No Sound Scientific Evidence Supporting Anti-Smacking Bill – Expert

A visiting US expert on child correction research has written to MP’s asking them to oppose Sue Bradford’s anti-smacking bill because of the weight of scientific research which shows that bans on smacking do not work in achieving the goal of reducing child abuse.

Dr Robert E. Larzelere was one of three social scientific expert witnesses on the side of successfully defending a similar section to NZ’s s59 of Canada’s Criminal Code. (The social scientific expert witnesses on the other side included Joan Durrant. Durrant has been painted as the authority on smacking bans in NZ yet was ignored in her own country!)

He is also a member of the Task Force on Corporal Punishment with the American Psychological Association, and one of 7 experts invited to present at the 1996 Scientific Consensus Conference on the Short- and Long-Term Consequences of Corporal Punishment, co-sponsored by American Academy of Pediatrics.

Dr Larzelere argues that well-intentioned, ‘feel good’ policies can be counter-productive when they run ahead of sound scientific evidence.


Members of Parliament
New Zealand

Dear Members,

I am writing this letter to oppose the proposal to remove Section 59 from the Crimes Act (NZ).

I am currently Associate Professor of Psychology at the Department of Human Development & Family Science at Oklahoma State University

I have been researching child correction for the past 28 years and was one of three social scientific expert witnesses on the side of successfully defending a similar section to NZ’s s59 of Canada’s Criminal Code, a Member of Task Force on Corporal Punishment with the American Psychological Association, and one of 7 experts invited to present at 1996 Scientific Consensus Conference on the Short- and Long-Term Consequences of Corporal Punishment, co-sponsored by American Academy of Pediatrics.

The main points of my scientific testimony against repealing Section 59 are the following:
(1) There is no sound scientific evidence against nonabusive parental smacking.
(2) Almost all scientific evidence against parental smacking suffers from two major biases:
(a) lumping severe and abusive corporal punishment together with nonabusive smacking and
(b) failure to solve the chicken-and-the-egg problem as to whether serious misbehavior causes increased parental discipline or vice versa.
(3) Evidence from Sweden, which imposed the first smacking ban in 1979, shows that physical child abuse rates and criminal assaults by minors against minors both increased about 6-fold from 1981 to 1994, according to their criminal records.

I have published two recent reviews of the scientific literature on corporal punishment by parents. The most important one was published in March 2005 in Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review. Unlike previous literature reviews, it focused on differences in child outcomes between corporal punishment vs. alternative disciplinary tactics, using the 26 studies that investigated both kinds of disciplinary tactics for children under the age of 13. The results depended upon the type of corporal punishment. Customary corporal punishment (i.e., corporal punishment as typically used by parents) had child outcomes that were neither better nor worse than any alternative disciplinary tactic, except for one large study favoring corporal punishment over non-contact punishment for reducing substance abuse. The second category, conditional smacking, led to better child outcomes than 10 of the 13 alternative disciplinary tactics with which it has been compared (and there were no differences in outcomes compared to the other 3 tactics). Conditional smacking was defined as nonabusive smacking when children (generally 2 to 6 years old) responded defiantly to milder disciplinary tactics, such as time out. Corporal punishment compared unfavorably to alternative disciplinary tactics only in the other two categories, i.e., when it was used overly severely or as the primary disciplinary method.

Two claims of anti-smacking advocates were refuted in this same meta-analytic review of the relevant scientific studies. First, the above conclusions applied to long-term outcomes as much as to short-term outcomes. Second, the above conclusions applied to reductions in aggression and antisocial behavior as well as noncompliance. A third anti-smacking point was partially supported, in that two of the three alternative tactics that had child outcomes equivalent to conditional smacking involved some kind of non-corporal punishment. Being tied for first in effectiveness, however, is not a good reason for banning either a prescription drug or a disciplinary tactic (even if a few misuse it with the wrong dosage or for the wrong symptoms).

The biggest danger with anti-smacking bans is that they inadvertently remove parents’ ability to enforce appropriate discipline. As the New Zealand bill is written, it would criminalise forms of physical force to enforce discipline that are milder than nonabusive smacking (e.g, restraint, escorting a child somewhere by the hand against their will). Less extreme anti-smacking bills have disempowered parents in Scandinavia. For example, the following is what Dr. Marion Forgatch told me when she heard I was going to testify about my research in New Zealand: “How unfortunate that well-intentioned efforts to prevent abusive practices can go overboard. Making certain forms of parenting practices against the law can have iatrogenic effects. . . . In Norway, the ban on smacking was interpreted by some that parents can’t punish their children at all [e.g., with time out]. . . . Many parents have felt extremely disempowered and they can’t say no to their children.” Dr. Forgatch was commissioned by Norway to train therapists throughout Norway to train their parents to improve their disciplinary approach. In print, her husband and colleague summarized the situation in Norway thusly: many “parents seem often to be immobilized by unreasonable requests made by the child. The parents seem simply unable to say no” (Patterson & Fisher, 2002, p. 74).

Effective disciplinary enforcements are especially crucial for young defiant children who are most likely to become delinquents and life-long criminals. Dr. Mark Roberts showed in a series of four studies that clinically defiant 2- to 6-year-old children need to learn to cooperate with time out to improve their behavior. For most of them, cooperation with time out must be enforced by something. The two most effective enforcements were the 2-swat spank used traditionally in that clinical protocol and a new brief forced room isolation that Dr. Roberts developed. His research demonstrated that effective use of last-resort enforcement tactics, such as smacking and the room isolation, help children learn to cooperate with milder disciplinary tactics subsequently, so that the last-resort tactic can then be phased out. This is the kind of skilled use of conditional smacking that supports the effectiveness of milder disciplinary tactics, thus working toward the ideal of mild, but effective disciplinary tactics, even for temperamentally difficult children. His research also showed that some children respond better to smacking and some to the brief room isolation. This shows that parents need more disciplinary options, not fewer ones, so that they can select the best options for their particular child. The danger in my understanding of New Zealand’s anti-smacking bill is that it will criminalise not only the 2-swat smack back-up, but the brief room isolation, because the latter also requires force to control behavior. This will criminalise proven psychological treatments to help parents manage young children with behavior problems, such as Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT). PCIT is also the best treatment for abusive parents, reducing recidivism of child abuse charges from 49% for other typical treatment to 19% after PCIT treatment.

Evaluation of Sweden’s 1979 Smacking Ban

Joan Durrant and I have both published articles evaluating the success of Sweden’s smacking ban, and we have come to nearly opposite conclusions. She came up with a very excellent hypothesis that if the smacking ban were successful at reducing violence, then the age of perpetrators of criminal assaults should be changing in a way that reflects this effect. For example, if the rate of criminal assaults is increasing overall, then those raised after the smacking ban should be increasing as perpetrators at a slower rate or even decreasing in their rate. Table 1 shows the evidence, from the very source of data used by Dr. Durrant (Wittrock, 1995, which has been translated into English at ).

The only age group that was raised entirely after the 1979 smacking ban had 718 criminal assaults against minors in 1994, a 519% increase for that age group from 1984, a much larger increase than for any other perpetrator age group. The second largest percentage increase was for those who were 15-19 in 1994, who were 0 to 4 years of age at the time of the smacking ban. How then did Dr. Durrant conclude that the youngest perpetrators were increasing at a slower rate than older perpetrators? She did that by treating the youngest group as those in their 20’s, which included the group with the smallest increase, those who were 25 to 29 years old in 1994. But they were between 10 and 14 years old at the time of the 1979 smacking ban.

Table 1
Frequency of Criminal Assaults Against 7-14-year-old Children in Swedish Criminal Records (Wittrock, 1995)
# of 1984 Suspects # of 1994 Suspects
Age of suspect (Birth Year) (Birth Year) % Increase
Under 15 116 (1970+) 718 (1980+) 519%
15-19 107 (1965-69) 354 (1975-79) 231%
20-24 12 (1960-64) 28 (1970-74) 133%
25-29 19 (1955-59) 29 (1965-69) 53%
30-39 68 (1945-54) 151 (1955-64) 122%
40-49 47 (1935-44) 116 (1945-54) 147%
50+ 24 (< 1935) 57 (< 1945) 128% _______________________________________________________________________ Other conclusions by Dr. Durrant have been criticized by other authors as well as me, including her conclusions that the smacking ban led to decreased support for smacking (Roberts, 2000), that child abuse has not increased since 1979 (Lindell & Svedin, 2001), and that child abuse fatalities have been almost nonexistent since then (Beckett, 2005). In sum, the best scientific evidence shows that skillful use of smacking reduces pre-delinquent behaviors more than 10 of 13 alternative tactics and that typical use of corporal punishment produces child outcomes equivalent to all other disciplinary tactics. Even though one commendable motivation of anti-smacking advocates has been to reduce physical child abuse, Sweden’s smacking ban has been counterproductive for that goal as well as the goal of reducing violence in teenagers. Sound scientific evidence confirms the wisdom of previous generations in permitting parents to use reasonable physical force to correct their children. Sincerely, Robert E. Larzelere, Ph.D., Associate Professor Dept. of Human Development and Family Science Oklahoma State University, USA References ENDS