Spanking is linked to cognitive problems

Deborah Netburn / Los Angeles Times /


Published Oct 23, 2013 at 05:00AM / Updated Nov 19, 2013 at 12:31AM

The majority of U.S. children have been spanked at some time in their life, despite a robust body of evidence suggesting that spanking a child leads to problems.

The latest evidence of the negative effects of spanking comes from researchers at Columbia University. After analyzing data from more than 1,500 families, they found that children who are spanked in early childhood are not only more likely to be aggressive as older children, they are also more likely to do worse on vocabulary tests than their peers who had not been spanked.

The study was published this week in the journal Pediatrics.

While several studies have found a connection between spanking and aggressive behavior, the finding that spanking could be linked to cognitive ability is somewhat new.

“Only a few studies have looked at the cognitive effects of spanking,” said Michael MacKenzie, an associate professor at Columbia University and lead author of the study. “We are still trying to learn if spanking has a direct effect on early brain development, or if families that spank more are less likely to read to their kids and use more complex language.”

In this latest study, MacKenzie analyzed data collected from more than 1,500 families as part of the Fragile Families and Child Well-Being Study (FFCW). The study followed children from 20 U.S. cities from birth to age 10. Most of the children were born between 1998 and 2000.

Parents were asked questions about their child’s behavior and whether they had spanked their children within the past month. The answer was frequently yes: 57 percent of mothers and 40 percent of fathers reported spanking their children when they were 3 years old, as did 52 percent of mothers and 33 percent of fathers when their children were 5 years old.

When these kids turned 9, parents were asked to assess their behavior. The researchers also gave the children a test that measured their vocabulary.

The FFCW study also collected other data that might influence a 9-year old’s behavior and performance on the vocabulary test, including the age of the mother when the child was born, the mother’s self-reported stress levels, her intelligence scores, and her own impulsivity. The researchers also knew whether the child had a low birth weight and what his or her temperament was like during the first year of life, among other things. The researchers factored all of these into their analysis.