more than 90%—of the punishments were for non-serious offenses, mainly violating social norms. Most advice for parents who are going to use spanking is to use it very selectively, and only for serious offenses. (Here’s a well-respected psychologist explaining use of ‘effective’ physical punishment, for comparison.)

But most interestingly to me, 73% of children were back to misbehaving after ten minutes. This isn’t the reason I object to hitting your kids, but you can even make a fairly strong argument that it doesn’t work as a behavioral modifier, violence aside. I don’t pretend to be an expert, but on the simple end, time-outs seem like they would do better behavior-modification, if only because they remove the child from their current trajectory in a way hitting a child does not. It’s much harder to go back to bothering your sister or making a mess after you’ve been left alone in a different place for five or ten minutes.

*I mostly assume this as a result of the meme that spanking-approval is a more common conservative standpoint than liberal one, and psychologists seem to generally be assumed to be liberal.

9 thoughts on “Sparing the Rod, Reading the Research

  1. How depressing.
    I don’t find it too surprising that the children go back to their behaviour: they are used to being hit.

    I’d be careful in assuming higher education means better impulse control, even though impulse control may help learning. Factors like race, wealth, gender, and class determine educational opportunities.

    1. I mean, I agree in the sense that there are a lot of causal factors for what makes for higher education. However, there is a significant correlation between people with higher education and impulse control. Perhaps this is a result of nutrition in childhood, of specific experiences that certain classes are more likely to get, or something I’ve never thought of. But if I have a pool of people with higher education and a pool of people without higher ed, I can assume with good confidence that the people with higher ed will have greater impulse control.

      1. Interesting. Do you have a link for that? The article you link to above just shows an effect on learning, and that’s not the same thing.

      2. Oh damn, thank you. I had a ton of tabs open and apparently cited the wrong one.

        Study 1 here (followup to the Stanford marshmellow test)
        is one such example. Yes, it’s true that there are good critiques of the marshmellow test (as it’s often over-simplified, see here:, but on the whole, self-regulation/impulse control and educational attainment correlate, though that correlation might be developed via environmental factors (as Mischel in the second link suggests)

        Effortful control is another measure of ability to control impulses and self-regulate (sorry, psych uses like ten terms for the same concept) and has a strong positive correlation with educational attainment. See here:
        and here:

        Click to access 2011-1.-Liew-2011-Child-Development-Perspectives.pdf

  2. Sorry, my question wasn’t clear.

    Based on the abstracts, I’d say all the studies are about impulse control being good for learning:
    Link 1: role of impulse control on mitigating rejection sensitivity
    Link 2: children’s ability (or willingness) to delay gratification is rational in that it depends on how reliable their environment is.
    Link 3: positive correlation between control and academic competence in 7-12 year-olds
    Link 4: self-regulatory skills and school readiness.

    None of this shows higher education implies better impulse control. While better learning probably helps with higher education, many other factors determine access to higher education. E.g. in the 1900s (as in many countries today) a random sample of men would have been better educated than a random sample of women. This doesn’t prove the women lacked impulse control.

    Consider hard work: in almost every field, hard work is positively correlated with success. Yet we cannot conclude that CEOs and supermodels work harder (or are harder working types) than coal-miners and waitresses. Simply assuming this is a fact would be racist, classist, sexist, ablist etc. because it denies that anything other than hard work determines whether you become a miner or a CEO.

    1. It seems like there’s still a misunderstanding. Maybe examples might help us clarify where we disagree?

      There’s a world with blue and red squares. Everyone starts as a blue square of some kind, but you can be bigger or smaller squares and some of the squares have rounded corners, while some do not.

      Blue squares can become red squares. They have to run at a pipe that leads into the factor that dyes them red. Being a smaller square makes this much easier, but the pipe is also arbitrarily just biased in favor of rounded squares for some reason. This seriously sucks for the larger, squarer squares, but it remains true that if you took a sample of red squares, they’re more likely to be smaller. (Even as there are other factors, like having rounded corners, that are at play making it easier for some squares to pass through the pipe to the red dyeing factories.)

      I think we agree that there are other, (also generally unfair) factors that prevent people from getting higher education. But for people overall trying to get higher education, be they a variety of kinds of oppressed or be they not in those categories, having higher impulse control seems to make it more likely that they will get higher ed.

      I think another example might be this: if there are 100 people, and 20 have high impulse control, 60 have regular impulse control, and 20 have unusually low impulse control. In the population, it’s pretty hard to have the requisite privileges to get higher education, and only one in ten people do. So let’s additionally say that only 2 of the high impulse-control kids would be able to have the option to even afford/be encouraged/not be discriminated against in the classroom that would get them to college. 6 regular-impulse controlled kids would, and 2 low-control kids would. Now (and only now) we build in the results of our knowledge about the role of impulse control (because no matter how you can have self-control, college is *expensive* and not really accessible without privilege). So, both of the privileged-and-high-impulse-control kids get higher ed, most of the privileged regular kids (5 out of 6) get it, and one of the extremely low-impulse kids do.

      So now if I sampled randomly from the group that is Kids Who Got Higher Ed and sampled from Our Strange Group of 100 Total Kids, Higher Ed or Not, I would hypothesize that the average impulse control of Higher Ed Kids would be a higher average impulse control than Non-High-Impulse-Control kids, even if privilege was making a bunch more of the selection.

      Does this differ from what youre modeling?

      1. The basic issue is that (A->B) does not imply (B->A).

        * * *
        Taking your figures, the distribution of h.ed. h:m:l : non-h.ed h:m:l would be 2:5:1:14:43:15.
        In the study with n=33 the h.ed group was overrepresented (92 vs 58% some college; 60 vs 32% college and 29 vs 12% advanced degrees). Taking the latter as your 10% h.ed: instead of the expected 4 h.ed there were 9.
        Expected value for h.i.c.: 9 x (2/8)= 2.25 and 24 x (14/72)= 4.67 (by your distributions),
        so total expected value = 6.92 vs 33 x 0.2= 6.6 (by your 20% rule in the general population)
        And for l.i.c.: 9 x (1/8) = 1.125 and 24 x(15/72) = 5,
        so total expected value l.i. = 6.12 vs 33 x 0.2 = 6.6.
        That means statistically you would have expected 0.32 of a person more with h.i. and 0.54 of a person less with l.i. than on average.

        Do you see how even for a “perfect” sample this is unlikely to influence the results?

  3. “The median number of times a child in the study was hit per week was 18.” If I read the article correctly that number applies only to those children who are hit. For the majority of the children no corporal punishment was applied. It makes the statement “the average 4-year-old is hit 936 times a year” even more misleading.

    I’m basing this on the article stating that there were 18 children in the study who received corporal punishment. There had to be at least 49 children in the study. The median number of times a child was hit would therefore be zero.

    Thanks for the link to the study. I think it does suggest that those who apply corporal punishment do so at a significantly greater rate than they are willing to admit.

    1. I was about to comment on this until I read your comment. I just want to add a few things.

      All 33 families they pulled data from admitted they ‘yelled in anger at least twice a week’.
      Half of these families had no CP incidents.(15/33)
      Half of the families that had incidents only had 1 incident of CP. (6/15)

      The median was calculated by using incidents per hour. If you assume that in all families, the incidents recorded were the only incidents for the entire day, then the median is slightly lower (14 per week) – though maybe this is not a safe assumption.

      I think it’s still possible that families that use CP use it more than the study represents. However, this is in no way representative of the average 4 year old.

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