Physical abuse less likely when spanking is eliminated

When parents in countries worldwide use spanking as a behavior deterrent, their children are more likely to become a victim of physical abuse, say University of Michigan researchers.

A new U-M study analyzed the connection between spanking and physical abuse in 56 low- and middle-income countries, as well as examined the extent to which physical abuse might be reduced if spanking were eliminated.

For this international study, researchers defined spanking as an open-handed hit on the child’s behind, not with an object such as a belt or stick. A situation becomes “physically abusive” when the parents beat up the child or strike the head or face.

International law and cultures vary as to what type of physical punishment parents can inflict upon their kids. Julie Ma, the study’s lead author and associate professor of social work at UM-Flint, said typically law enforcement would not intervene in spanking cases, but it might in physical abuse cases where the child is at higher risk of injury.

Researchers used nationally representative data from more than 156,000 children, ages 1-4, in the UNICEF Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys. The sample ranged from 109 kids in St. Lucia in the Caribbean to 13,077 children in Nigeria.

Spanking, the findings indicate, was associated with higher odds of physical abuse. When translated to a hypothetical sample of 100 children, about 32 of them were spanked. Among those 32 kids, seven reported experiencing physical abuse. The elimination of spanking would result in four fewer children who were exposed to physical abuse, the results show.

The probability of physical abuse decreased by 14% when comparing children who were spanked (22%) with those who were not (8%).

More organizations call for eliminating all forms of violence against children, but the latest findings further support that child welfare advocates should continue to discourage parents and caregivers from using spanking, which would also reduce physical abuse, the researchers say.

Ma collaborated on the study with her colleagues at U-M’s Ann Arbor campus: Andrew Grogan-Kaylor, professor of social work; Garrett Pace, sociology/social work doctoral student; Kaitlin Ward, social work/psychology doctoral student; and Shawna Lee, associate professor of social work.

The findings appear in Child Abuse & Neglect. Study: The association between spanking and physical abuse of young children in 56 low- and middle-income countries


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