Good News: Parents Are Spanking Their Children Less
The practice of spanking children takes a (well earned) beating.
Posted March 30, 2021 | Reviewed by Devon Frye
- Research has linked spanking to adverse developmental consequences.
- Rates of spanking are declining in the U.S. as more young parents abandon the practice.
- Hitting children is difficult to defend on moral grounds, as children are the only group upon which one may inflict intentional, punishing physical pain with impunity.
- Spanking is generally a bad parental practice, but parents who spank are not necessarily bad parents.
Spanking children is a common practice among American parents. In 2012, over 70 percent of Americans agreed that “it is sometimes necessary to discipline a child with a good, hard spanking.” Spanking tends to decrease misbehavior in the immediate term, although it does not appear to do so better than other discipline measures.
Looking beyond immediate effects, the picture with regard to spanking becomes more problematic. A strong argument against spanking can be advanced based on two separate claims: 1) It is a risk factor for optimal child development. 2) It is morally suspect.
Spanking Is Developmentally Risky
The practice of hitting children with the goal of causing pain exists on a continuum of severity and frequency. Severe and frequent spanking is much more likely to exert influence than infrequent or mild forms of the practice.
A strong consensus has emerged in the research that physical child abuse—the extreme end of the continuum, where hitting leaves marks on the child or inflicts other physical damage—causes severe developmental harm to children. Results regarding the milder, more common form of the practice—open hand slaps to the child’s buttocks or extremities that leave no bruises—have not been as uniform, with some studies finding no lingering meaningful effects and even benefits under certain conditions.
Yet the bulk of the literature has linked such spanking to less than optimal development outcomes. The scope, severity, and duration of that harm are being debated, with findings ranging from trivial effects to serious and severe, comparable with the effects of child abuse and other adverse childhood experiences (ACEs; i.e., physical or emotional neglect, parental substance use, parental incarceration, parental death, etc.) shown in the literature to predict future problems.
Some Factors May Mediate the Effects of Spanking
While the correlation between spanking and negative outcomes is generally well established, ascertaining causality in this equation is more difficult. Correlation does not denote causation. Smoke correlates with fire but does not cause it. The spanking literature is limited in determining causality for several reasons.
First, ethical concerns preclude the use of experimental studies (you can’t ethically assign children and parents randomly into spanking vs. no spanking groups). Second, spanking is a fairly infrequent and private behavior not easily observed or measured reliably. Third, spanking always exists alongside other contextual and behavioral variables that may either obscure, magnify, nullify, or account altogether for the direct effects of spanking. For example, research has found that high family income and secure mother-child attachment may attenuate the effects of spanking on children's externalizing behaviors.
Genes may also play a role in the spanking-outcome associations. Behavior genetics research has shown that links between parental behavior and child outcome are often explained by “gene-environment correlations,” i.e., genetic differences in exposure to particular environments. Certain genes are associated with both environments and outcomes. Thus the environment may correlate with the outcome without causing it.
For example, a highly aggressive child (by genetic temperament) may be drawn to playing violent video games and also more likely to aggress against others. We may then find that playing video games in childhood predicts aggression later. But the video game habit did not cause the child’s aggression. Rather, both are caused by the child’s genetics. Similarly, spanking and psychosocial outcomes may potentially covary at the genetic level.
A recent analysis (2020) by Nicole Barbaro of Western Governors University and colleagues provides evidence that over 60 percent of spanking effects may be attributed to genetic covariance. (The effects of physical abuse, by contrast, were not explained by genetic covariance.) They conclude that, while negative effects of spanking exist, the true effects “are likely smaller in magnitude” than what’s commonly reported in the literature. Spanking is developmentally risky, albeit not overwhelmingly so.
The Moral Argument Against Spanking
The developmental argument against spanking is buttressed by a compelling moral argument. First, even if we found that spanking was effective and helpful, a strong moral case could still be made against it. To wit: Experimenting on people without their informed consent is effective but immoral.
Second, children are the only group upon which one may inflict intentional, punishing physical pain with impunity. You will not spank your elderly grandmother, even if she hurt you on purpose, made a mistake, acted irresponsibly, or violated your directive; even if she’s incapacitated and you’re her legal guardian; even if she does something to endanger herself. Why are children exempt from such protection?
Some argue that spanking can be justified as a form of retribution, rather than rehabilitation. But that argument is weak and beside the point. For one, most parents manifestly spank for behavior modification, not for retribution. When parents who spank think or talk about the behavior, they use terms like “correcting,” “disciplining,” or “teaching,” not “vengeance,” “retaliation,” or “payback.”
Second, to be judged moral, retribution must be proportional to the offense and consider the offender’s willful intent. This math is not easy to ascertain, particularly with regard to children’s behavior and their parents’ subjective judgments of it. Finally, physical retribution, in particular, is notoriously risky, a volatile gambit, prone to stirring chaos and cascading violence, which is why highly functional societies tend to assign it to a tightly regulated justice system rather than allowing individuals to avenge perceived wrongs on their own by inflicting physical pain on supposed perpetrators.
In sum, the practice of spanking is problematic and merits reconsideration. Unfortunately, debates over social issues in the U.S. often deteriorate into brain-numbing dichotomous shouting matches: Something is good or bad, helpful or harmful, should be outlawed and punished or allowed and celebrated, etc. But the facts of our actual existence—psychological and social—are often nuanced and contextual. Things can be bad but not catastrophic; or bad at a certain dose, for some but not others, etc.
Moreover, not every useless or even harmful practice deserved to be harshly condemned or categorically outlawed. Spanking may be a case in point. The evidence suggests it is a developmentally risky and morally questionable behavior that society is right to discourage, and for which viable, less troubled alternatives exist; yet the evidence does not justify developmental or moral panic.
"I am not an advocate of spanking," wrote Diana Baumrind, the influential parenting researcher, "but a blanket injunction against its use is not warranted by the evidence. It is reliance on physical punishment, not whether or not it is used at all, that is associated with harm to the child." Baumrind notes, for example, that mild spanking used to enforce "time out" compliance is integral to some effective training programs for parents of ADHD children and can thus be justified on developmental grounds.
Parents Who Spank Are Not Bad Parents
Morally, the case against spanking strengthens alongside the severity of the practice. Thus, just as mild deceptions or lightly aversive treatments are considered ethically permissible in conducting psychological research, while more severe forms are considered unethical, so a gradient argument may be advanced regarding spanking. Moreover, as a rule, parents who spank are not bad parents. An analysis (2014) from the Brookings Institute comparing spanking and non-spanking parents on multiple measures of care quality at home concluded that “spanking is not a good predictor of parenting quality. That is, spanking is not systematically associated with other negative parenting behaviors."
The authors concluded that children may benefit more from interventions that focus on increasing positive parenting behaviors rather than on spanking. “Our findings suggest that the immediate focus of U.S. policy-makers who want to improve our nation’s parenting should be on promoting positive behavior such as reading, rather than on large-scale efforts to prevent spanking (at least at the milder end of the spectrum).” It is a point worth considering.
The good news is that spanking in the U.S. is declining. Looking at parents with children aged 2 to 12, in the span of time between 1993 and 2017, Christopher Mehus of the University of Minnesota and colleagues found that “spanking declined during 25 years… from 50 to 35 percent.”
A 2014 cross-sectional telephone survey of a nationally representative sample of U.S. households with children found that “a majority of children in the U.S. were not subject to corporal punishment in 2014. The rate was 49 percent in the past year for children ages 0-9, 23 percent for youth 10-17, and 37 percent overall… The proportion of children subject to corporal punishment had declined by 2014 compared to other national surveys conducted in 1975 and 1985.”
With regard to spanking, the country is moving in the right direction.