Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Punishment

Does Any Good Come From Spanking Children?

Spanking children remains a complex and controversial issue.

Key points

  • Many Americans believe in spanking children, but the good news is that spanking is declining.
  • Spanking is harmful both to children and to the parents doing the spanking.
  • There is a relationship between spanking, parenting styles, and childhood overindulgence.

Many parents have done it once or, if not done it, at least thought about it. I am talking about using spanking or corporal punishment to correct a child's behavior. Parents even evoke religious justification for the practice of spanking their children by quoting the aphorism: "Spare the rod and spoil the child." Spanking to discipline children remains a complex and sometimes controversial issue.

Spank: to strike (a person, usually a child) with the open hand, a slipper, etc., especially on the buttocks, as in punishment. (Dictionary.com)

Corporal punishment: physical punishment; that is, punishment that uses physical force that causes pain but not injury to correct or control an individual’s behavior (e.g., spanking a child). (APA Dictionary of Psychology)

Monstera/Pexels
Source: Monstera/Pexels

Do Americans believe in spanking?

The short answer is "Yes," but the support for spanking is declining. Since 1986, NORC at the University of Chicago in its General Social Survey has asked Americans the following question: "Do you strongly agree, agree, disagree or strongly disagree that it is sometimes necessary to discipline a child with a good, hard spanking?" In 2021, 52.1 percent agreed or strongly agreed with this statement, down from 83.5 percent in 1986. The 2021 American Family Survey found that men (52 percent) more than women (42 percent) believe that spanking is needed. More African Americans (52 percent) believe that a good, hard spanking may be needed compared to 48 percent of Hispanics and 46 percent of whites.

How many parents spank their children?

The good news is that spanking has declined. In a 2020 JAMA Pediatrics study, 16,390 parents with at least one child aged 2 to 12 years were asked "How often do you spank your child(ren)?" Choices ranged from "never" to "every day." Overall, parents reporting the use of spanking declined from 50 percent in 1993 to 35 percent in 2017. Spanking by men decreased from 52 percent to 36 percent, and, for women, it went down from 48 percent to 35 percent. Spanking decreased in a subset of parents with a child aged 2 to 4 years from 60 percent to 39 percent.

What does spanking do to kids?

There have been more than 50 years of research and hundreds of studies on the effect of spanking on children. Below is a sample of selected findings from a 2021 review of 69 longitudinal studies published in the Lancet along with results from additional studies. Spanking (physical punishment) is associated with the following:

 Oxford University Press
Source: Oxford University Press
  • Externalizing behaviors: increases in aggressive behaviors, antisocial behavior, delinquency, conduct problems (e.g., bullying, being cruel or mean to others, breaking things deliberately), violent behaviors, and substance abuse.5,6,10,13
  • Internalizing behaviors: increases in depression, anxiety, anger-hostility, and suicidal behavior.6,8,9,13
  • Inattention and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): increases in moderate and severe symptoms of ADHD and the risk of severe symptoms of ADHD conduct disorder.6,12
  • Cognitive abilities: lower IQ, changes in the brain, less gray matter volume in the part of the brain responsible for social functioning.6,7,13
  • Interpersonal relationships: increases in intimate partner and family violence (abuse of one's own child, partner, or spouse), damage to parent–child relationship.6,11,13

What does spanking do to parents who use this form of discipline?

Oxford University Press recently published a book titled Spanked: How Hitting Our Children Is Harming Ourselves. In addition to reviewing the history of and research on spanking, Dr. Erickson adds a unique twist to the equation; she looks at how spanking harms the adults who use it. She writes:

"This is gonna hurt me more than you" has been used by parents to justify hitting their child. The adage may be more true than we expected. When we hit other people, especially if we are feeling anger, our stress hormones increase, and it harms our health. Hitting someone we love is a form of trauma for the parent, so much so that parents sometimes block it out.1

Further, she adds:

  • Hitting makes it harder to build positive family interactions.
  • Spanking makes parents' discipline worse.
  • Parents who spank mildly are at more risk for spanking harshly within a year.
  • Parents who spank feel overwhelmed and underskilled, and lack more-effective parenting tools.
  • Parents who spank report feelings of powerlessness.
  • Parents who use corporal punishment lose out on developing communication skills.

Dr. Erickson had a personal epiphany while writing this book. She states:

Removing spanking from my parenting repertoire made things easier. How does hitting someone we love shift and change the ways in which we view ourselves? If it hurts us more than it hurts them, is it still worth it? I had taken on a different level of awareness: Disciplining my kids shouldn't hurt either of us. I wanted it to transform both of us, for the better.1

Is there a relationship between childhood overindulgence and spanking?

In their first study on childhood overindulgence, Bredehoft et al.14 asked adults who were overindulged about their families of origin. They reported:

  • A substantial percentage (27 percent) of those overindulged indicated that they experienced physical violence as a child.
  • Of those reporting physical violence, 30 percent were spanked; 50 percent were hit with belts, sticks, or other objects; and 20 percent were beaten.
  • Fifteen percent of those overindulged as children reported being sexually abused by a family member.
  • Seventy-two percent reported psychological abuse, including ridiculing, shaming, discounting, and withholding love.

A second study15 looked at the connection between childhood overindulgence and parenting styles. Parents who overindulge their children are significantly more likely to use authoritarian parenting styles such as the following:

  • Spanking a child
  • Taking privileges away without explanation
  • Putting a child off somewhere alone
  • Physical punishment

They are also significantly more likely to use verbal hostility and nonreasoning punitive strategies when interacting with their children, such as the following:

  • Slapping a child
  • Threatening punishment without justification
  • Grabbing a child

Is spanking effective?

No. A review of 69 longitudinal studies6 found no associations with positive outcomes from spanking. Research confirms that, despite parents' beliefs, no good comes from spanking children.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents do not use spanking, hitting, slapping, threatening, insulting, humiliating, or shaming.13

Practice Aloha. Do all things with love, grace, and gratitude.

© 2022 David J. Bredehoft.

References

1. Erickson, C. L. (2022). Spanked: How hitting our children is harming ourselves. New York: NY. Oxford University Press.

2. General Social Survey (1986-2021). Favor spanking to discipline child. Retrieved November 1, 2022.

3. Karpowitz, C. F., & Pope, J. C. (2021). The American family survey: 2021 summary report, resilience in the face of challenges American families in the second year of the pandemic. Center For The Study of Elections and Democracy, Brigham Young University.

4. Mehus, C. J., & Patrick, M. E. (2020). Prevalence of spanking in US national samples of 35-year-old parents from 1993 to 2017. JAMA Pediatrics. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2020.1065

5. Straus, M. (1997). Spanking makes children violent, antisocial. Effect same regardless of parenting style, socioeconomic status, sex of child or ethnic background. Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine. 151:761-767.

6. Heilmann, A., et al. (2021). Physical punishment and child outcomes: A narrative review of prospective studies. Lancet, 398, 355-364. Retrieved from the National Library of Medicine on 11.04.22.

7. Tomoda, A., et al. (2009). Reduced prefrontal cortical gray matter volume in young adults exposed to harsh corporal punishment. Published online 2009 Mar 12. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2009.03.005

8. Rodriguez, C. M. (2003). Parental discipline and abuse potential effects on child depression, anxiety, and attributions. Journal of Marriage and Family, 65(4), 809-817.

9. Straus, M. A., & Kantor, G. K. (1994). Corporal punishment of adolescents by parents: a risk factor in the epidemiology of depression, suicide, alcohol abuse, child abuse, and wife beating. Adolescence. 29:543–561.

10. Burlaka, V., et al. (2019). The role of adverse childhood experiences and corporal punishment in early adulthood depression and substance use among Ukrainian college students. Journal of Family Violence. 35, 285-295.

11. Temple, J. R., et al. (2018). Childhood corporal punishment and future perpetration of physical dating violence. The Journal of Pediatrics. 194, 233-237.

12. Morgan, P. L., et al. (2016). Which kindergarten children are at greatest risk for attention-deficit/hyperactivity and conduct disorder symptomatology as adolescents? School Psychological Quarterly. 31: 58–75.

13. Sege, R. D., et al. (2018). Effective discipline to raise healthy children. Pediatrics. 142(6): e20183112. https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2018-3112

14. Bredehoft, D. J., Mennicke, S. A., Potter, A. M., & Clarke, J. I. (1998). Perceptions attributed by adults to parental overindulgence during childhood. Journal of Family and Consumer Sciences Education, 16(2), 3-17.

15. Bredehoft, D. J. (2013). Empirical connections between parental overindulgence patterns, parenting styles, and parent sense of competence. Executive Summary: Study 9. Retrieved from: http://www.overindulgence.org/about-our-research/empirical-connections-betwe.pdf

advertisement
More from David J Bredehoft Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today