New Research on Spanking Might Need a Time Out

Studies Aim to Settle the Longstanding Debate Over the Disciplinary Practice’s Effects, but Statistical Shortcomings Persist
Wall St Journal Oct 10 2009 CARL BIALIK

Three recent, widely reported studies on spanking children claimed to show that the disciplinary practice impairs cognitive development in children. Together, they held out the promise of providing the latest, definitive word on a passionate debate. Yet the three aren’t likely to resolve anything. Many statisticians say they find in them less a firm conclusion than further proof of the difficulty of measuring spanking’s impact.

Statistical analysis of spanking’s effects on cognition are clouded by many complicating factors. Effects can be attributed to the wrong cause, statisticians say; rather than spanking causing problems in children, it is possible that their existing cognitive problems can make spanking more likely. Moreover, any effects of spanking are difficult to measure and probably small. And unlike, say, a study on prescription drugs that removes a misleading placebo effect, no ethical study can assign some children to be spanked. Instead, parents must be trusted to remember and share their disciplinary practices.
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