What Really Happens When Parents Spank Kids

Decades of research find negative effects in childhood and beyond.

Posted Aug 26, 2016

Yuganov Konstantin/Shutterstock
Source: Yuganov Konstantin/Shutterstock

As a first-time parent, I was completely surprised one day when I was nearly overcome by the urge to spank my two-year-old. After a challenging hour or two at a crowded mall, he purposely pulled a pile of T-shirts off a shelf in a tantrum. I should have known better than to take a tired toddler shopping for clothes. But that was cold comfort as I stood in the middle of a crowded store watching my son throw merchandise on the floor.

At the time, I was lucky to have read some of the research on physical punishment. Because—as I learned that day—it takes a lot of knowledge to overcome the feelings I had toward my little guy in that moment. That’s why I think it’s important to share this new evidence regarding the impact of physical punishment on children.

Earlier this year, researchers from the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Michigan conducted a sweeping systematic review of more than 50 years of research on spanking that involved more than 160,000 children. It is the most complete analysis to date of how spanking affects children.

For starters, the paper defined spanking as "an open-handed hit on the behind, arm, or legs." The review found that about 80 percent of children are spanked or receive some sort of physical discipline as a punishment. Overwhelmingly, the review found that spanking is an ineffective way to discipline children and has harmful effects—nearly as harmful as more serious physical abuse such as punching.

The review found spanking to be associated with more than a dozen negative outcomes. Over the short term, spanking was found to harm the relationship between a parent and child and lead to anti-social behavior, depression, increased aggressive misbehavior, and low self-esteem among children. Over the long term, the research found that spanking leads to anti-social behavior, mental illnesses, and anxiety later in life—and adults who were spanked as children were also more likely to use physical punishment with their own children.

The question of whether to use physical punishment on children has been on the minds of parents and educators for decades, but this new research clearly demonstrates, without a question, the negative consequences of spanking.

“When parents use physical discipline with their children, they are modeling the use of aggression as a means of controlling the behavior of others,” says Jane Powers, a Cornell researcher at the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research who specializes in the impact on violence on youth. “Consequently, the child learns to use violence to get what she wants. In spite of the research that demonstrates that spanking is associated with higher rates of child aggression, most parents in the U.S. approve of and use corporal punishment to discipline their children.”

In our family, my husband and I have agreed that spanking is not a form of discipline we want to use. For those times when our frustration levels rise, we find it helps to have coping mechanisms in place. Two strategies that work for us are taking a break from parenting when needed—whether asking for help from the other parent, or just stepping into the other room for a few deep breaths—and trying to see the humor in everything, including that formerly neatly-folded stack of shirts strewn across a store floor.