Spanking Negatively Influences Children’s Cognitive Development, Columbia Researchers Find

child being spankedChildren who are spanked by their parents are at greater risk for later problems in both vocabulary and behavior, a team of Columbia University researchers has found.

Dr. Michael MacKenzie, Associate Professor at Columbia School of Social Work (CSSW), Dr. Eric Nicklas, Adjunct Assistant Professor at CSSW, Dr. Jane Waldfogel, Compton Foundation Centennial Professor at CSSW, and Dr. Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, Virginia and Leonard Marx Professor at Teacher’s College co-authored the study, the findings of which appear in the journal Pediatrics, published online October 21, 2013 (go to full text).

The researchers found that spanking remains a common experience for American children. Half of mothers said they spanked their child at age 5, as did one third of fathers.

One of the study's key findings was that children who were spanked frequently by their fathers at age 5 went on to have lower vocabulary scores at age 9, even after controlling for an array of other risk factors and earlier vocabulary. Lead author Michael MacKenzie noted: “This is an important finding, because few studies in this area have examined effects on cognitive development.”

In addition, children who were spanked at age 5 went on to have higher levels of acting-out behavior problems at age 9, again even after controlling for other risk factors and earlier development.

“This finding is consistent with what has been found in the literature, but is of added importance given the detailed nature of the data we were using which allowed us to control for a host of other factors that also affect children’s behavior, including their behavior at younger ages,” MacKenzie added.

The findings were based on data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study (FFS), a population-based, birth cohort study conducted by researchers at Princeton and Columbia Universities of nearly 5,000 children born in 20 large American cities between 1998 and 2000. Mothers were interviewed shortly after giving birth and when the children were approximately 1, 3, 5, and 9 years old. FFS is unusual in also collecting detailed data from fathers.

In their analysis, the researchers controlled for an extensive set of factors that might also influence spanking and children’s development, including other risk factors (late prenatal care, risky health behavior, intimate partner violence, and father supportiveness during pregnancy, maternal IQ, parenting stress, depression or anxiety, and impulsivity, and mothers’ cognitively stimulating activities with the child), as well as factors related to the child and family background (maternal age, race/ethnicity, immigration status, educational attainment, employment status, and family structure growing up; family structure and income; and child gender, age, low birth weight, birth order, and temperament). Taking advantage of the longitudinal data in the FFS, the researchers also controlled for children’s prior levels of behavior or development.

The results suggest that children would benefit if parents adopted more positive parenting behaviors. The findings are particularly important in the U.S. context given the relatively high rates of spanking in this country.

The Fragile Families Study is funded through grants from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), and a consortium of private foundations and other government agencies.

Related links:

Press coverage received:

Image: "Time Out," by Captain Ted via Flickr.