Child Abuse in Sweden
Robert E. Larzelere
A rigorous evaluation of the effects of spanking bans in Sweden and other countries is sorely needed now that other countries are considering such bans (e.g., Germany). Published evaluations before 1999 included only 7 journal articles in English, leading to my call for "more timely and rigorous evaluations of similar social experiments in the future" (Larzelere, 1999, p. 381). Durrant (1999a) also published an evaluation of the success of Sweden's ban in 1999. Given the importance of this issue, I want to briefly compare our respective conclusions and the evidence for them.
SUBSEQUENT PHYSICAL CHILD ABUSE. Durrant (1999) implied that Sweden has had minimal child abuse since 1979, whereas I could find no evidence that their child abuse rate had decreased since then. We both agree that the child abuse fatality rates have been very low in Sweden, with no significant change after the 1979 spanking ban. This is very commendable, but provides no information about the effect of the spanking ban, because the low rates preceded 1979. My review considered three major studies of non-fatal child abuse that Durrant did not consider: Gelles & Edfeldt (1986) and Wittrock (1992, 1995). Durrant cited the second Wittrock report as "SCB (1995a)" elsewhere in her article.
The Gelles and Edfeldt (1986) study was the most rigorous of the 7 journal articles located for my literature review. Their comparison of national surveys in Sweden and the USA used the Conflict Tactics Scale, the most widely used survey measure of physical child abuse. Gelles and Edfeldt concluded:
"Swedish parents report more pushing, grabbing or shoving than American parents and double the rate of beating children . . . American parents report more spanking. . . In general, there were far more similarities in the two countries than there were differences" (p. 506-507).
Accordingly, the child abuse measure that included corporal punishment (hitting with an object) was significantly higher in the USA, whereas the child abuse measure that was identical except for excluding that item showed a 4.1% rate in the USA and a 3.6% rate in Sweden. A later (1985) American survey that was more equivalent to the Swedish survey concluded that 1.9% of American parents were abusing their child according to this measure.
As Durrant pointed out, the 1975 American response rate was lower than the Gelles-Edfeldt Swedish survey done in 1980. This was probably because that American survey used face-to-face interviews, whereas the Swedish survey used telephone calls. Fortunately, the 1985 American survey used telephone calls and had an even higher response rate than the Swedish survey. Considering a variety of factors, the fairest and most conservative comparison was to compare the Swedish child abuse rate with the average of the two USA rates. By this method, the Swedish child abuse rate was 49% higher in 1980 than the average of the 1975 and 1985 USA rates (Larzelere, 1999). These findings were surprising to me, just as the original findings were to Gelles and Edfeldt. At first, I thought it might reflect a temporary upsurge in child abuse as part of a systemic change in Sweden to disciplining children without the use of spanking.
But the best evidence on Swedish trends since then indicates sharply increasing rates of physical child abuse, at least in criminal records of assaults by relatives against children under the age of 7. This frequency increased from 99 in 1981 to 583 in 1994, a 489% increase. As Wittrock (1995) and I (1999) suggested, this could reflect a change in reporting mechanisms, an actual increase, or other factors. Other countries need an unbiased, objective way of deciding among these alternative explanations before emulating Swedish policies.
SUBSEQUENT SUPPORT FOR CORPORAL PUNISHMENT. Durrant and I used the identical data source to arrive at nearly opposite conclusions about the effect of the spanking ban on subsequent support for corporal punishment (Statistics Sweden, 1996; Durrant's "SCB, 1996c"). Interested readers can view a summary of this data source on the web (Sanden & Lundgren, 1997). Durrant concluded that "public support for corporal punishment has declined" (Durrant, 1999a, p. 435), whereas I concluded, "the spanking ban has made little change in problematic forms of physical punishment" (Larzelere, 1999, p. 382). Durrant arrived at her conclusion by comparing apples and oranges - or, more accurately, apples and half-oranges. She not only compared survey questions that were very different in 1981 and 1994, but she used only one of the two responses to the 1994 question that indicated qualified support for corporal punishment.
The Swedish survey item in 1978, 1979, and 1981 was "a child has to be given corporal punishment from time to time," with which 26% of Swedes agreed all three years. The 11% cited by Durrant in 1994-5 were "positively inclined to milder forms of physical punishment" (Statistics Sweden, 1996, p. 8), whereas another 22% chose the following alternative response to the same question: "in principle against all forms of physical punishment, but can use such punishment if upset enough." Only 56% chose the third response, expressing opposition to all physical punishment. The same Swedish survey included the following item, which was closer in wording to the 1978-1981 item: "Mild or moderate physical punishment is sometimes necessary as a child rearing method, but should be carefully considered and not the result of anger" (Sanden, 1996, p. 10). Thirty-four percent agreed partly or fully with this item, an increase from the 26% support in 1978, just before the 1979 spanking ban.
In the Discussion section of my literature review, I used the same Swedish survey to show that actual corporal punishment received had dropped very little (e.g., 32% of valid answers from those born after the spanking ban compared to 34% in the next oldest generation). Further, the most problematic types had not decreased at all (e.g., spanking of teenagers). Putting the pattern of these changes together with the available child abuse trends suggested the hypothesis quoted by Rolf Nilsson on this listserve: "So it might be hypothesized that that the prohibition of all spanking eliminates a type of mild spanking that prevents further escalation of aggression within disciplinary incidents" (Larzelere, 1999, p. 390). Corporal punishment of teenagers or when "upset enough" could increase the risk of child abuse more than a mild spanking.
SUBSEQUENT ASSAULTS BY MINORS AGAINST MINORS. Durrant (1999a) concluded that those raised after the 1979 spanking ban were less likely to be perpetrators of assaults against children, relative to overall societal trends. Her primary data source supports the opposite conclusion (Wittrock, 1995; her "SCB, 1995a"). The percentage increases from 1984 to 1994 in criminal assaults against 7- to 14-year-olds were as follows: A 519% increase by minors under 15; a 231% increase by 15- to 19-year-olds; 133% by 20- to 24-year-olds; 53% by 25- to 29-year-olds; 122% by 30- to 39-year-olds; 147% by 40- to 49-year-olds; and 128% by perpetrators over 49 (Wittrock, 1995). The largest increases were for perpetrators who went through the preschool years after the spanking ban. Those who were 25 to 29 years old in 1994-5 were 10 to 14 years old when the spanking ban was passed. Yet this is the group Durrant includes in her youngest group to support her incorrect conclusion that younger persons were proportionately less involved in assaults against children.
SUBSEQUENT SUPPORTIVENESS OF SOCIAL SUPPORTS. I cannot critique Durrant's conclusion on this as confidently because I do not have access to her data. Note, however, that for 46% of the families in 1995, "support and care measures" consisted of removing the child from the home (Durrant, 1999b, p. 70). Thankfully, this percentage was down from 60% of new cases in 1982. The number of new compulsory removals from the home was 7% higher in Sweden in 1995 than in 1982 (Durrant, 1999b, p. 70). A Swedish book (Ivarsson, 1984) and a Swedish lawyer (Westerberg, 1999) have claimed that the risk of children being removed from their home is much higher in Sweden than in other European countries, such as Germany and Great Britain.
CONCLUSIONS. Thus my major conclusion seems very appropriate: we need "more timely and rigorous evaluations of similar social experiments in the future" (Larzelere, 1999, p. 381). The Swedish spanking ban was well-intentioned - just as a similar approach to another abuse problem led to the USA's Prohibition Amendment. That Prohibition did not live up to its high ideals - and the spanking prohibition may be faring no better. Both prohibitions may lead to more dangerous ways of either drinking or spanking, thus undermining their intended beneficial effects.
We need to move beyond sole reliance on such simplistic, absolutist resolutions to these important problems. Some innovative possibilities:
(1) Insist on methodologically sound evaluations of policy changes, especially when the changes are this major. Because we have not done this, we cannot be sure how to explain the 589% increase in child abuse cases, the 519% increase in assaults by minors, or why the changes in corporal punishment are so small in Sweden.
(2) Emphasize empowering parents with milder, effective disciplinary tactics rather than legislating prematurely against nonabusive disciplinary tactics.
(3) Explore empirically supported middle-ground positions before polarizing controversial issues to extreme positions. A balanced middle position would be more sensitive to ethnic, religious, and socio-economic differences (Deater-Deckard & Dodge, 1997; Gunnoe & Mariner, 1997).
(4) Distinguish between effective vs. counter-productive ways of using each disciplinary tactic! How parents use disciplinary tactics may be more important than what tactics they use.
I hope this stimulates more careful thinking about this complex set of important issues.
Deater-Deckard, K., & Dodge, K. A. (1997). Externalizing behavior problems and discipline revisited: Nonlinear effects and variation by culture, context, and gender. Psychological Inquiry, 8, 161-175. (11 responses to this important article appear in the same journal)
Durrant, J. E. (1999a). Evaluating the success of Sweden's corporal punishment ban. Child Abuse & Neglect, 5, 435-448.
Durrant, J. E. (1999b). The status of Swedish children and youth since the passage of he 1979 corporal punishment ban. London: Save the Children.
Gelles, R. J., & Edfeldt, A. W. (1986). Violence towards children in the United States and Sweden. Child Abuse & Neglect, 10, 501-510.
Gunnoe, M. L., & Mariner, C. L. (1997). Toward a developmental-contextual model of the effects of parental spanking on children's aggression. Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, 151, 768-775.
Ivarsson, M. (1984). Sverige 1984 [Sweden 1984]. Malmo, Sweden: Lehmanns Forlag.
Larzelere, R. E., & Johnson, B. (1999). Evaluation of the effects of Sweden's spanking ban on physical child abuse rates: A literature review. Psychological Reports, 85, 381-392.
Sanden, A., & Lundgren, L. (1997). Spanking of children much less common. Statistika centralbryan. http://www.scb.se/scbeng/vhtm/barnaga.htm
Statistics Sweden. (1996). Spanking and other forms of physical punishment (Demography, the Family, and Children 1996:1.2). Stockholm, Sweden.
Westerberg, S. (1999, June 19). Lecture to the Family Education Trust, London. .
Wittrock, U. (1992). Barmisshandel i kriminalstatstiken 1981-1991 [Violent crimes against children in criminal statistics, 1981-1991]. KR Info, 1992, 7.
Wittrock, U. (1995). Barnmisshandel, 1984-1994 [Violent crimes against children, 1984-1994]. KR Info, 1-6.
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