Refuting Pearl’s Analysis of Spanking Studies

In a recent post, I shared discussion of an addition to To Train Up A Child by Michael Pearl.  There is an exerpt from the chapter on the No Greater Joy website.  In this article, Michael Pearl refutes studies which have shown spanking children to be harmful and shares the results of some other studies which he claims show the opposite.  Of course, there are flaws in his logic.  Here is an example.  He states:

Child psychologist Elizabeth Owens, scientist at the Institute of Human Development at the University of California, Berkeley, conducted a study. She concluded, “If you look at the causally relevant evidence, it’s not scientifically defensible to say that spanking is always a horrible thing. I don’t think mild, occasional spankings in an otherwise supportive, loving family will do any long-term harm.”

Here is the study of which he speaks. MariJo7 from GCM has kindly given me permission to share her analysis of the study:

I took a look. The web page is the official Press Release about the study. It gives the main points of the study in order to inform the public about it. The study itself may also be somewhere on-line, but it is probably wery dry stuff, difficult to read, with lot of numbers and ther difficult stuff. A press release tells the main points in a condenced way and in a language that opens up for everyone.

The study was a lognitudial study on about 100 families during 10 years. The families were tested and interviewed three times; the first time when the children were preschoolers (about 4yo, a long time after the Pearlian Proper Glue-Stick Age) and the last time when they were about 14yo.

This passage here was a very revealing point about the selection of the families and the researcher’s definition on moderate or “normative” spanking, I will quote it directly and outline some things in boldface:

“Few of the families, only 4 percent, never used physical punishment when their children were preschoolers, but there was a wide range in the frequency and severity of spanking throughout the whole sample, said Baumrind.
A small minority of parents, from 4 to 7 percent depending on the time period, used physical punishment often and with some intensity. Although these parents were not legally abusive, they were overly severe and used spanking impulsively. Hitting occurred frequently, but it was the intensity that really identified this group, said Baumrind.
She said intensity was rated high if the parent said he or she used a paddle or other instrument to strike the child, or hit on the face or torso, or lifted to throw or shake the child.
This group of parents, identified in the “red zone” for “stop” was removed from the sample at the first stage of analysis. With them went most of the correlations initially found between spanking and long-term harm to children, said Baumrind.
“When we removed this ‘red zone’ group of parents,” said Baumrind, “we were left with very few small but significant correlations between normative physical punishment and later misbehavior among the children at age 8 to 9.
“Red zone parents are rejecting, exploitative and impulsive. They are parents who punish beyond the norm. You have very little to explain after you remove this small group.”

So…all parents that implemented spanking according to Suzanah Wessley-style, Larry Christenson -style, Dobson-style, Fugate-stlye, Tedd Tripp -style, Pearl style…were considered “red zone” and were excluded from the final sample. It was already considered obvious and proven that “red zone style” was harmful, and the study did not focus on it’s effects. The researchers were more interested in how an occasional, non-frequent and non-intense slap with an open hand on the buttocks or something like that affected the children. Why even to call it spanking at all?

So…even the study claims to be on the effect of spanking, it is actually about something else. It is about some type of corporal punishment, yes. But when we hear the word “spanking”, most of us associate it with belts, paddles, the ridiculous proverbial “board of education”, tree twigs, wooden spoons and other implements. And the study was not about them.

I would also like to point out that this study only included children from preschool through their teens.  While the Pearls say that they do not spank children before preschool, that is only because they do not define spanking as “hitting,” they define spanking as “corporal punishment.  While they promote the striking of infants and toddlers with small switches, they insist that it is not “spanking,” but “training.”  This is the only reason that they can consider themselves as “moderate spankers.”  If anyone were to observe their “training sessions” they would certainly not consider them “moderate spankers.”  Since the Pearls teach 100% consistency, it seems highly unlikely that anyone following their teachings would fall into that category.  The teaching is that they must “train” young children by “switching” them for each and every offense until they no longer disobey.  This is what allows them to not need spankings at an older age.  Nobody else in the world would consider that remotely reasonable and no scientific study is even considering such a mindset.

There is plenty more material there to refute. If anyone wants to submit something for me to post here or to link to, please comment here or write to me at

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