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Spare the Rod and Spoil the Child?

A new study explores the consequences of corporal punishment for toddlers.

He that spareth the rod hateth his own son but he that loveth him correcteth him betimes/Withhold not correction from a child: for if thou strike him with the rod, he shall not die. Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and deliver his soul from hell. —Proverbs 13:24, King James Version

Whatever your personal views, there is no question that the use of corporal punishment with children is a controversial subject. Though banned from most schools these days, I am old enough to remember when "the strap" was used on schoolchildren found guilty of various infractions (at least where I happened to live) and it still remains legal in various jurisdictions across the United States. As for corporal punishment in the home, parents continue to advocate its use when dealing with their own children despite being banned in some European and Latin American countries.

Though there have been calls for many U.S. states to pass no-spanking laws, many parents continue to insist on the right to use corporal punishment to discipline their own children. Long regarded as a parental duty, especially in traditional cultures, advocates of corporal punishment often cite the importance of physical punishments in training children in appropriate behavior. Recent surveys show that 24 percent of one-year-old children and 33 percent of 3-year-olds are spanked in a given month, with boys being more likely in general to experience physical discipline than girls.

But what are the long-term consequences of using corporal punishment, especially in young children? While there has been extensive research looking at how physical discipline affects children, the results have usually been inconclusive. Still, the general consensus appears to be that corporal punishment can lead to later problems, including aggressive behavior and acting-out episodes that can occur in children as young as two or three years of age.

But there are other factors that seem to play a greater role in how children experiencing corporal punishment develop later in life. One of the most important of these factors is the quality of parenting that children experience. For example, children who experience positive parenting, e.g.: positive verbal encouragement, positive displays of affection, and and positive physical contact, tend not to be as affected by corporal punishment as children who are raised more harshly. There can be important gender differences as well with warm maternal parenting often overcoming the problems that boys might otherwise experience from a father's harsh discipline (though this can be the other way around for girls).

The impact of corporal punishment on whether a child develops later behavior problems can also be linked to early exposure to rejection, hostility or neglect from one or both parents. Children who experience corporal punishment while a parent is angry or frustrated appear more likely to become aggressive themselves than children who are disciplined by parents able to control their emotions, even after controlling for a child's age, gender, and social background.

A new study published in the Journal of Family Psychology examines the effect that corporal punishment can have on two-year-olds and how it influences their later behavior. A team of researchers led by Marcos Mendez of Kansas State University's Department of Family Studies and Human Services used data taken from the Family Transitions Project (FTP) funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Started in 1994 and including participants from two earlier projects, the FTP is a community-based study of over 500 young people and their families followed from early childhood well into adulthood. The FTP was later expanded to include data on the firstborn child of each participant as well.

In the present study, information was collected for 218 couples with one first-born child each beginning when the child was two years of age and on a second occasion one year later. Using structured interviews, questionnaires and home visits, data was collected regarding:

  • Child externalizing behavior: whether or not the child was displaying significant aggression or attention problems. Examples of aggressive behavior included destructive behavior, defiance, temper tantrums, irritability, or disobedience. Attention problems included inability to sit still, difficulty concentrating, and rapid shifting from one activity to another.
  • Use of corporal punishment: measured with a single item, "How often do you spank or slap your child when your child does something wrong?” Responses were scaled from one (never) to five (always).
  • Parenting style: measured using trained observers assessing how both parents interacted with their child while completing a family interaction puzzle task. In this task, the child is asked to complete a puzzle that is too difficult to complete alone. Parents were instructed to allow the child to complete the task on their own if possible but to offer any assistance they deemed necessary. Interviewers scored parents on how they interacted with their child and whether they showed irritation or coercive behavior as they instructed their child in how to complete the task. Parental style was rated according to how parents responded to the frustration or resistance children experience when dealing with the task. This included whether parents showed overt hostility or criticism, angry coercion, or rejecting behavior. Based on these ratings, parents were scored as showing harsh parenting. Parents showing more positive behaviors such as reasoning with their child, patiently instructing their child in how to complete the puzzle, and praise when the puzzle was successfully completed were scored as showing positive parenting.

Results showed that 67 percent of mothers and 68 percent of fathers reported slapping or spanking their children, at least occasionally. There were also no apparent gender differences between boys and girls in terms of how often they were physically disciplined, at least not at the age of two though this may change as children grow older.

As expected based on previous research, children who were slapped or spanked at the age of two were more likely to show later problems with aggression and attention. Corporal punishment carried out by fathers seemed to be especially important though the link between physical discipline and later difficulties also appeared to vary depending on harsh or positive parenting style shown by their mothers. In other words, when a child experienced frequent physical discipline from the father and also experienced harsh parenting from the mother, the likelihood of later problems becomes even greater.

Children experiencing positive parenting behavior, especially from their mothers, are less likely to be adversely affected by physical discipline. As Marcos Mendez and his co-researchers point out, providing clear, assertive, and responsive guidance to children largely protects them from developing later problems. Maternal warmth seems to be particularly important, at least for small children, but more research is likely needed to make this clearer.

While there are certainly limitations to this study, especially since it focused exclusively on corporal punishment rather than more severe physical abuse, these results do suggest that physical discipline, especially when combined with harsh parenting, can lead to later behavioral and attention problems, at least for toddlers. So think carefully before resorting to spanking or slapping a child when they misbehave; the consequences can be more long-lasting than you think.


Mendez, M., Durtschi, J., Neppl, T. K., & Stith, S. M. (2016). Corporal punishment and externalizing behaviors in toddlers: The moderating role of positive and harsh parenting. Journal of Family Psychology, 30(8), 887-895.

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