is Evidence That Non-Abusive Corporal Punishment Increases
University of Northwestern
Father Flanagan's Boys'
Boys Town, NE,
Two recent reviews of parental
corporal punishment have found little sound evidence of
detrimental child outcomes such as child aggression. This paper
explores whether the 1979 Swedish law against all corporal
punishment has reduced their child abuse. Sweden's 1979 law was
welcomed by many as a much needed policy toward reducing physical
child abuse. Surprisingly, this search located only five published
studies with any relevant data. The best study found that the rate
of child abuse was 49% higher in Sweden than in the United States,
comparing a 1980 Swedish national survey with the average rates
from two national surveys in the United States in 1975 and 1985.
By comparison, a retrospective survey of university students in
1981 found that the Swedish child abuse rate was 21% of the USA
rate in the 1960s and the 1970s, prior to the anti-spanking law.
More recent Swedish data indicate a 489% increase in one child
abuse statistic from 1981 through 1994, as well as a 672% increase
in assaults by minors against minors. The article discusses
possible reasons for this apparent increase in child abuse and
calls for better evaluations of innovative policies intended to
reduce societal abuse and violence.
Poster presented at the XXVI International Congress of Psychology,
Montreal, August 18, 1996
Send correspondence about this paper to: Robert E. Larzelere,
Psychology Dept., 985450 Univ. of Nebraska Medical Center, Omaha,
NE 68198; Email: email@example.com; (402) 559-2282
Where is Evidence That
Non-Abusive Corporal Punishment Increases
Two recent reviews of the
literature on parental corporal punishment have found few
methodologically sound studies. Further, hardly any of the
soundest studies found detrimental child outcomes associated with
corporal punishment. This paper explores whether there is evidence
that the outlawing of corporal punishment by parents in Sweden and
other countries has had any discernible effect, particularly on
child abuse and, to a lesser degree, on child outcomes such as
Lyons, Anderson, and Larson (1993) attempted to review all journal
articles on corporal punishment by parents from 1984 through 1993.
Only 24 of the 132 articles (17%) included any empirical data on
corporal punishment. Less than half of those (11) investigated
corporal punishment as a possible cause of some other variable.
Most (83%) of the studies were cross-sectional, and only one made
any attempt to exclude child abuse from the measure of corporal
They concluded that there was empirical evidence supporting one of
three hypotheses: Several studies found that parents were more
likely to use corporal punishment themselves if their parents had
used it. There was no sound evidence that corporal punishment was
ineffective, nor that it was associated with child aggression.
Larzelere (in press) built on their review by extending the search
of peer-reviewed articles to the period 1974 to 1995 plus older
articles that met the inclusion criteria. The inclusion criteria
were designed to exclude studies that were cross-sectional or
whose measures emphasized the severity of usage of corporal
punishment. Only 18 studies were found that both met the two
inclusion criteria and limited the sample to children under 13
years of age. The 8 strongest studies found beneficial outcomes of
corporal punishment, usually in 2- to 6-year-olds. The 10 other
studies were prospective (6) or retrospective (4). Three of them
found detrimental outcomes, but only 1 of those 3 made any attempt
to exclude abuse from its measure of corporal punishment. Further,
none of the 10 studies controlled for the initial level of child
misbehavior. This seems to be an important methodological problem,
since the frequency of every type of discipline response tends to
be positively associated with child misbehavior, whether the
associations are cross-sectional or longitudinal (Larzelere,
Sather, Schneider, Larson, & Pike, 1996; Larzelere, Schneider,
Larson, & Pike, in press). Finally, no alternative discipline
response in any of the 18 studies was associated with more
beneficial child outcomes than was corporal punishment, whereas 7
alternatives were associated with more detrimental child outcomes,
mostly in 2- to 6-year-olds.
These reviews suggest that the empirical linkage between
nonabusive corporal punishment and aggression comes only from
cross-sectional studies, studies of teenagers, studies measuring
particularly severe forms of corporal punishment, and, perhaps,
studies of punitiveness. This led us to ask how well current
societal experiments are working in countries that have outlawed
all forms of parental use of corporal punishment.
In 1979, Sweden passed a law prohibiting all corporal punishment
by parents. This was hailed as a crucial step in the effort to
reduce child abuse (Deley, 1988; Feshbach, 1980; Ziegert, 1983).
Several countries have passed similar laws since then (Norway,
Denmark, Finland, Austria, and Cyprus), and organizations have
formed to advocate against parental corporal punishment throughout
the world (e.g., End Physical Punishment of Children
[EPOCH]: Radda Barnen, no date).
This movement represents one of the most sweeping changes ever
advocated by social scientists. In the United States, for example,
about 90% of parents have spanked their 3-year-old children in the
past year (Straus, 1983; Wauchope & Straus, 1990). Some social
scientific research has been used to support the anti-spanking
position (e.g., Hyman, 1995; Straus, 1994), but the reviews
summarized above have found such support coming primarily from
methodologically poor studies. Given the inconclusiveness of
relevant research and the importance of the issue, it is desirable
to know whether child abuse has decreased in Sweden following
their 1979 anti-spanking law. Accordingly, this article asks two
inter-related questions: (1) To what extent have social scientists
evaluated the effect of the 1979 anti-spanking law in Sweden, and
(2) what do those evaluations indicate about the effects of the
anti-spanking law in reducing child abuse? We also report one
finding about Swedish trends in assaults by minors discovered
during our study.
Literature Search for
Two procedures were used to find
evaluations of the effects of Sweden's anti-spanking law. First,
PsycLit was searched from 1974 through June of 1995 for all
publications that included "Sweden" or "Swedish" and either
"punishment" or "spanking" in their abstracts. Second, Social
Sciences Citation Index was used to identify all articles citing
Gelles and Edfeldt (1986) through April 1995, because their study
reported a well-done survey of Swedish child abuse rates one year
after the anti-spanking law was passed.
Empirical Evaluations of
Sweden's Anti-Spanking Law
Five published studies and one
unpublished paper were found that included any empirical
information relevant for evaluating the 1979 anti-spanking law.
Ziegert (1983) published a conceptual, preliminary article on why
the law should be effective. His only empirical data was from a
Swedish opinion poll showing that the percentage of respondents
considering corporal punishment to be necessary had dropped from
53% in 1965 to 35% in 1971 to 26% in 1979 and 1981. In an article
comparing Swedish and American use of corporal punishment, Solheim
(1982) reported that 26% of Swedish respondents considered
corporal punishment necessary in 1978. Like Ziegert (1983),
Solheim's (1982) article was mostly nonempirical, discussing such
issues as court decisions about corporal punishment in schools,
the 1979 law, and expert opinions. Together these two articles
show that the decline in support for the necessity of parental
corporal punishment in Sweden preceded the 1979 law, and it did
not decrease thereafter, at least through 1981.
A third article reported the rate of child homicides in various
European countries, comparing 1973/1974 with approximately
1987/1988 (Pritchard, 1992). Note that this compared statistics
before and after the 1979 law. The Swedish child homicide rate was
the sixth lowest of the 17 countries at both time periods.
However, it nearly doubled from 1973/1974 to 1986/1987. Sweden's
93% increase in its child homicide rate was the fifth largest
percentage increase among the 17 countries. It should also be
noted that the rate of accidental baby deaths in Sweden was the
lowest of the 17 countries at both time periods. Unlike the child
homicide rate, it decreased by 67% between the two time periods,
although 10 of the other 16 countries decreased their accidental
baby death rates by an even larger percentage.
A fourth article compared child abuse rates among university
students at one Swedish university compared to one American
university as reported in a 1981 survey (Deley, 1988). Because
these were retrospective reports, they were child abuse rates
during the 1960s and the 1970s as these students were growing up,
a time period preceding the 1979 law. The critical question asked
whether a spanking had ever left physical marks that lasted for
more than 10 minutes. Two percent of the Sweden students reported
receiving such physical marks from a spanking, compared to 9.5% of
the American students. Although this is far from a representative
sample, this suggests that the child abuse rate in Sweden was only
21% of the American child abuse rate in the 1960s and 1970s (i.e.,
2.0 divided by 9.5 = .21).
The fifth and best study used telephone surveys of a nationally
representative sample of Swedish parents to measure the rates of
spanking and of child abuse in 1980 (Gelles & Edfeldt, 1986).
It used the Conflict Tactics Scale, which was also used to measure
the prevalence of spanking and child abuse in two National Family
Violence Surveys in the USA (Straus & Gelles, 1986; Straus,
Gelles, & Steinmetz, 1980). Gelles and Edfeldt (1986) compared
their 1980 Swedish survey only with the 1975 National Family
Violence Survey. They concluded that a smaller percentage of
parents were spanking their children in Sweden than in the United
States, but that there were no significant differences in child
It would have been more appropriate, however, to compare their
1980 Swedish survey with the 1985 National Family Violence Survey
in the USA (Straus & Gelles, 1986), which reported a 47% lower
rate of child abuse in the United States than in 1975. For one
thing, the 1980 Swedish survey was closer to the 1985 USA survey
in its method, because both used telephone interviews. In
contrast, the 1975 USA survey used face-to-face interviews. Table
1 gives the percentage of Swedish and United States parents
reporting the use of various forms of physical aggression in both
national surveys in the United States and the national survey in
Sweden. In contrast to Gelles & Edfeldt (1986), we report
whether the Swedish rate was significantly different from the mean
USA rate from both the 1975 and the 1985 surveys. This approach
represents a compromise on the issue of which USA survey is the
most appropriate comparison, and it assumes that the 1980 rates in
the USA might have been halfway between the 1975 and the 1985
As can be seen, significantly fewer Swedish parents spanked or hit
their child with an object, compared to USA parents. Nonetheless,
27% of Swedish parents reported spanking or slapping their child
in the past year, reflecting imperfect compliance with the law. In
contrast, most of the more serious types of physical aggression
occurred more often in Sweden one year after passing the
anti-spanking law than they did in the United States. The rate of
beating a child up was three times as high in Sweden as in the
United States, the rate of using a weapon was twice as high, and
the overall rate of Very Severe Violence was 49% higher in Sweden
than the United States average from the 1975 and 1985 surveys.
Except for weapon usage, all of these differences were
significantly different using a test of differences between
proportions (Downie & Heath, 1974, chap. 13), p < .05. In
addition, the rate of pushing, grabbing, or shoving was 39% higher
in Sweden than the average rate in the United States, p < .001.
Thus, the rate of spanking was significantly lower in Sweden than
in the United States, but the rate of other forms of physical
aggression, including child abuse, was significantly higher in
Sweden than in the United States.
Because there were so few published studies with relevant
empirical data, we also included an unpublished field study by
Haeuser (1988) and sought additional data from Swedish sources. As
co-founder of EPOCH-USA, an organization advocating the banning of
all corporal punishment in the United States, Haeuser (1988)
explicitly wanted to "promote positive visibility of this Swedish
law in the U.S. and garner U.S. support for the possibility of
promoting U.S. parenting norms which avoid physical punishment"
(p. 2). Her paper was based on her 1981 and 1988 field visits to
Sweden, using extensive interviews of 7 parents and 60 personnel
in government, health and human services, and schools.
In the summary, she concluded, "Most, if not all, believe the law
has not affected the incidence of child abuse" (p. iii).
Specifically, she reported that concerns about sexual abuse and
youth gang violence had superseded concerns about physical child
abuse by 1988. She also reported that she observed toddlers and
young children often hitting their parents in her 1988 visit.
According to her, "In 1981 both parents and professionals agreed
that parents had not . . . found constructive alternatives to
physical punishment [within the two years since the law was
passed]. For most parents the alternative was yelling and
screaming at their children, and some believed this was equally,
perhaps more, destructive" (p. 22). Haeuser went on to report that
most Swedish parents had developed firmer discipline techniques by
Haeuser (1988) concluded that the child abuse rate was lower in
Sweden than in the USA based on Swedish police statistics of 6.5
cases of physical child abuse per 1000 children in 1986. Haeuser
compared this to a "U. S. rate of 9.2 to 10.7" per 1000 (Haeuser,
1988, p. 34), but acknowledged, "Since the Swedish police data
omits child abuse cases known to social services but not
warranting police intervention, the actual Swedish incidence rate
is probably higher" (p. 34).
However, the American survey that she cited (National Center on
Child Abuse and Neglect [NCCAN], 1988) indicated that the
basis of the rate of 9.2 or 10.7 per 1000 differed from the
Swedish police statistic in two ways. First, the USA rate included
sexual and emotional abuse as well as physical abuse. Second, the
USA rate included not only cases known to police, but also cases
known to at least one professional across a wide range of
occupations, including those in child protection services, public
health, education (schools, daycare centers), hospitals, mental
health, and social services. If limited to only physical abuse,
the USA rate was only 4.9 or 5.7 known to at least one of these
professionals, depending upon the definition of physical child
abuse. If limited to all three kinds of abuse known specifically
to police or sheriffs, the USA rate was only 2.2 per 1000 (NCCAN,
The most relevant statistics we have obtained from Sweden are
police-record trends in physical abuse of children under 7 years
of age (Wittrock, 1992, 1995). Those records showed a 489%
increase in the child abuse rate from 1981 to 1994 (see Figure 1).
The same police records also indicated a 672% increase in assaults
by minors against minors (under 15 in Sweden) from 1981 to 1994
(see Figure 2).
Although the Swedish
anti-spanking law was intended to reduce child abuse, the best
empirical study since then indicated that the rate of child abuse
in Sweden was 49% higher than in the United States one year after
the anti-spanking law was passed. Does this mean that the
anti-spanking law increased the rate of physical child abuse in
Sweden? Deley's (1988) retrospective data indicates that the
Swedish physical child abuse rate was 21% of the USA rate in the
1960s and 1970s. This suggests that the anti-spanking law not only
failed to achieve its goal of reducing child abuse, but that the
child abuse rate increased from 21% to 149% of the equivalent USA
rate, a seven-fold increase relative to the decreasing rate in the
United States. We doubt that the increase was actually that
substantial, because Deley used a retrospective measure with a
small unrepresentative sample. Nonetheless, the available evidence
suggests that a sizeable increase in the Swedish child abuse rate
occurred around the time of the 1979 anti-spanking law. The other
studies indicate no changes in attitudes about corporal punishment
nor in child homicides due to the 1979 law.
Was the apparent increase in the Swedish child abuse rate only a
temporary increase following their anti-spanking law? More recent
data on Swedish child abuse rates would help answer that question.
One piece of subsequent data was the 6.5 cases of physical child
abuse per 1,000 children in official 1986 Swedish police
statistics, which was substantially higher than the 2.2 per 1,000
known to police or sheriffs in the USA. The other available
evidence is the sharp increase in physical child abuse in Swedish
police records from 1981 through 1994, along with a similar sharp
increase in certain assaults by minors.
Why might Sweden experience an increasing child abuse rate and an
increase in assaults by minors after outlawing corporal
punishment? Haeuser's (1988) description of some parental
frustration and yelling in 1981 might indicate an increased risk
of escalation to abuse at that time. This is reminiscent of
Baumrind's (1973) observation of permissive parents. Compared to
authoritative and authoritarian parents, permissive parents were
the most likely to report "explosive attacks of rage in which they
inflicted more pain or injury upon the child than they had
intended. . . . Permissive parents apparently became violent
because they felt that they could neither control the child's
behavior nor tolerate its effect upon themselves" (Baumrind, 1973,
p. 35). Permissive parents used spanking less than did either
authoritative or authoritarian parents. So it could be that the
prohibition of all spanking eliminates a type of mild spanking
that prevents further escalation of aggression within discipline
incidents (see Patterson's  coercive family
process). Haeuser's (1988) report suggests that Swedish parents
later developed new, firm discipline responses that reduced
escalations to yelling and possibly to child abuse. But adequate
data on the resulting child abuse rates are lacking.
In conclusion, the available Swedish data indicate that we cannot
reduce child abuse just by mandating that parents stop using
corporal punishment. Parents also need new, effective techniques
to replace corporal punishment if it is to be outlawed. It is even
possible that mild corporal punishment may play an important role
in preventing escalation to abuse for some parents.
The other surprise is that there has been so little empirical
evaluation of the effects of Sweden's anti-spanking law. Perhaps
it has seemed so obvious that eliminating parental spanking would
reduce the child abuse rate that people have felt that no
evaluation was needed. If so, this summary of available evidence
should shake us out of our premature complacency. The role of
parental discipline responses in preventing aggression in parent
and child is surprisingly complex (Grusec & Goodnow, 1994;
Patterson, 1982; Snyder & Patterson, 1995). We need better
research to understand the complexities involved in parental
discipline, including its relationship to child abuse. We need to
discriminate effective from counterproductive forms of discipline
responses, including the role of different forms of corporal
punishment in increasing or decreasing the risk of child abuse. We
also need better evaluations of policies designed to change
parental discipline, given that the effects of the Swedish
anti-spanking law seem to have had exactly the opposite effect of
its intention, at least in the short term.
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Prevalence Rates of Various
Forms of Physical Child Abuse in the United States and
Type of Violence
1. Threw things
2. Pushed, grabbed, or
3. Hit (spanked or
4. Kicked, bit, or hit
5. Hit with an
6. Beat up
7. Threatened with a
8. Used a
Very Severe Violence
1 In the
United States this item referred to attempted or
completed hits. In Sweden, the item referred only to
completed hits. The 1975 and 1980 surveys are taken from
Gelles & Edfeldt (1986) and the 1985 survey from
Straus & Gelles (1986).
*p < .05, 2-tailed
t-test of proportions, comparing the combined USA samples
with the Swedish sample.
***p < .001, same
information for Robert
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