Hugs and Cuddles Instead of Spanking

A new set of studies supports affection over punishment.

Posted Aug 19, 2019

Harry Harlow (1958) was one of the first researchers to demonstrate the long term effects of touch on mammals. He separated rhesus monkey babies from their mothers, keeping them isolated in cages. They could hear and smell other monkeys but were deprived of their physical presence. They grew into asocial, socially awkward, and aggressive individuals. Even if they were raised with peers, they never grew into normal adults. Their mothers mattered.

Michael Meaney (2001) and colleagues have looked at the epigenetics of touch on rat pups. With a high nurturing mother (high licking) in the first ten days of life, the pups would “turn on” genes properly. Though Meaney indicated that hundreds of genes were affected, they targeted the glucorticoid receptor protein in the hippocampus, which enables the individual to control anxiety.

If the pup had a low nurturing mother during that sensitive period, the genes that control anxiety never got expressed or “turned on” properly—for the rest of life. Only drugs could reduce anxiety. It did not matter who the mother was so long as the motherer was nurturing in a species-typical way. Nurturing mattered.

Meaney says that the equivalent sensitive period in human beings is the first six months (equivalent of the first 10 days in a rat’s life because they don’t live as long or take as long to mature).

Harlow and Meaney were pioneers in the study of touch in the laboratory. Affectionate touch is part of a social mammal’s early developmental system (Montagu, 1971). Affectionate touch shapes neurobiological systems like the oxytocinergic system and vagus nerve (Carter & Porges, 2013), the stress response (Field & Hernandez-Reif, 2013), and many other systems (Hofer, 1994).

Humanity’s developmental system or nest also includes extensive affectionate touch (Hewlett & Lamb, 2005). James Prescott (1996) postulated a sensory deficit disorder among children who were given corporal punishment and little affectionate touch, a condition correlated with addictions and violence.

A new paper from our lab (Narvaez et al., 2019; available to download online) also studied touch, both positive and negative, and its effects on young child and adult wellbeing and social development. Here are some highlights from the three studies in the paper.

In the first study, mothers of preschoolers reported on their attitudes towards touch, both positive and negative, and on their children’s wellbeing and sociomoral outcomes. In structure equation models, maternal attitudes towards affectionate touch and toward corporal punishment predicted (beyond responsivity and maternal demographics) two latent variables (combinations of variables): child thriving and social maladaptation. This suggests that maternal attitudes may be important for what children actually experience.

In the second study, we used a longitudinal dataset (n = 682) that included young “at-risk” mothers who were interviewed, surveyed, and observed with their children over the first three years of their children’s lives. Here is a summary of what we found:

  • “Mothers whose attitudes rejected negative touch at 6 months subsequently had toddlers who were more socially engaged at 18 months; these same children were more competent and less likely to have behavioral problems at 24 months. However, these effects disappeared when measured a year later.
  • Positive touch parenting behaviors at 18 months positively correlated with concurrent but not future behavioral regulation and with social competence at both 24 and 36 months.
  • “Positive touch parenting behaviors at 30 months positively correlated with concurrent social engagement and lower externalizing problems 6 months later.
  • "Lack of negative touch was positively related to concurrent behavioral regulation at both 18 and 30 months.
  • "Mothers’ lack of negative touch behaviors at 18 months were also positively related to 36-month ratings of social competence, and negatively to children’s externalizing problems at 24 and 36 months.
  • "However, by 30 months, maternal avoidance of punishing touch was significantly related to all of the child outcomes except internalizing problems.”

A third study involved adult (n = 607) retrospective reports of their childhood experiences and contemporary mental health and social and moral capacities. Not surprisingly, in light of Bowlby’s (1951) attachment theory, affectionate touch and low levels of corporal punishment were correlated with secure attachment.

Mediation analyses connected childhood positive touch and lack of corporal punishment to secure attachment, better mental health (less anxiety and depression), more perspective taking (cognitive empathy) and a more socially engaged morality (versus self-protectionist moralities). There were positive path coefficients between each of the variables as well as significant direct effects from reports of childhood touch (high affection, lack of corporal punishment) to morality, indicating partial mediation.

For the self-protectionist moralities (social opposition or social withdrawal), there were opposite pathway patterns. Those who experienced more negative and less positive touch indicated less secure attachment, worse mental health, and lower social capacities—either less perspective-taking abilities leading to social oppositional morality, or more personal distress leading to social withdrawal. These were mediation pathways with data from one time point in adulthood, so causal conclusions cannot be drawn.

The three studies provide converging evidence for the importance of affectionate touch and the detrimental experience of corporal punishment. The American Psychological Association has taken a position against corporal punishment for its harmful effects on children’s development. Our work suggests that corporal punishment has a detrimental effect on moral development too. Yet affectionate touch also seems vital for healthy development, not only in monkeys and rats, but in humans, too.


Bowlby, J. (1951). Maternal care and mental health. New York: Schocken.

Carter, C. S., & Porges, S. W. (2013). Neurobiology and the evolution of mammalian social behavior. In D. Narvaez, J. Panksepp, A. Schore & T. Gleason (Eds.), Evolution, early experience and human development: From research to practice and policy (pp. 132-151). New York: Oxford.

Field, T., & Hernandez-Reif, M. (2013). Touch and Pain Perception in Infants. In D. Narvaez, J. Panksepp, A.N. Schore, & T. Gleason (Eds.), Evolution, Early Experience and Human Development: From Research to Practice and Policy (pp. 262-276). New York: Oxford University Press.

Harlow, H. (1958). The nature of love. American Psychologist, 13, 673-685.

Hewlett, B.S., & Lamb, M.E. (2005). Hunter-gatherer childhoods: Evolutionary, developmental and cultural perspectives. New Brunswick, NJ: Aldine.

Hofer, M.A. (1994). Hidden regulators in attachment, separation, and loss. In N.A. Fox (Ed.), Emotion regulation: Behavioral and biological considerations. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 59, 192-207.

Meaney, M. J. (2001). Maternal care, gene expression, and the transmission of individual differences in stress reactivity across generations. Annual Review of Neuroscience, 24, 1161–1192.

Montagu, A. (1971). Touching; The human significance of the skin. New York: Perennial Library (Harper & Row).

Narvaez, D., Wang, L., Cheng, A., Gleason, T., Woodbury, R., Kurth, A., & Lefever, J.B. (2019). The importance of early life touch for psychosocial and moral development. Psicologia: Reflexão e Crítica, 32:16 (open access).

Prescott J.W. (1996). The origins of human love and violence. Pre- and Perinatal Psychology Journal, 10 (3), 143-188.