A new study led by University of Texas professor and developmental psychologist Elizabeth Gershoff, PhD sought to answer the age-old nature versus nurture question in regards to how punishment affects a child’s behavior.
For the study, which was published in the journal Psychological Science, 1,030 families with a total of 2060 twins were observed, with almost an even amount of male and female subjects. The study was replicated with an additional 240 families—480 twins with an even gender split. The study subjects were often disciplined differently.1
Nature vs. Nurture
The purpose of the study was to examine the argument that a child’s genetic makeup is more relevant than a punishment like spanking. That is what made twins perfect for the study. Study author Alexandra Burt, a professor of psychology at Michigan State University explains the method, “This design is especially useful in the case of monozygotic-or identical-twins since they share 100% of their genes. Thus, any differences between them must be environmental in origin.”
Studies into the effects of physical punishment have led the American Academy of Pediatrics to recommend against physical punishment and numerous countries to ban physical punishment, including spanking.
The study found no genetic reason why a given child’s behavior would be worse. “We found no evidence to support a genetic explanation,” says Burt. “The differences in the harsh parenting each twin received predicted differences between the twins in antisocial behavior, even when they shared 100% of their genes.”
Further, the twin who was yelled at or spanked more was the one who exhibited what is considered to be “bad” behavior—lying, fighting, and stealing. The study adds another reason why corporal punishment is problematic and counterproductive for child-rearing.
According to Gershoff, “Studies into the effects of physical punishment have led the American Academy of Pediatrics to recommend against physical punishment and numerous countries to ban physical punishment including spanking. This is the latest research to show that harsh punishment has a direct line to more, not fewer, behavior problems in children.”
Why Is Spanking Used?
Despite years of research pointing to spanking being detrimental for children, it still continues. Licensed clinical psychologist Courtney DeAngelis, PsyD says that people are still spanking their children because it is how they were raised.
“It’s not uncommon for adults to parent in a way that is familiar to them, and repeat what they know,” DeAngelis says. “But parents generally want their children to consistently listen to them, and not just to listen to them in that moment. Otherwise, parents feel like it’s Groundhog Day and lose their patience quickly!”
Most children don’t like to get into trouble in general and they can internalize the idea that they are ‘bad’ when we use physical discipline. We also fail to teach, guide, or support a child in learning how they can change their behavior, too.
Many parents value compliance, and they view their own spanking as a measure of their success. However, DeAngelis points out the limited research that quick compliance is linked to spanking.2 DeAngelis explains, “I might argue that while it’s true that many of these kids can develop into healthy and adaptive adults, it’s hard to assume that the ‘spanking’ is what shaped their longer term development.”
What Happens When We Spank?
Despite the beliefs of some parents, DeAngelis says that no research links spanking to positive outcomes in social or emotional development, and warns of emotional consequences to corporal punishment.
“A large problem with spanking is that parents usually have to do this repeatedly, and this generally shows us that a punishment is not effective or ‘working,'” she says. “We are teaching a child that we do not want them to do a certain behavior, but we are not teaching them what we want them to do instead.”
She says that the result is feelings of resentment, confusion, and rejection in the child, and not knowing what is expected of them. DeAngelis says, “Most children don’t like to get into trouble in general and they can internalize the idea that they are ‘bad’ when we use physical discipline. We also fail to teach, guide, or support a child in learning how they can change their behavior, too.”
She explains that all children can feel unsafe when spanking occurs, especially if they’ve endured trauma. “For a child that has suffered sexual abuse or endured a traumatic life event, they may have felt completely out of control of their body. Spanking a child while you tower over them can similarly evoke a sense of feeling out of control of their body once again. Anxious youth also struggle with an excessive need to be in control, and so they could also suffer from physical discipline.”
What Is a More Effective Form of Discipline?
DeAngelis gives a more effective and less harmful alternative, “A more effective form of discipline is to provide natural and logical consequences in response to an unwanted behavior. For instance, if a child tends to run ahead and away from parents while going for a walk or visiting a toy store, a natural consequence would be that the child must hold their parent’s hand for several minutes. If they continue to refuse that limit, then the next step would be to end the walk or trip to the store.”