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Spanking worsens children’s behavior and is linked to long-term harms, an analysis of 50 years of research finds

What’s more, according to the research, spanking is not only ineffective at improving children’s behavior, it makes them more likely to defy their parents.

"A Spanking Good Time," copyright 1891 by Littleton View Co.
Boston Public Library

When a young protester interrupted Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz at a campaign event in Indiana on Sunday, Cruz responded with what he apparently believes is good parental advice: “In my household, when a child behaved that way, they’d get a spanking.”

Let’s hope parents weren’t listening. For, according to a major new review of five decades of research, spanking is not only ineffective at improving children’s behavior, it makes them more likely to defy their parents. More disturbingly, the study also found a link between spanking and anti-social behavior, aggression, mental health problems and cognitive disabilities — effects that continue into adulthood.

“Spanking makes children’s behavior worse,” Elizabeth T. Gershoff, the study’s lead author and a developmental psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin, told reporter Heidi Stevens for the Chicago Tribune. “It has the opposite effect than what parents want: It doesn’t make children better-behaved, and it doesn’t teach children right from wrong. It’s not related to immediate compliance, and it doesn’t make children behave better in the future.”

Although spanking has become less socially acceptable in the United States in recent decades, it’s still used in many American households. In a 2012 survey, about 70 percent of Americans agreed that “a good, hard spanking” is sometimes necessary to discipline a child.

Study details

The current study, which appears in the April issue of the Journal of Family Psychology, is the most comprehensive look to date at outcomes associated with spanking. For the study — a meta-analysis — Gershoof and her co-author, Andrew Grogan-Kaylor of the University of Michigan, analyzed data from 75 previous studies involving more than 160,000 children. More than half of those studies had never been included in a meta-analysis before.

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Unlike earlier meta-analyses on the topic, Gershoof and Grogan-Kaylor looked at outcomes associated only with spanking, which they define as “hitting a child on their buttocks or extremities using an open hand.” They also made sure that all the studies they analyzed were methodologically strong. 

Specifically, to be included in their meta-analysis, Gershoof and Grogan-Kaylor made sure each study met these criteria: It had to be peer-reviewed. It had to separate out the effects of spanking from other, harsher forms of parental punishment. It had to control for non-spanking-related factors that might have affected the children’s outcomes. And it had to have findings with statistical strength.

They set these requirements to address two criticisms of previous meta-analyses on the topic: 1) that the large number of studies in which spanking was found to be harmful had conflated spanking with harsher types of parental physical punishment and 2) that the handful of studies that had found no harm had been poorly designed.

Many negative outcomes

After analyzing all the data from the 75 studies, Gershoff and Grogan-Kaylor found a significant link between spanking and 13 of 17 outcomes — all of which were detrimental to children. 

Children who were spanked were, for example, more likely to be aggressive, to display antisocial behavior, to have more mental health problems and to have more negative relationships with their parents. They were also more likely to have low self-esteem and to have lower cognitive abilities. 

The spanked children were also at greater risk of being physically abused by their parents, the research revealed.

The study found no evidence, however, that spanking improved the behavior of children.

Spanking’s negative effects also followed the children into adulthood. Adults who received spankings as children were more likely to display antisocial behavior and to have mental health than their peers who were raised in non-spanking homes, the meta-analysis found.

Those adults were also more likely to spank their own children. 

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An irrational rationalization

“The finding that a history of received spanking is linked with more support for spanking of children as an adult may be an example of intergenerational transmission of spanking, or it may be an example of adults selectively remembering their past as a way of rationalizing their current beliefs,” write Gershoff and Grogan-Kaylor. 

Why do some parents insist on that rationalization? Why do so many continue to believe that spanking is just fine because “my parents spanked me, and I turned out OK”?

Gershoff told the Chicago Tribune that she has a couple of answers for people who use that old trope: 

First, we turned out OK because our parents did other things, like sat us down at the kitchen table and talked to us and gave us reasons why they wanted to see us behave. We turned out OK in spite of spanking, not because of it. Second, when I was a child, there were no seat belts in cars. Do I think I turned out OK because my parents didn’t put me in a seat belt? No. I think I turned out because we didn’t get in an accident. … We have evolved in our understanding of what protects children. We now know we can protect our children and promote their behavior without spanking.

‘All evidence points to harm’

Almost 50 countries have banned the spanking of children, including by parents. The U.S. is not one of those countries, although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has called for “public engagement and education campaigns and legislative approaches to reduce corporal punishment,” including spanking.

“Parents who use spanking, practitioners who recommend it, and policymakers who allow it might reconsider doing so given that there is no evidence that spanking does any good for children and all evidence points to the risk of it doing harm,” Gershoff and Grogan-Kaylor conclude in their paper.

Somebody might want to mention that to Senator Cruz.

FMI: You’ll find an abstract of the study at the Journal of Family Psychology website, but, unfortunately, the full study is behind a paywall.