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Spanking may lead to law-breaking, study shows

By Melissa Proulx
On December 6, 2013

A childhood punishment's long-term effects on the individual were quantified once again in a recent study published by one of our own.

Murray Straus, a UNH sociology professor and the co-director of the Family Research Lab, was able to conclude that students who were spanked regularly as a child are more likely to be lawbreakers. The findings were based off of the International Parenting Study, which surveyed 11,408 university students from 15 different nations between 2006 and 2010. Students were given a questionnaire that focused on their "relationships with their parents when they were 10 years old and what the parents did and did not do," according to Straus.

From this study, Straus was able to conclude that nearly two-thirds of students from almost all of the countries surveyed reported having been spanked at the age of 10. 

"In most countries, we saw about 65 percent of students reported being spanked," Straus said. 

There were some outliers, though. 

"In the United States, however, about 75 percent of students reported being spanked. We're a big spanking country," Straus said.

Accounting for gender, Straus found that those who reported regular spanking also reported having committed more crimes. For example, the results from all 15 nations showed that 29 percent of women and 44 percent of men reported that they had stolen money from others at some point in their lives and that 16 percent of women and 8 percent of men admitted to hitting a romantic partner at some point in the 12 months prior to the survey.

Though Straus says there is no one reason why spanking increases a child's probability of committing crimes in the future, it does help to provide some insight, particularly in the case of relationship abuse.

"Spanking at any point is an example set by parents," he said. "It teaches them that it's morally correct to hit someone who's doing something wrong. The trouble with that principle is that all [romantic] partners misbehave, in the other's opinion, sooner or later."

He also explained that the action also causes a disconnected between children and their parents.

"The bonds of a child with their law-abiding parents is very important for them to be law-abiding citizens themselves," Straus said. "Each time a child is spanked, it chips away a little tiny bit at that bond. Over time, the bond can almost erode away completely."

Straus, whose interest in this study stemmed from previous work, said that this evidence, though not the first of its kind, is necessary in order to help drive home the point to parents that spanking is not a punishment to dabble in whatsoever. Straus also said that his research differed from others in the past, due to the fact that he took a more in-depth look, analyzing factors such as the impact which parent(s) did the spanking. 

"Many parent books or articles will tell you to 'avoid it if you can,'" he said. "We need to get across [to people] that you have to go with what the research shows. You have to pay attention to the evidence rather than individual experience."

In terms of advice for parents about how to raise children to be the best they can be, his advice was simple.

"The holiday season is fast approaching and many people are thinking of great gifts to give their kids," he said. "I think the best gift you can give is to promise yourself you'll never spank them and you'll ultimately give them the gift of a greater probability of a happier and healthier life. There are many other ways of correcting behavior. Just leave out the spanking part and rely on all the other things you do."

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