• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Thursday 09th April, 2009

We see the evidence so why aren’t we listening?

There’s compelling evidence to suggest that children who are smacked or spanked are more prone to later behavioral problems. As significantly, there’s not a shred to support the idea that smacking does some children good.So why do parents still hit their children, and why has there never been a public health campaign in the US to deter them?This familiar puzzle was the subject of a round-table event at the US Society for Research in Child Development conference in Denver, last week. Or, rather, it provided a case study for more generally troubling inquiries: why is research not listened to? why is it so hard to translate solid evidence into social change? Among four expert panelists was Southern Methodist University Professor of Psychology George Holden, who suggested that there was a continuum of parental responses that needed to be understood – “impulsive” at one extreme, “instrumental” at the other. Impulsive smackers hit out in a moment of anger or frustration. They frequently regretted it. Instrumental smackers believed smacking was a credible, defensible form of discipline. They thought it worked, at least for them.As to where parents positioned themselves in relation to the evidence, Holden offered this five-category typology:

  • aware of the evidence and convinced by it – these parents do not or no longer smack their children
  • unaware of the problem – no-one has told them it is a bad idea to hit children; they are ignorant of the research
  • aware but misinformed – parents who think the evidence is not particularly strong
  • aware but skeptical or discounting – they reject the scientific method or say it doesn’t apply in their case: “my parents hit me and I turned out ok”
  • aware but resistant or defiant, they refuse even to hear the evidence perhaps because it goes against their religious or cultural principles or convictions.
These were theoretical assertions, Holden admitted. There was no empirical data to support the existence of such a continuum let alone those five divisions. His argument was that for there to be social change, research had to demonstrate an equivalent degree of understanding.The founder and co-director of the University of New Hampshire Family Research Laboratory, Murray Straus, had an explanation for there being so much resistance to the evidence, even among social scientists. Some argued that the effect size of the association with behavioral problems was too small, he said, but at around 0.25 it was nevertheless greater than measurements that underpinned some other public health initiatives. Even where the effect size was small, reducing a highly prevalent risk could benefit children’s development more markedly than targeting rarer risks with higher effect sizes – abuse or neglect, for example. He was asked whether he thought public behavior would change over time. Might it be the case, as with smoking campaigns, that the bigger effect was generated not by persuading people to stop but by encouraging them never to start? Straus suggested another reason for the reluctance to heed the obvious: popular attachment to the status quo. Before and since the Copernican Revolution many initiatives and beliefs persisted in the face of any amount of evidence that they were ineffective or untrue. The list included youth boot camp, long prison sentences, and female perpetrated partner violence.He also pointed to the probabilistic nature of all social science research: the presence of a risk did not mean something would happen, only that it was more likely.University of Michigan psychologist Liz Gershoff caused a stir by claiming that no study had considered the impact of corporal punishment in schools on children’s outcomes. Not one. Globally, 109 countries had banned physical discipline in school settings, she explained, but some states persisted and used implements (paddles) to dispense it. In the US A Violent Education had reported that 21 states permitted “paddling” in spite of the argument that it was incompatible with human rights and eroded trust between the student and the teacher and the school. A final session led by University of Manitoba child-clinical psychologist Joan Durrant considered legal reform and evidence from countries where changing ideas about children and their treatment had been reflected not only in legislation but also in changes to public practices. Discussion centered on Sweden, which banned corporal punishment in 1979. The pace of the reform had increased over the years; 24 countries had followed Sweden’s example. In the US the obstacles to reform included the paradoxical notion of “reasonable punishment” and the influence of behaviorism and religious fundamentalism. A dissenter in the audience drew attention to other well-respected researchers in the field – notably Robert Larzelere and Diana Baumrind – who disputed the effects of corporal punishment, on the basis that none of the evidence was causal, nor was any randomized study with the power to establish a causal connection ever likely to be permitted “True,” said the panel, but the correlational research showing negative effects was overwhelming. Research did not show any remotely similar long-term positive benefit. Murray Straus summed up: “It is still the biggest secret in child development research that children who are not hit by their parents are the most well-adjusted.” So, was anyone listening?

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