Chimes Calvin College

Professor challenges spanking assumptions

Last month, a study on the correlation between agression in children and spanking by parents which Gunnoe directed was picked up and covered by the New York Times.

The article, which identified Gunnoe as “a developmental psychologist at Calvin College, affiliated with the Christian Reformed Church, in Grand Rapids, Mich.,” presented Gunnoe’s research alongside the findings of Dr. Murray Strauss, a sociologist whose comparable study, which was released as the official position of the American Medical Association, confirmed the prominent psychological presumption that spanked children become aggressive children.

Gunnoe’s study, however, challenged Strauss’s findings.

“We’re not pushing spanking,” she said, “but the evidence just isn’t good enough to say that parents should never spank.”

After surveying 1110 children between the ages of 4 and 11 for 5 years, Gunnoe found that, for children between the ages of 4 and 7, and for the children of black mothers, children who were spanked were actually less aggressive than their pacifist-parented peers.

While Gunnoe stresses the fact that spanking should not be done out of anger, and that children under age 2 and over age 8 should not be spanked, she found that spanking was correlated with increased aggression in some children, but reduced aggression in others.

The reasons for these different reactions seemed to be rooted in the children’s perceptions towards spanking -- whether spanking was perceived by the children as a violent or simply authoritative act.

This perception is driven by cultural as much as personal factors, as is evidenced by Gunnoe’s findings about black families.

In black communities, where there appears to be a consensus that “timeouts are for white people,” the warmer, more caring mothers actually spanked their children with more regularity than the “poorer” mothers.

In addition to the academic attention she has received from her spanking research, Gunnoe has also been noticed by conservative religious groups, who have latched onto her findings and association with a Christian college, and assumed she would be the spanking advocate they had been looking for.

Gunnoe is familiar with the thinking of spanking advocates: she was raised in a very conservative Christian community, many of whose members believed that such scripture verses as “spare the rod and spoil the child” could only be interpreted one way: literally.

Gunnoe’s concern is that when Christians who view psychology as irrelevant at best and evil and secular at worst, hear of findings like those of Strauss--which said that children who are spanked will become aggressive-- their worst fears about psychology are confirmed: after all, many children who are spanked turn out fine!

While she no longer subscribes to such a worldview, Gunnoe’s work has been influenced by the environment she came out of: “When you are raised on the idea that there’s only one interpretation of Scripture, it’s scary when you consider others,” she said, but “When I think about these issues, I can’t be who I used to be.”

Her experiences as a fundamentalist Christian have also strengthened her: they have inspired her to work toward finding middle ground between psychologists/scientists and conservatives/fundamentalists, and to attempt to break the bonds she believes are imposed by literal interpretations of Scripture, particularly on women.

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Contact Chimes. Last revised on Thursday, 9/18/97 .