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

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

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.

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. 

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.

Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 05/02/2016 - 11:14 am.

    I beg to differ

    I received one spanking in my life. On my very first day of 7th grade at Marshall Jr. high school in St. Paul, my friend and I were fooling around before our first gym class and broke the (apparent) rule about walking on the gym mats with our street shoes on.

    For that transgression, we each received two wacks from the gym teacher, former all-conference fullback for Hamline, Mr. Jerontowski’s (see? I even remember his name) “board of education” in front of everyone. Do you think we went home and told our parents? Think again.

    We never misbehaved in that school again and went on to become outstanding citizens and contributors to society.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 05/02/2016 - 12:34 pm.

      Not really

      Since there is overwhelming evidence that spanking is bad (your anecdote notwithstanding), by supporting it, you are actually not an outstanding contributor to society. You are part of the problem.

    • Submitted by Pat Berg on 05/03/2016 - 06:54 am.

      Frequency

      You report being spanked once, and it occurred away from the home.

      The studies dealt with spankings that were administered by parents and as the plural “spankings” is mentioned in the article, there’s a good chance that this was a routine part of the study subjects’ upbringing, not a singular occurrence, never repeated as you described your own experience.

      Therefore, your anecdote has nothing to do with the point of the article. Come back and tell us your tale after you’ve grown up with the repeated application (or threat) of physical punishment for virtually any childhood transgression, no matter how small.

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 05/02/2016 - 01:49 pm.

    There aren’t many

    …areas of life where I actually feel like I was some small distance ahead of the curve, but this is one of the rare exceptions. My Mom, a small woman, regularlly whacked me and my sisters with whatever blunt objects came readily to hand. Hair brushes and pancake spatulas were most frequent, but there were occasional others, all of them used because, especially as we grew older, Mom admitted that beating us with just her bare hand hurt her hand.

    That might have been a clue that perhaps there were better disciplinary methods, but I’ve always assumed she learned her disciplinary technique(s) from her own mother, who was as dour a Victorian matron as I’ve ever encountered. In any case, I disliked the method so intensely that I vowed as an early teenager that if I ever had children, I would never hit them. In later years, of course, I did have children, but I remembered the vow, and found other ways to discipline. At least in my Mom’s case, one of the primary advantages of spanking was that it was immediate, and took relatively little time in comparison to sitting down at the kitchen table or on the couch and hashing out the issue verbally. A single mother with 4 kids – and then, when remarried, with 8 kids – I fully understand the appeal of discipline done speedily, and almost reflexively. Speed and thoughtlessness, however, are not really good criteria for parental behavior in most circumstances.

    That research confirms that hitting is a lousy way to discipline children if it’s improved behavior you want doesn’t surprise me at all. I suspect that if Mr. Jerontowski had gotten in Mr. Tester’s face on that first day of 7th grade, it likely would have made just as powerful an impression, and without resorting to what some might think of as child abuse. In today’s litigious climate, a parent would likely take Mr. Jerontowski to court for assault on their child if he continued to use that tactic.

  3. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 05/02/2016 - 08:29 pm.

    Two questions come to mind; First, how has the mankind managed to progress to its current (advances) state if spanking was a universal form of raising children for millennia? And second, if spanking is bad, does it mean that any disciplining is bad? Withdrawing allowance may lead to more negative relationship with parents and so can nagging, yelling, time-outs, not buying new smart phone… did I mention that the last one may lead to anti-social behavior?

    • Submitted by Peter Stark on 05/03/2016 - 09:18 am.

      Reply

      1. Is there any evidence that spanking has been used for millenia? Even if spanking was ubiquitous in human history, the researchers above would say mankind has succeeded in spite of spanking, not because of it.

      2. No. We can verify that spanking is different from other forms of discipline by using the scientific method and statistical analysis. The paper referenced in this article is an analysis of scientifically valid studies, which is called a meta-analysis. Statistical analysis can isolate the effects of a specific form of discipline from other factors and other discipline techniques.

      Here’s a very basic explanation of regression analysis: http://ci.columbia.edu/ci/premba_test/c0331/s7/s7_6.html

      • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 05/03/2016 - 09:19 pm.

        Historically, spanking was one of the easiest ways of punishing the kids (and punishing the kids was the most common way of dealing with them) so the mankind has succeeded despite the entirely wrong way of bringing up kids in general (gentler methods have not generally been used until relatively recently). This fact makes me doubt the results of the study…

        And can you explain why spanking is different from other forms of punishment? Statistics (and the study was at best an exercise in statistics and I know how it works) always need explanation which sometimes is not what seems initially obvious. Without explanation statistical results are useless and I can’t think of any reasonable explanation for spanking being worse than other forms of corporal punishment or other disciplining methods…

        • Submitted by Pat Berg on 05/04/2016 - 07:04 am.

          Read it again

          The article doesn’t say spanking was worse than other forms of corporal punishment. The article says that the effects of spanking were separated out so that the effects of spanking could be independently studied without conflating those effects with the effects of other forms of corporal punishment.

          • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 05/04/2016 - 08:46 pm.

            I do not see how spanking may be worse than other light forms of corporal punishment (standing on knees on peas, for example) and non-corporal punishment (that is what I meant) because any punishment may cause resentment and revolt in theory… and many kids would prefer light spanking to not going on vacation or to the movie or being denied an allowance. On the other hand, logically we may conclude that other forms must be worse because everything that is bad about spanking may be only worse in other forms used throughout history; that is why I wondered how the mankind made to this point.

  4. Submitted by Scott Kauz on 05/04/2016 - 06:29 pm.

    I’ve been a college professor in the social science field for 17 years and let me tell you that when it comes to social science there often isn’t as much “science” as we would like to think. There are obvious pitfalls in trying to determine whether or not “spanking” causes the “disturbing links” to such things as mental illness, cognitive ability, low self-esteem, etc. This is true of many social science studies. We simply cannot do the kind of controlled experiments necessary to reach an accurate conclusion. Unlike hard sciences, social studies like these are really little more than well-educated guesses. Useful, sometimes enlightening, but also prone to dreadful botches like what you see here, although the writer of the article may be more to blame than the actual researchers.

    In an article published May 1st one of the main researchers admitted that “determining cause-and-effect was difficult to sort out on something like spanking.” This rather ironic statement is the closest thing to the truth that I have read. It is impossible to determine cause and effect here. The number of variables that could effect a child’s life outcomes are infinite. The number of variables in the term “spanking” alone are huge. Things to consider: Intensity of spanking, frequency of spanking, reason for spanking, age, location, and on and on.

    Our intrepid researchers won’t like to hear this, but despite all their efforts, they cannot control the variables–there are just too many. There are variables inside of variables. It’s the rotten part of “social science.” I hope that their published works gives them enjoyment and tenure because that is about all it is good for. I could do a study on kindergartners who wear wristwatches to school and it would lead me to conclude that if you wear a watch on your first day of school it will increase your chances of getting a PhD…but I think most intelligent people would figure out that correlation is not causation.

    There are some big clues that should alert a reader to take this article with a big grain of salt. For starters, this is not a study of spanking at all, but merely a review of previous studies. Why were some studies tossed into the “bad” bin but others were labeled as “good?” An open-minded person should at least suspect that the researchers’ bias plays a role. It is unavoidable. For example, in 2010 an academic journal on Applied Psychology did a similar “Meta-analysis” looking at 70 studies and 47,000 subjects and determined the following: “The results of the present meta-analysis suggest that exposure to corporal punishment DOES NOT substantially increase the risk to youth of developing affective, cognitive, or behavioral pathologies.” (emphasis added). What was wrong with that study? Statements saying that spanking “results in no immediate compliance” is simply preposterous, as any parent knows. Statements saying that “70% of people think a good spanking is sometimes necessary” is misleading. Does that mean that 70% of people spank? Not at all. In fact, a quick search will reveal that only a small percentage, around 10% of parents, actually use regular spanking to discipline their children.

    The bottom line on spanking is this: Most parents do not “spank” very often. And when they do it is usually age and intensity appropriate, followed up on properly, and usually for good reason. It is natural, sometimes necessary, and does no more harm than other forms of discipline. The vast majority of the human race throughout history has had their butt swatted or their hand slapped by parents who love us more than anything. Are there exceptions like Adrian Peterson? Of course. Are their dysfunctional parents and environments that hinder our kids? Absolutely. Yet articles like these and the echo-chamber of studies behind them (really–how many studies of “spanking” do we need? 100? If that doesn’t tell you something I don’t know what will) carry risks as well, the risk that parents will feel paralyzed to discipline their kids in a quick, simple, and effective way.

    Parents want to do right by their kids–will they read junk-science like this and feel dis-empowered to raise their kids the way common sense and instinct direct them? Since spanking has been declining in recent decades, one would expect better behaved kids in America. Can anyone reasonably say that kids are better behaved today than they were in the past? Are they worse? As I noted earlier, it is impossible to determine cause and effect from one single minor variable such as this. Raise your kids with equal parts heart and head and don’t worry–you won’t psychologically damage your child for life by slapping their hands when they reach for the hot stove.

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