For more than two decades, Georgia State University professors Phillip Davis has studied corporal punishment as a form of discipline in the home.
Today, you can find him in his office atop a downtown Atlanta high-rise, nestled in a mountain of books, research papers and students' work that seems nearly as tall as the building.
Through his largely survey- and interview- based research, Davis has taken a variety of approaches to assessing the dynamic of spanking, slapping, whipping and other forms of corporal punishment within American households.
“Nine out of 10 people have done it, and nine out of 10 adults got it when they were kids in one way or another,” Davis said. “ Most who use it grew up with it, so it’s all very normal -- as in ancient history.”
And, in fact, corporal punishment is a practice that dates back to ancient history in varying forms, but the ancient practice has been coming under some very modern scrutiny. Just in the past 30 years, Davis said, public perceptions surrounding corporal punishment has undergone a considerable shift -in both the home and educational settings.
“Comparing early 20th century and late 20th century, spanking has for some [people] come to mean violence, for some it’s come to mean a bad habit, for some it’s come to mean abuse,” Davis said. “These are very non-traditional meanings associated with this practice that has an ancient history.”
“Spare the rod and spoil the child.”
-Samuel Butler, 1662
How long have you been working on corporal punishment research? For you, what are some of the most interesting findings, trends or developments over the years?
“I got interested about 1989-1990, so that makes it quite a while. In the 1990s the topic really took off.”
“Almost all the research is survey research. In my own projects, I thought it important to observe and interview people as well as do surveys. That survey data has ended up focusing in the ‘90s on long-term negative effects, or potential negative effects of spanking.”
“The new myth is that spanking causes things like lower achievement, child aggression, adolescence aggression, adult partner violence later on. The important thing to remember, I think is that it’s frequent and severe hitting in the absence of parental warmth that is associated with a long list of negative effects, or potential negative effects. It increases the chances that kids are going to be aggressive themselves at school, do less well long-term and have more difficult relationships. But it’s not a one-size-fits-all kind of explanation for all those things that come later on."
"Most people that grew up being frequently spanked don’t engage in partner violence and didn’t become schoolyard bullies, but the likelihood goes up. Murray Straus, one of the pioneering researchers [in the field] said it’s kind of like heavy smoking. Most heavy smokers do not develop a life-threatening disease, but their risk of doing so is far greater than non-smokers.”
“All kinds of things need more investigation, [like] what parents need instead if they’re being told to find something else. Nothing works all the time. If they’re given alternative techniques like time-out, just about anything can be abused and done too much and carried too far and is not going to work all the time."
“It’s really hard to know how to intervene into practices that have long traditions of social support, legal support, family support -- and a lot of people feel like they’re being disloyal to their own parents if they challenge traditional family practices like spanking."
In “Threats of corporal punishment as verbal aggression: A naturalistic study” you talk about adults normalizing their aggression toward their children, and the role situations in a public setting play in developing the reaction as “nothing unusual.” What kind of impact, if any, does this type of normalization have on children, family dynamic or society at large? Are there other implications?
“One effect of treating [corporal punishment] as normal is that it goes unquestioned and becomes deeply entrenched as a cultural trait, not just a personal habit. It’s one of the cultural traits commonly found around the world, so the practice continues at the social level and the practices continues in families from generation to generation."
“There’s nothing that shows if we spare the rod that the child will be spoiled, but it goes back to what anthropologist call magical thinking, ‘If we do X then the kids will be protected against all the various kinds of lures and seductions and won’t go astray.’"
"I don’t have any doubt that it’s well intended, normalized, viewed as a family tradition that doesn’t hurt, but can only help. But does it hurt, [that's] where the public needs to hear about some of the research that [says] ... it very well can.”
Has there been any public shift in public perception of spanking or corporal punishment as a form of discipline in the past 50 years?
“Probably in the last 30 years attitudes of approval [for corporal punishment practices have gone] down, disapproval [have gone] up."
"Maybe half of the U.S. adult population still agrees or strongly agrees with the statement ‘sometimes children just need a good, hard spanking,’ but that’s down from 80+ percent. So opinion polls do find less support over the years, and reported rates of spanking are down."
"But still, for those three- and four-year-old kids, especially sons, the majority of parents say that at least once in the proceeding year they spanked. When asked why, the answers usually are a familiar sounding list of ‘some kids need it, some kids don’t,’ ‘sometimes there’s no other way,’ or ‘as a last resort -- I do it after I try everything else.’”
In the past you’ve looked at corporal punishment cessation among parents that spank their children. Why do parents stop, and what kind of impact does it have on their children?
“A couple dozen mothers had quit and I asked them why and what the circumstances were. Some said they got scared when it did escalate too far and were too angry, hitting too much or too hard. Some said they had kind of an epiphany when their child did something or said something that challenged the practice, or the child spanked their doll and the mother then said that wasn’t a practice they wanted to see their child continue doing. Some took a parenting class and heard the issue raised for perhaps the first time that it may not be a great idea."
"I’m not sure it’s a quick fix, but most researchers and child advocates and parent education people say it takes more work not to than to go ahead and spank. Other things, like reasoning, take more time."
"When parents do try to quite it looks like it’s not easy, that it’s a hard habit to kick. I don’t think it’s addictive, but it’s a custom – and not just an individual custom or habit, but a cultural trait."
“I don’t argue for national legislation that would ban the practice at home or criminalize the practice. I think people need to be given a whole lot of information and support, parental support, paid family leave – not just unpaid family leave – the U.S. is behind the times there. Childcare needs to be more highly paid instead of one of the worst paid jobs and needs to be recognized as a crucial and critic job. It’s something that needs the support of everyone.”
How is the meaning of spanking changing?
"I think social movement activity and media coverage of controversies elsewhere has a lot to do with it. People sometimes get the mistaken idea that it’s been criminalized because they get mistaken information."
"Comparing early 20th century and late 20th century, spanking has, for some, come to mean violence, for some it’s come to mean a bad habit, for some it’s come to mean abuse. These are very non-traditional meanings associated with this practice that has an ancient history."
"Child advocates and parent educators need to remember that it’s probably going to polarize and push parents the other way if we call it violence, pre-abuse or potential abusive and so on. That’s too derogatory, I think, for something well-intended parents often do."
"So a small fire of controversy in one county, or one state, or one school district can get national attention. People can ridicule the controversy and think that’s a stupid or unimportant issue, but overtime those seeds of doubt about the practice can be planted. Most people have heard that there’s something controversial about it."
What role does spanking or corporal punishment play, if any, in the development of deviant social behaviors later in life? Is there a link between physically disciplined children and larger social problems, or criminal activity/predisposition?
“Retrospective studies looking back in time based on surveys and interviews with kids in trouble with the courts, as well as with adults in trouble with the courts and in the correctional system, uniformly find those adolescence and those adults ... got plenty of corporal discipline at home."
"It’s too simple to say cause-and-effect and that’s why they got in trouble, but it’s not the absence of spanking that people contend [contributes to wild behavior later in life (abridged for clarity)]. That is not the case."
“I would say social marginalization and social oppression in its many forms has more to do with who ends up in prison than the harsh punishment they received as children.”
What advice would you give to parents today?
"It’s not being disloyal to ones own parents to raise kids in your own way or to not do everything that they did. A lot of times, people will say my faith demands it, or my community demands it, or my family demands it, or my own parents demand it, but there are ways of getting around that. Doing non-traditional child rearing, especially if the kids are getting all kinds of guidance and nurturing and discipline in other ways, [then] they don’t need to be hit."
"There’s no research that shows some children need to be hit.”
“Just think about the reasons, justifications and rationals that we often use to carry on our old ways. They may need to be reconsidered."
"I don’t tell people not to do it. There are certainly worst things to do, but there is no research that shows kids need it, or that some kids need it, or that if they don’t get it they’ll turn out bad. There’s good reason to suspect their chances of getting in trouble increase, especially if it’s frequent or severe."
“No one knows how frequent too frequent is, but in all likelihood it’s not contributing to the child’s well-being or prospects for living a high-quality adult life.”
Photo credits: Clay Duda/JJIE Staff