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Dr. Murray A. Straus, 89; UNH researcher studied violence

Dr. Murray Straus (right) in 1996.
Dr. Murray Straus (right) in 1996.Karl De Blacker/News & Observer/AP/File

Spare the rod, Dr. Murray A. Straus showed in study after study, and your children will grow into healthier adults who are less likely to be violent toward their own children and partners.

As founder and longtime director of the Family Research Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire, he spent more than 40 years arguing that spanking a child should be viewed no differently than slapping a spouse, even though in the name of discipline, it’s legal for parents to swat a child’s backside.

Most studies show, he told the Globe in 2012, that for parents who spank their children, “over the long term, there are greater odds that your child could become everything you don’t want your child to become — an abuser, a depressed person, a person with temper-control issues. There is even evidence that children who are spanked end up with lower IQs.”

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Dr. Straus, whose groundbreaking research was cited by countries that banned corporal punishment, died May 13, the University of New Hampshire announced. He was 89.

His findings about spanking often found a more receptive audience abroad than in the United States, where some religious and conservative commentators criticized his theories. Dr. Straus also noted throughout his career that many parents resist his conclusions because they are reluctant to criticize themselves and their own parents for using a form of discipline that is viewed as “the virtuous violence.”

Nationally, 19 states still allow corporal punishment in schools, and the practice remains legal in the home. Not so beyond the borders of the United States.

“As of February of this year, 49 countries around the world had banned the use of corporal punishment by parents, and that’s on all continents — Africa, East Asia, Europe, South America,” said David Finkelhor, who is director of the Crimes against Children Research Center at UNH and collaborated with Dr. Straus.

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Finkelhor added: “In almost all of the literature that is used by advocates and policymakers looking at this topic, his research and findings on this issue have been included and been very influential.”

In a 2012 interview with the Globe, Dr. Straus said that among his findings was that “spanking is a traumatic experience that can cause small losses in the brain’s gray matter, causing behavioral changes.” Research also shows spanking is linked to a lowering of IQ levels in children who were frequently spanked.

“Of course, some kids aren’t harmed at all by spanking, just like some heavy smokers suffer no harm from cigarettes,” he said in the interview. “But they’re the lucky ones, as opposed to the unlucky ones who suffer harmful side effects.”

Kathleen McCartney, the president of Smith College whose own research has focused on topics including child care and early childhood experience, said Dr. Straus’s decision to label “aggression as violence is important because he helped people and governments view behavior once viewed as acceptable as unacceptable.”

“His research on spanking showed that violence leads to violence,” she added. “Specifically, when parents model violence through spanking, children learn to be violent. So spanking doesn’t work. It doesn’t curtail unwanted behaviors; instead, it leads to the unwanted behaviors.”

Among those undesired behaviors is domestic violence when the child becomes an adult, Dr. Straus found, and his studies in that area also met criticism. Corroborated by other studies, he found that women assault their partners about as often as men — and not only in self-defense. His studies showed that women initiate psychological intimidation and physical violence as often as men, and with similar motives such as anger and control.

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“The difference is that a lot of attacks by women are carried out knowing there won’t be an injury,” he told the Globe in 1999. He added that data shows the injury rate for women is about seven times higher than when the same type of assault is carried out by men, but that caveat didn’t spare him from criticism by advocacy organizations for women who are battered.

“I am a feminist, but my theory that corporal punishment is one of the causes of wife beating has been denounced by some of my feminist colleagues as a diversionary tactic that takes away attention from the ‘real’ cause — male dominance,” he wrote in his 1994 book “Beating the Devil Out of Them: Corporal Punishment in American Families.”

His findings that people are more likely to be assaulted by family members in their own homes, rather than by strangers outside, upended conventional wisdom. Those studies helped push law enforcement agencies to rethink the gathering of assault statistics and to create units that specifically address family violence.

Dr. Straus also helped develop the Conflict Tactics Scales, an approach to measuring the extent of violence in the home based on information gathered through interviews with family members.

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Still, some of his domestic violence findings made him a hero to the kinds of men’s rights organizations whose philosophies he strongly rejected. “That kills me,” he told the Globe in 1998. Indeed, years earlier he had called attention to how gender and pay inequality in the workplace creates economic pressure that traps women in abusive relationships. Encouraging pay equality, he said, helps remove that family violence risk factor. “Feminism is good for mental health,” he told the Globe in 1987.

Born in New York City to Samuel Straus and the former Kathleen Miller, Dr. Straus graduated with a bachelor’s degree in international relations in 1948 from the University of Wisconsin, from which he also received a master’s in sociology in 1949 and a doctorate in sociology in 1956.

Before joining the UNH faculty in the late 1960s, he taught at colleges including Washington State University, the University of Wisconsin, Cornell University, and the University of Minnesota.

Dr. Straus, whose work was honored by organizations including the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children, was the author or coauthor of more than 200 papers and more than a dozen books.

“He was tremendously energetic and passionate about what he was working on, and he was also extremely collaborative,” Finkelhor said. “He loved to involve people in his projects. Everybody felt accepted.”

Family services are private and the University of New Hampshire will announce a memorial gathering for Dr. Straus. According to UNH, he leaves his wife, Dorothy Dunn Straus; two children by a previous marriage, Carol Straus and Dr. John Straus; three stepchildren, David Dunn, Lisa Dunn, and Thomas Dunn; along with many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

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“In addition to being a warm and an engaged person, he was deeply curious about other people who were engaged in efforts to control and ultimately to prevent family violence in all its forms,” said Dr. Eli Newberger, the former medical director of Boston Children’s Hospital’s child protection program, which Newberger founded. “Without question, Murray’s own intrepid engagement with the vexatious issue of spanking in American child-rearing resonated very positively with us.”

Though Dr. Straus produced thousands of pages of research, about family violence and the effects of physically disciplining children, he also could boil his reasoning down to a concise observation.

“If you want your child to grow up to be the kind of person who reasons instead of hits,” he told the Globe in 2002, “I can’t imagine why any parent would ever spank.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.