Even young adults whose parents were generally loving and helpful showed higher rates of illegal activity if they’d been spanked, researchers said.
“The results show that spanking is associated with an increase in subsequent misbehavior, which is the opposite of what almost everyone believes,” said Murray Straus, co-director of the University of New Hampshire Family Research Lab. “These results are consistent with a large number of high quality peer-reviewed studies.”
The results were presented Friday at the annual meeting of the American Society of Criminology in Atlanta.
Straus said his team of researchers examined more than 11,400 students in 15 countries using nine measures of criminality, including criminal beliefs, antisocial personality, assault on their mother or father, assault on a partner, physical injury of partner, attacking someone with intent to seriously injure them, or theft of money.
Researchers also took into account the influence of parental education, childhood misbehavior, loving and positive approaches to correcting childhood misbehavior, gender, age and nationality.
“So many parents and child psychologists believe that if spanking is done by loving and helpful parents, it has no harmful effect,” Straus said.
Strauss said this study and only one other he knew of had empirically investigated this topic, and both found the belief was untrue.
“Spanking seems to be associated with an increased probability of subsequent child behavior problems regardless of culture and, regardless of whether it done by loving and helpful parents,” he said.
Straus said positive parenting decreased the likelihood of subsequent crime, and mainly for crimes against non-relatives.
“Most people will find these results hard to understand because parents spank to correct misbehavior and to teach the child to be law-abiding citizens,” Straus said.
Researchers also found that college students who’d been spanked by both parents, and not just one, were even more likely to become associated with criminal behavior.
Two-thirds of the students surveyed said they were struck at age 10, and among those who were hit, the students said it was typically between once and twice a week.
Mothers were more likely to spank their children than fathers, the study found.
“Children need lots guidance and correction, but not by being physically attacked under the euphemism of ‘spanking,’” Straus said.
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