Spanking and Mass Shootings

Spanking and Mass Shootings

The insidious connection between spanking a child and mass shootings that no one wants to talk about.

This Sunday’s shooting at a Texas church, last month’s massacre in Las Vegas, and so many more, have raised once again the debates around gun control on the left and of course mental health on the right.  But there’s a causal factor here that no one is talking about which is the way we discipline children.  While a broader brush is warranted, I specifically talk of spanking.  In short, the prevalence of spanking as a form of discipline is a much bigger contributing factor in why some people go on killing rampages than anyone cares to admit.

I want you to take a look at this infographic from USA Today.  I don’t know about you, but my first takeaway from this is that mass shootings are way more common than most people realize.  The FBI defines such an event as four or more victims.  By that definition, there have been 276 mass shootings this year aloneSutherland Springs was only the eighth mass shooting so far this month.  People talk of Sandy Hook, Pulse Nightclub, San Bernardino, VA Tech, Columbine, Aurora, Ft Hood, and others, but it seems as though at least ten people need to get killed before it’s national news.  How many people outside South Florida recall the incident at Ft Lauderdale Airport earlier this year?  Or, how many people outside New Orleans remember the Louisiana Pizza Kitchen shooting?

The second takeaway for me on that infographic was that about half of the mass killings since 2013 were against family.

You may or may not be familiar with ACEs.  Adverse Childhood Experiences is a way scientists have found to predict your outcome in life for a host of health problems ranging from obesity, depression, drug abuse, heart disease, alcoholism, poor work performance, financial stress, sexual violence, general relationship problems, and others.  What we’ve found is that there is a very high correlation between people with high ACEs and these chronic ailments.  The ACEs typically fall under the categories of abuse and neglect, sexual abuse, and the like, and when you look at the pattern it should seem like one of those things that ought to come across as intuitive.  It makes sense.

According to this study by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, that darling scapegoat of ‘mental illness’ as being a driving force in the motivations of a rampaging shooter is just not accurate.  In fact, people who suffer from mental illness are about twice as likely to be the recipients of violent abuse as they are to perpetuate it.  More to the point, mental illness is not a statistically significant correlating factor in mass killings.  No matter what the NRA tells you, it just isn’t true.  What ARE significant factors are the aforementioned ACEs outcomes: drug and alcohol abuse, family and relationship problems, and work and financial stress.

This study from the University of Michigan poses the question of whether spanking should be considered one of the ACEs, right alongside physical and emotional abuse.  After looking at aggregate data spanning decades of research, the short answer is: yes.

But I want to share with you my take on this study.  As I read through it, one statement really, truly struck me, and that is: “Spanking loaded on the same factor as the physical and emotional abuse items.”

As a Statistics teacher, I want to explain to you what that means.  In Statistics, there is a tool called factor analysis, which is used to find correlated factors between events.  It’s the same kind of correlation you learned about back in grade school, only instead of looking at whether there is a correlation between two variables, you’re looking to see which out of several variables are causing a correlation and how strong each of them is.  For example: suppose you needed know why a certain intersection had a lot of car accidents.  Is it because it’s raining?  Too dark?  Maybe the color of the car, what time of day it is, the age of the driver, and so on.  All these things could be contributing factors in the number of accidents at that intersection.  Factor analysis is math of figuring out how influential each of those potential factors is.

To say that spanking loads onto the same factor as physical and emotional abuse items is a fancy, statistical way of saying that spanking is physical and emotional abuse.

Having witnessed the approach to teaching that my colleagues often employ, and having witnessed the profound differences in the way my students have responded to my approach, I have become more convinced that the way we discipline our children matters.

A lot.

The act of spanking a child is the act of using violence and psychological stress to attempt to gain control over another human being.  The argument is that spanking teaches good behavior, but the reality is that not only does spanking fail to teach ‘good behavior,’ but there’s no reason to have such a narrow definition of what ‘good behavior’ is.  Furthermore, the extrinsic motivation spanking provides is extinguished once the motivator is removed and the resulting behavior is often much worse.  The other argument that “I was spanked and I turned out just fine” is both relative and anecdotal; it’s akin to saying “I don’t wear my seatbelt and I’m still alive,” so therefore, what?  Exactly?  And yet it’s so prevalent and celebrated in our society that when a dad gives his son an ‘ass-whooping’ for something, people cheer.

In that linked video, the assumption is that this ass-whooping is going to teach the child to not steal again.  In truth, spanking has been proven to have little to no effect on deterring the undesired behavior.  What it DOES teach, however, is far more insidious.  At the very least, it teaches the child that it’s OK to hit him when you’re angry.  It teaches that it’s acceptable, albeit normal, to lash out with violence in response to things not being the way you want them to be — in response to other people not doing what you want them to do.  It teaches the child that he doesn’t deserve a caring and loving approach to teaching him the right way to be.  It teaches him that he’s defective and deserves to be punished.  It teaches him to focus his perception inward and think primarily of himself at the expense of others.  It teaches him that you are not a safe person he can be comfortable with — so who in his life is?  It teaches him that his body is not his own, so that others are free to hurt him there.  It teaches him that it’s not important to restrain one’s impulses.

Spanking is abuse.  Abuse causes serious mental health problems related to substance abuse and relationship problems.  These problems are all risk factors for gun violence and mass killings.  Spanking is usually perpetrated by family.  Half of mass killings target family.

You do the math.

Michael Patrick Lewis is a teacher, math nerd, and bestselling author of Edge Of God, and Preferred Rewards.  You can also find him on Twitter @fakeMikeLewis.

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  1. GGH says

    I am the parent of 3. Grandparent of 5. Have worked as a parent educator in mental health for nearly 35 years. I agree personally and professionally with you findings.

  2. says

    Violence breeds violence. We are a violent society that accepts violence against children as normal. Children die in mass shootings and in gun accidents, and we ignore it.
    Every shooter had a traumatic dysfunctional childhood that contributed to their emotionally deregulated brain functioning.

  3. Henry Wallace says

    It’s a wonderful premise — and it’s a compelling hypothesis that should be explored because anything that aids our understanding of mass shootings might help. But there’s an inherent obstacle. Two-third of parents spank their children, according to polls, and only a relatively small number of people become mass shooters, Is it even clear that mass shooters were spanked per se?

    This is akin to the problem with the “gateway” hypothesis that marijuana smoking inevitably leads to harder drug use. It doesn’t — there are intervening variables. Sven though hard core drug users typically have smoked marijuana, that doesn’t mean marijuana alone got them there.

    There are a lot of other “measurement” problems here. What constitutes spanking? is there a different between heavy and light, or intermittent and constant? Of course child abuse — and spanking may very well constitute child abuse — causes emotional and psychological problems but it doesn’t cause people to become mass shooters, does it?.

    You might say spanking is a precondition of some kind, and then there may be other developmental factors, as well as triggers? Familiarity with firearms, exposure to religious or political extremism. prior military service, recent traumatic event, gender, one might list a whole host of things that could connect spanking in childhood over time to the disturbed adult who becomes the mass shooter.

    It might be useful if there were studies of adults spanked as children and those who were not? Howe different are their demographic and psychological profiles? I am not aware of any such studies but maybe they exist?

  4. Alexis says

    There are many countries in which parents spank their children and whih cultures also elevate such punishment as they think is good parenting. Why these countries don’t have the amount of mass shootings US has?. Let’s take as an example Argentina, country which until just few years ago banned spnking yet parents continue to do so, very very few don’t spank. They don’t have mass shootings and such. Is perhaps shown in some other violent way?. Could it be that the US is an inherently violent culture?. The tv shows are evrytime more gory, more bloody, because if not the audience feels bored, criminal acts are glamourized by Hollywood, etc.,the US is the onky developed country that continues to worship a passive-aggressive god who says “love me or else…” and “fear me and I shall reward you”. The US raises their kids with that mentality from the start.

  5. Chris says

    “Spanking is usually perpetrated by family. Half of mass killings target family.”

    “You do the math”

    Just because you say something that sounds like it correlates with something does not prove that it actually correlates. Where is your math?


  1. […] No one wants to face uncomfortable truths. The uncomfortable truth is that we aren’t the best nation in the world, not by a long shot. Another uncomfortable truth is that most of the world has better gun control policies, and a lot less mass shootings. So, it makes them feel good to know that they did the “right thing,” by spanking, because their kid didn’t shoot up a school, completely disregarding the fact that they have absolutely no idea if the shooter was spanked or not. […]

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