Why Harsh Discipline DOES Harm Children & The Daily Mail Need Better Journalists

Did you read THIS charming piece in the Daily Mail today? A very poorly written, largely rehashed press release, of THIS research entitled “Maternal Warmth Moderates the Link between Harsh Discipline and Later Externalizing Behaviors for Mexican American Adolescents” published in the latest ‘Parenting: Science and Practice Journal.’

The Daily Mail, in their typical overly emotive, sensationlist style report that “Study says punishment is good for children, as long as it comes from ‘a good place” – which actually is completely wrong and not at all what the researchers actually found or implied in their conclusions. To add to this the Daily Mail publish some classic stock photos of children being spanked  just to clarify to any parents reading that this is what the research endorsed and approved, only it didn’t.


Steve Robson, you should be ashamed of yourself, one of the golden rules of science reporting is NEVER report on a brief press release, ALWAYS read the full article and report with a full and deeper understanding of the topic at hand otherwise you end up foolishly writing an article full of misunderstandings and misrepresentations, which whilst is standard fodder for the Daily Mail here really does need to be taken in hand, you see out of your 60 million or so online readers how many are parents? How many will read your poorly formulated article and think it tells them it’s OK to spank their child? A small quick piece of journalism can carry terrible ripples that can cause a lifetime of harm.


So what did the research really say?

Let’s put this into context first – the researchers looked at a tiny sample of only 189 children aged between 12 and 13. They all came from ‘low income’ families in Latino Mexico (here it is vitally important to note the vastly different cultural parenting practices and beliefs with the UK).

Researchers had two primary aims

1. To decide the attachment style of the mother/child relationship

2. To look for any externalisation of behaviour (the process of directing problematic energy/emotions outwards in an antisocial way). This was maternally reported (and therefore liable to a large amount of bias).

Results were all self reporting, using laptop based surveys.

What the researchers did NOT study was any of the following:

1. Anxiety disorders or depressive sypmtoms in the children

2. Empathy of the children and social interactions with others.

3. General emotional development or health of the children

4. Academic achievement of the children or measures of intelligence.

As the researchers report “This study’s findings demonstrate one condition under which harsh discipline does not promote the development of youth externalizing.” – i.e: the findings are exceptionally limited to externalisation only, it tells us nothing of internalisation for instance eating disorders, self harm and depression which are all alarmingly common in teenagers in our society.

The researchers found that ‘harsh discipline’ (which may or may not have involved spanking or shouting – this was not clarified in the results) was somewhat offset when the mother and child shared a secure attachment, in that in securely attached children there was no externalisation of behaviour despite use of ‘harsh discipline’.








What the Research Doesn’t Tell Us.

The research tells us nothing of other effects of ‘harsh discipline’, it does not split out verbal versus physical punishment, it does not look at any other psychological or physical effects of the harsh discipline and it absolutely 100% does NOT advocate the usage of harsh discipline, particularly not spanking – as the researchers themselves report in their paper:

“It is important to note that we are not endorsing the use of harsh discipline practices”

permission parenting, responsive parenting, gentle parenting, attachment parenting










What we CAN Take From the Research

This is a positive paper in my view, despite the sharp intake of breath from AP style parents around the world, why? Because nobody is perfect. As parents we have ALL said or done things to our children we are ashamed of and regret. Maybe we’ve shouted, maybe we ‘tapped’ them a bit too hard or handled them too roughly, maybe we’ve chastised them, maybe we’ve ignored them – we have all done *something* out of sheer desperation, exhaustion and anger. This research tells us “It’s OK, you’re ‘Good Enough’, don’t worry”. What matters most is a secure attachment and warm, empathic parenting. If you fill up your child’s cup with enough love and respect on a daily basis then the odd parental slip-up won’t harm them (I’m not talking spanking here by the way), relax, you’re doing OK.

A shame the Daily Mail didn’t report on that finding huh?




Miguelina Germána*, Nancy A. Gonzalesb, Darya Bonds McClainb, Larry Dumkab & Roger Millsapb “, 2013, “Maternal Warmth Moderates the Link between Harsh Discipline and Later Externalizing Behaviors for Mexican American Adolescents”, Parenting: Science and Practice, Volume 13, Issue 3, pages 169-177

About SarahOckwell-Smith

Sarah Ockwell-Smith, Parenting author and mother to four.
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