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Spanking your kid is about as harmful as child abuse, according to a new 50-year study published in the Journal of Family Psychology.

The analysis, which included research into spanking’s impact on approximately 160,000 children, linked repeated spankings to a number of “detrimental” outcomes for children later on in life, including increased mental health problems, cognitive difficulties, aggression, and antisocial behavior patterns.

“We as a society think of spanking and physical abuse as distinct behaviors,” study author Elizabeth Gershoff of the University of Texas at Austin said in a news release. Gershoff worked alongside Andrew Grogan-Kaylor of the University of Michigan. “Yet our research shows that spanking is linked with the same negative child outcomes as abuse, just to a slightly lesser degree.”

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Gershoff and Grogan-Kaylor defined spanking as “an open-handed hit on the behind or extremities” in order to differentiate it from other forms of corporal punishment. Analyzing 17 separate detrimental behavioral outcomes that were observable in children throughout their development, the researchers found significant links between spanking and 13 of those outcomes.

The pair said they hope their study will shed light on a particularly murky area of child-rearing, one some parents commend and others condemn.

“Our analysis focuses on what most Americans would recognize as spanking and not on potentially abusive behaviors,” Gershoff said in the news release. “We found that spanking was associated with unintended detrimental outcomes, and was not associated with more immediate or long-term compliance, which are parents’ intended outcomes when they discipline their children.”

Added Grogan-Kaylor, “Spanking thus does the opposite of what parents usually want it to do.”

Conclusions drawn from a subset of studies comparing spanking to physical abuse were particularly troubling, with the researchers finding that both were linked to detrimental outcomes “that are similar in magnitude and identical in direction,” they wrote.

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This latest meta-analysis serves as a particularly damning piece of evidence against spanking, which has become increasingly controversial around the world over the past few decades. A recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report blasted spanking, along with other forms of corporal punishment, calling for legislative reform and a strengthening of education campaigns in hopes of reducing physical child abuse.

And yet, spanking is still common around the world, with a 2010 UNICEF report concluding that as many as 80 percent of parents employ the practice in their households. Gershoff notes that, despite its prevalence, there’s no clear evidence spanking does anything positive for kids — but plenty of evidence that it can actively harm their development.

“We hope that our study can help educate parents about the potential harms of spanking and prompt them to try positive and non-punitive forms of discipline,” she said.

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The effects of “parenting” on child-rearing


Isaac Feldberg can be reached at isaac.feldberg@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @i_feldberg.