Dr. Larzelere featured in spanking stories


WASHINGTON -- Corporal punishment remains a widely used discipline technique in most American families, but it has also been a subject of controversy within the child development and psychological communities.

In a large-scale meta-analysis of 88 studies, psychologist Elizabeth Thompson Gershoff, PhD, of the National Center for Children in Poverty at Columbia University, looked at both positive and negative behaviors in children that were associated with corporal punishment. Her research and commentaries on her work are published in the July issue of Psychological Bulletin, published by the American Psychological Association.

While conducting the meta-analysis, which included 62 years of collected data, Gershoff looked for associations between parental use of corporal punishment and 11 child behaviors and experiences, including several in childhood (immediate compliance, moral internalization, quality of relationship with parent, and physical abuse from that parent), three in both childhood and adulthood (mental health, aggression, and criminal or antisocial behavior) and one in adulthood alone (abuse of own children or spouse).

Gershoff found a "strong associations" between corporal punishment and all eleven child behaviors and experiences. Ten of associations were negative such as with increased child aggression and antisocial behavior. The single desirable association was between corporal punishment and increased immediate compliance on the part of the child.

The two largest effect sizes (strongest associations) were immediate compliance by the child and physical abuse of the child by the parent. Gershoff believes that these two strongest associations model the complexity of the debate around corporal punishment.

"That these two disparate constructs should show the strongest links to corporal punishment underlines the controversy over this practice. There is general consensus that corporal punishment is effective in getting children to comply immediately while at the same time there is caution from child abuse researchers that corporal punishment by its nature can escalate into physical maltreatment," Gershoff writes.

But, Gershoff also cautions that her finding does not imply that all children who experience corporal punishment turn out to be aggressive or delinquent. A variety of situational factors, such as the parent/child relationship, can moderate the effects of corporal punishment. Furthermore, studying the true effects of corporal punishment requires drawing a boundary line between punishment and abuse. This is a difficult thing to do, especially when relying on parents' self-reports of their discipline tactics and interpretations of normative punishment.

"The act of corporal punishment itself is different across parents - parents vary in how frequently they use it, how forcefully they administer it, how emotionally aroused they are when they do it, and whether they combine it with other techniques. Each of these qualities of corporal punishment can determine which child-mediated processes are activated, and, in turn, which outcomes may be realized," Gershoff concludes.

The meta-analysis also demonstrates that the frequency and severity of the corporal punishment matters. The more often or more harshly a child was hit, the more likely they are to be aggressive or to have mental health problems.

While the nature of the analyses prohibits causally linking corporal punishment with the child behaviors, Gershoff also summarizes a large body of literature on parenting that suggests why corporal punishment may actually cause negative outcomes for children. For one, corporal punishment on its own does not teach children right from wrong. Secondly, although it makes children afraid to disobey when parents are present, when parents are not present to administer the punishment those same children will misbehave.

In commentary published along with the Gershoff study, George W. Holden, PhD, of the University of Texas at Austin, writes that Gershoff's findings "reflect the growing body of evidence indicating that corporal punishment does no good and may even cause harm." Holden submits that the psychological community should not be advocating spanking as a discipline tool for parents.

In a reply to Gershoff, researchers Diana Baumrind, PhD (Univ. of CA at Berkeley), Robert E. Larzelere, PhD (Nebraska Medical Center), and Philip Cowan, PhD (Univ.of CA at Berkeley), write that because the original studies in Gershoff's meta-analysis included episodes of extreme and excessive physical punishment, her finding is not an evaluation of normative corporal punishment.

"The evidence presented in the meta-analysis does not justify a blanket injunction against mild to moderate disciplinary spanking," conclude Baumrind and her team. Baumrind et al. also conclude that "a high association between corporal punishment and physical abuse is not evidence that mild or moderate corporal punishment increases the risk of abuse."

Baurmrind et al. suggest that those parents whose emotional make-up may cause them to cross the line between appropriate corporal punishment and physical abuse should be counseled not to use corporal punishment as a technique to discipline their children. But, that other parents could use mild to moderate corporal punishment effectively. "The fact that some parents punish excessively and unwisely is not an argument, however, for counseling all parents not to punish at all."

In her reply to Baumrind et al., Gershoff states that excessive corporal punishment is more likely to be underreported than overreported and that the possibility of negative effects on children caution against the use of corporal punishment.

"Until researchers, clinicians, and parents can definitively demonstrate the presence of positive effects of corporal punishment, including effectiveness in halting future misbehavior, not just the absence of negative effects, we as psychologists can not responsibly recommend its use," Gershoff writes.

A Critique of Dr. Liz Gershoff's1 Review of Corporal Punishment

Robert E. Larzelere, Ph.D.

Associate Professor of Psychology

University of Nebraska Medical Center

June 2002

Dr. Gershoff's review of scientific studies cannot help parents decide whether to use spanking or not, because of two major problems. Dr. Gershoff herself noted the first problem, that there is no scientific basis for any detrimental outcomes being causeda by corporal punishment: "parental corporal punishment cannot be identified . . . as the cause of these child behaviors" (p. 550). She cites spanking as guilty by association, which would never hold up in a court of law.

Better research has shown that it is the excessive child misbehavior that leads to a wide range of detrimental outcomes, not the use of moderate corporal punishment. This excessive misbehavior leads parents to use all disciplinary tactics more frequently, not just spanking. In children under 13, most studies that also investigated other disciplinary methodsb found those methods to be more strongly associated with aggressive-type outcomes and noncompliance than was corporal punishment.2-11

A second problem is that 65% of the studies in Dr. Gershoff's review measured overly severe corporal punishment, such as slapping in the face (7 studies), beatings (3 studies), or hitting with a fist and causing bruises or cuts (1 study). Most of her summary information is thus dominated by overly severe corporal punishment, clouding the issue further about nonabusive spanking. The few studies that explicitly ruled out abusive or violent parenting reported beneficial child outcomes as often as not.2 3 5 6 12 13

How parents use spanking is more important than whether they use it - as with any other disciplinary method: In contrast to Dr. Gershoff's conclusions, the best research shows that nonabusive spanking is effective with 2- to 6-year-old children when used to back up milder disciplinary methods, such as reasoning and time out.14 15 Such usage is not only effective in reducing defiance and fighting, but children then cooperate better with the milder discipline methods, rendering further spanking less necessary. Four studies in Dr. Gershoff's review2 3 5 6 and four additional studies4 7 8 16 provide causal evidence of the benefits of that approach, and no study contradicts it. It is clear, however, that overuse of corporal punishment in severity or frequency can be harmful to children.

aGershoff's review mostly summarizes correlations ("associations"), but correlations do not prove causation. Being in a hospital is associated with detrimental outcomes (e.g., greater likelihood of death), but it does not cause an increased likelihood of death. Instead, the actual cause is the problem that led to the hospitalization. This is generally true of all corrective interventions, whether medical (radiation treatment), psychological (marital counseling), educational (Head Start), or parental (disciplinary responses to misbehavior). Detrimental outcomes are more likely for recipients of all those corrective interventions, compared to people who did not need those corrective interventions.

bAlternative disciplinary methods include removing privileges, time out (isolation), reasoning, restraint, ignoring, scolding, love withdrawal, brief room isolation, diverting, child-determined release from time out, and reasoning combined with nonphysical punishment.Of these, only a brief room isolation, diverting, and reasoning combined with nonphysical punishment were associated with less aggressive-type behavior or noncompliance than was corporal punishment, but to a degree that was not scientifically reliable ("statistically significant") in any study.


1. Gershoff ET. Parental corporal punishment and associated child behaviors and experiences: A meta-analytic and theoretical review. Psychological Bulletin 2002. 2. Bean AW, Roberts MW. The effect of time-out release contingencies on changes in child noncompliance. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology 1981;9:95-105. 3. Day DE, Roberts MW. An analysis of the physical punishment component of a parent training program. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology 1983;11:141-152. 4. Roberts MW. Enforcing chair timeouts with room timeouts. Behavior Modification 1988;12:353-370. 5. Roberts MW, Powers SW. Adjusting chair timeout enforcement procedures for oppositional children. Behavior Therapy 1990;21:257-271. 6. Larzelere RE, Schneider WN, Larson DB, Pike PL. The effects of discipline responses in delaying toddler misbehavior recurrences. Child & Family Behavior Therapy 1996;18:35-57. 7. Larzelere RE, Sather PR, Schneider WN, Larson DB, Pike PL. Punishment enhances reasoning's effectiveness as a disciplinary response to toddlers. Journal of Marriage and the Family 1998;60:388-403. 8. Bernal ME, Duryee JS, Pruett HL, Burns BJ. Behavior modification and the brat syndrome. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 1968;32:447-455. 9. Straus MA, Mouradian VE. Impulsive corporal punishment by mothers and antisocial behavior and impulsiveness of children. Behavioral Sciences and the Law 1998;16:353-374. 10. Sears RR. Relation of early socialization experiences to aggression in middle childhood. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 1961;63:466-492. 11. Yarrow MR, Campbell JD, Burton RV. Child rearing: An inquiry into research and methods. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1968. 12. LaVoie JC. Punishment and adolescent self-control. Developmental Psychology 1973;8:16-24. 13. McCord J. Parental behavior in the cycle of aggression. Psychiatry 1988;51:14-23. 14. Larzelere RE. Combining love and limits in authoritative parenting. In: Westman JC, editor. Parenthood in America. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2001:81-89. 15. Larzelere RE. Child outcomes of nonabusive and customary physical punishment by parents: An updated literature review. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review 2000;3(4):199-221. 16. Roberts MW. Resistance to timeout: Some normative data. Behavioral Assessment 1982;4:239-248.