When your 3-year-old is throwing a tantrum in the middle of the supermarket or has poured his milk all over the floor, the urge to spank may be overwhelming. If you've ever given in to that urge, you're not alone — research shows that up to 90% of parents spank their children, at least occasionally.
But does it work? And more importantly, is it harmful to kids? Once considered a fairly standard parenting practice, spanking is now opposed by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Psychological Assn. (The pediatricians' statement against the practice includes advice on what parents should do if they strike a child in the heat of the moment: apologize and explain why the spanking occurred.)
Corporal punishment in the home has been banned in 31 countries, including Spain, Israel, Kenya and Costa Rica. No such prohibition exists in the United States, although 32 states have laws forbidding teachers and administrators from striking students.
Those in favor of spanking say it is an effective method of discipline and hasn't been shown to damage children in the long run. Those against it argue that spanking can cause children to become violent later in life and may increase the chances that they will experience anxiety and depression. Besides, they add, there are better ways to deal with bad behavior.
Read on for two views.
Spanking is dangerous to kids, puts them at risk for problems later in life and is no more effective than other methods of discipline.
Murray Straus is a professor of sociology and co-director of the Family Research Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire in Durham.
The research overwhelmingly shows that spanking is harmful to children. If you were to list all the things a parent wouldn't want their kid to be doing, you'd have the list of the harmful side effects of spanking. For instance, several studies have shown that the more parents spank, the more likely kids are to hit the parent. Kids who are spanked are also at a higher risk for committing juvenile crime, assaulting other kids, being depressed as an adult and hitting their dating or marital partner.
One explanation as to why spanking has these side effects is that the child is following the example of the parents hitting them. Another part of the explanation is that when parents spank, children miss out on instances of a conflict being resolved nonviolently and therefore have lower problem-solving skills.
Another problem with spanking is that it undermines the relationship between parent and child. It's part of American mythology that spanking is not a big deal and that kids take it in stride, but that isn't what the research shows. Even among kids who say that parents have the right to spank — and most do — it's still a traumatic experience.
Spanking also violates a child's right to grow up free from being assaulted. Just imagine that someone twice or three times as big as you starts hitting you — that's the way kids describe it. It's fearful. Studies have shown that the more kids get spanked, the higher the child's score on a post-traumatic stress test.
People are very committed to the idea that spanking is necessary not because they want to hit their kids, but because they believe that it works when other things don't. But spanking doesn't eliminate bad behavior any more than other forms of discipline, such as explaining what the child is doing wrong or removing the child from the situation. In one study, 73% of mothers reported that their child repeated the same bad behavior even after being spanked for it.
Not all children will suffer negative consequences of spanking. The harm is in the form of a "dose-response." A small dose, like a rare occasional spank, is not going to make a difference most of the time, but sometimes it will. You don't know how spanking is going to affect your child, so the best thing is to avoid it. Instead, use the alternate medicine that works just as well, which is correction and control that doesn't involve hitting the child.
When used correctly, spanking is safe and effective, and can be an appropriate tool for parents.
Robert Larzelere is a professor of research methodology and statistics in the Department of Human Development and Family Science at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater.
In reviewing all the literature that compares various kinds of punishment, there's one that leads to better outcomes, reduced defiance and reduced aggression in children, and that's what I call backup spanking.
In disciplining children, parents should do everything as kindly and gently as they can first. They should try to understand a child, make sure the child understands what is expected of them, use reasoning and find an adequate nonphysical consequence, like a "timeout" or taking away privileges. But if the child won't cooperate, some kids — at least some of the time — need something more forceful to back it up.
This is where backup spanking comes in. It involves two swats of an open hand to the rear end, and parents should affirm a love for the child afterward. Research finds this to be most effective with 2- to 6-year-olds.
In several studies, kids whose parents used a balance of love and limits, including backup spanking, were found to be doing much better 10 years later during adolescence than kids whose parents were overly punitive and did not show love in various ways to the child. They were also doing better than kids whose parents were permissive, emphasizing love and reasoning to the near-exclusion of any kind of negative consequences.
Just like any disciplinary tactic, the outcome with spanking depends on how it's used. It's important that the child understands that the parent is doing it out of concern — not out of rage or frustration, or to show who's the boss. Parents should not be out of control due to anger if they are spanking in this way. In a study I published in the Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review in 2005, I found that when used correctly, spanking leads to lower defiance and lower aggression than 10 or 13 other disciplinary alternatives with which it has been compared.
Spanking should be used with milder discipline tactics to enforce the idea that the parent and child need to work problems through verbally. So as the child gets older, parents should be phasing out spanking and then using timeouts and privilege removal less and less so they can get to the point where they are resolving their differences in a mutually verbal way.
Opponents of spanking say that it has long-term negative consequences such as increased antisocial behavior. But in my research, I've found that those same consequences can be associated with nearly every other kind of nonphysical punishment. In comparative studies, spanking looked no better or worse than grounding children, sending them to their room, or even getting them professional help. One likely reason for this is that children in these studies are more poorly behaved to begin with, and that's why they're being disciplined more. But it's naive to conclude that parents are causing kids to be more aggressive by using spanking when research does not support that notion.