Analysis of Afifi 2012 by Bob Larzelere

Analysis of the Physical Punishment and Mental Disorders by Afifi

This 2012 study by Dr. Tracie Afifi claims to demonstrate an association between the use of harsh inappropriate forms of physical punishment with older children and poor outcomes as adults.  It, however, says nothing about the adult outcomes from the use of non-abusive spanking by well-intentioned parents of toddlers or preschoolers.  Nonetheless, USA Today on the day of the study’s publication cited the research as evidence against ordinary spanking: “Children who are spanked, hit, or pushed as a means of discipline may be at an increased risk of mental problems in adulthood.”

The study suffers from a few fatal flaws:

  • It does not even include spanking in its question, but asks adults how often they remember being pushed, shoved, grabbed, slapped, or hit as children. A study by Stattin (1995) showed that adult’s retrospective reports about physical punishment correlates most highly with concurrent parent reports when they were 12 to 14 years old. So, the study reveals that inappropriate types of physically lashing out at 12- to 14-year olds is associated with a slightly increased risk of a wide range of psychiatric disorders. The illogical leap occurs when the authors claim that this retrospective evidence about inappropriate physical punishment at mostly inappropriate ages tells us anything about the most appropriate use of nonabusive spanking at the most appropriate ages for the most appropriate disciplinary situations and parent-child contexts.  This research is an egregious example of a major logical flaw often made by anti-spanking researchers.
  • In most research on physical punishment, the surveys used ask about inappropriate implementations (e.g., pushing, beating) along with  appropriate examples (e.g., spanking).  The Afifi et al. study is particularly egregious because it doesn’t even bother to include a term that could be construed as appropriate physical discipline (e.g., no inclusion of the word spanking, even). And yet the main application they are pushing about their study is that all physical punishment should be avoided at all ages.
  • The researchers never specify the disciplinary situations, whereas the advisability of any medical treatment depends upon its suitability for the medical diagnoses and related indications and contra-indications, all of which are ignored in almost all research on parental disciplinary corrective actions.