What is spanking
Spanking is a form of corporal punishment where physical force is used to inflict pain on someone, usually when rules are violated. This can include hitting, slapping, whipping, etc. Importantly, it doesn’t matter whether it’s “open hand” or not, or how light or severe spanking is—if the intention is to cause pain, discomfort, or fear, it is spanking.1
Spanking kids is intended to cause fear, pain, and the threat of harm to the child to change the child’s behavior.
5 things to consider before hitting
Despite the warnings of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP)2 and the American Psychological Association (APA)3 about the potentially harmful effects of spanking, many American parents still use this form of physical punishment to discipline their children.
The topic of corporal punishment of children usually elicits fierce debates among parents, educators, scientists, and pediatricians alike.
Disciplining children can be a very challenging experience for parents.
It is difficult to know what to do when your child tests limits, misbehaves, or has a tantrum.
Some of us grew up learning that spanking was a necessary or effective method of discipline.
Thus, it’s natural to use it when disciplining.
Others may feel that nothing else they’ve tried works, so they turn to physical discipline.
If you are using or considering spanking to discipline, here are five things you must know.4
- Spanking is an ineffective disciplinary measure, and it may even cause more behavioral problems in the long term.
- It prevents you from building a close relationship with your child. A close parent-child relationship is one of the strongest predictors of a child’s success in the future.
- It is harmful to your child’s brain development and mental health.
- It is associated with negative outcomes in the child’s well-being
- It teaches the wrong lesson
1. Does Spanking Work
Most parents turn to spanking because they are at their wits’ end trying to get their children to behave.
Some parents believe that disciplining their children harshly will make their children recognize that their behavior is unacceptable and, therefore, make them stop.
The problem is that using physical punishment to discipline is ineffective.
Corporal punishment studies show that spanking may change behavior in the short term — as if you spank your child, they may change their behavior at that moment — but that it is ineffective in the long run.
Even as a short-term solution, spanking is not more effective than a time-out.5
Decades of research show that spanking is not an effective long-term solution to children’s behavior problems.
Spanking may make children become less obedient and show more aggressive behavior over time6 , particularly when the parent routinely spanks a boy.7
In other words, spanking may make children worse behaved than children who do not get spanked.
2. Spanking damages the parent-child relationship
Why do parents have kids?
Many want close, connected relationships with their kids, but spanking has the opposite effect.
When you spank your child, you break their trust.
Trust is lost when the person supposed to protect you causes you physical harm.
Spanked children will likely avoid their parents and hide their problems, even when they need help most.
A parent-child relationship is unique, but it’s not different from any other relationship because children are people, too.
Do you like or trust people who would hurt you and want to have a close relationship with them?
There is a strong association between spanking and the development of child aggression, especially child-to-parent violence.
One study finds that child-to-parent violence only occurs when there has been physical punishment of children.8
So, a parent hitting a child can lead to a child hitting the parent later when they grow stronger — a hardly surprising outcome.
Harsh punishment can damage your relationship with your child to the extent that it cannot be repaired.
3. Effects of spanking on a child’s brain & mental health
According to a new study from Harvard University, spanking can harm our kids’ mental health and change their brain response to environmental threats similar to physical abuse.9
That is, the adverse effects of spanking on a child’s stress response system are similar to those caused by child abuse.
Not only does too much harsh discipline cause suffering, but a history of spanking can also damage a child’s brain.
The stress created from spanking elevates the cortisol levels in the child for a prolonged period.10
This sustained cortisol exposure has been linked to brain damage and decreases in brain size.11
Researchers find that children spanked routinely have a marked reduction in gray matter volume in the brain.12
Spanking has profound negative effects on children.
It can leave wounds and scars that go deeper than the skin.
Spanked children are more likely to have the following mental health problems and developmental issues.4
- Lower self-esteem
- Increased risk of mental health disorders such as depression and substance abuse
- Greater risk of self-harm, suicide, or runaway
- Impaired cognitive development
4. Poorer physical health
Using physical punishment to discipline is using fear and threats to teach.
Being under threat is stressful.
Besides mental illness, exposure to prolonged stress in early childhood is also related to many adverse physical outcomes later in life.
These adult children are almost twice as likely to develop cardiovascular disease, autoimmune disorders, premature mortality, and generally worse well-being.13
No matter how one defines spanking or whether one believes it is child abuse, a growing body of research finds strong associations between spanking and numerous detrimental outcomes over time.
5. What lesson does spanking teach
In addition to being ineffective and harmful to health and relationships, spanking teaches children the wrong lesson.
Parents aim to teach their children to be obedient and well-behaved.
The lesson children learn is that violence is an acceptable means of resolving problems, and the stronger person has the right to dictate what the weaker one does.
And they don’t learn how to turn disruptive behavior into appropriate behavior.14
Another lesson this discipline method teaches is to choose a particular action out of fear of punishment rather than because it is the right thing to do.15
As a result, spanked children are found to be more likely to:
- Show increased aggression over time
- Bully others or be bullied by others, especially in boy spanking
- Display lower empathy and moral reasoning development
- Have delinquency and antisocial behavior over time
- Become involved in abusive relationships in adulthood
- Develop an intergenerational cycle of violence
Is it an honest debate?
There will always be advocates of using violence to teach children proper behavior, especially those from previous generations.
For example, a child developmental psychologist, Christopher J. Ferguson, reanalyzed research data by controlling for preexisting child behavior differently in individual studies to conclude that spanking had little impact on children.16
Other experts, such as Elizabeth Gershoff from the University of Texas at Austin and George W. Holden from Southern Methodist University, disagreed and found new evidence to support their position.17
Nonetheless, even if the adverse outcomes were neglectable, evidence still shows that other non-abusive methods are more effective forms of discipline.
As parents, we don’t only teach behavior. We also teach our children values.
Is using violence to get what we want the values we want to instill in our children?
Do we want to raise kids who believe they can use power and position to bend the will of the weak instead of protecting them?
As opposed to a debate, advocating physical punishment is more of a control issue since it gives the parent instant gratification of being in control, which, ironically, we try to teach our children to give up.
Parents who were spanked as children are most likely to favor spanking their own children.18
Children who had no control over their lives grow up wanting complete control over their own children. That is how the cycle of abuse starts.19
Ways to discipline without spanking
There is a high correlation between spanking and the belief in a negative approach to discipline.20
Parents who spank often don’t believe they have any other choice when their kids misbehave.
Defenders of spanking often say or imply that no spanking equals “no discipline” or permissiveness.
This cannot be further from the truth. If a parent is open to hearing them, there are many other and better disciplinary methods.
When we say that a child misbehaves, we assume that they know it is wrong and that this is a deliberate act.
That assumption will likely lead a parent to believe that only a negative approach will work.
Young children who exhibit negative behaviors often do so out of ignorance, lack of impulse, or emotional control. It is unfair to label them “bad” or “misbehave” for things they still cannot control.
Just as a toddler does not learn to walk overnight, a child does not learn to behave the moment we tell them to.
Developing brain wiring is much more complex and time-consuming than leg muscles. We were patient when our toddlers learned to walk; we should be even more patient when they learn how to behave.
With mounting evidence that spanking is harmful and there are better ways to discipline, it is up to the parent to keep an open mind and adjust their beliefs.
Effective alternatives to spanking include:
- Start from a place of connection with your child, whenever possible; they need to trust you if they are going to follow your rules
- Teach your child self-regulation by using a warm and responsive parenting style.
- Use praise as positive reinforcement to encourage good behavior in children
- Be firm and consistent but warm and respectful as you teach your child
- Make discipline tactics fair, and consider having discussions with your child about what that means to both of you
- Young children do best with tactics such as being removed from a situation where they are misbehaving or being redirected to a different activity
- Older kids do well with experiencing natural consequences under safe circumstances
- Teenagers do best with teaching and reasoning using inductive discipline
- Discipline must never include shaming, verbal insults, or any degrading forms of treatment
- Teach proper behavior, rather than punish, to discipline
- Recognize that children are people with human rights, including the right to safety
Final thoughts on spanking
Inappropriate child behavior can often trigger anger in parents.
They don’t understand why someone they love would deliberately show bad behavior.
Parents often turn to methods that are familiar or that come from a place of rage or frustration.
Spanking is never a good option if you want to raise healthy, happy kids who have close relationships with you.
But if you are unsure how to discipline your child effectively, you don’t have to do this alone.
Therapy is an excellent option if you need support sorting through your feelings and changing your mindset.
Your pediatrician or a clinical psychologist can offer helpful ways to compassionately and effectively discipline your child.
- Therapy options include live video, voice chat, and messaging
- Diverse tools include yoga, journaling, worksheets, and activity plans
- Parenting For Brain visitors get 20% off the first month
- Convenient online therapy with quick client-counselor matching
- Chat with your therapist or have live video sessions
- Parenting For Brain visitors get 25% off
Frequently Asked Questions
When should a child get spanked?
Is spanking legal in the United States?
Is spanking abuse?
Do people still get spanked?
- 1.Sege RD, Siegel BS, Flaherty EG, et al. Effective Discipline to Raise Healthy Children. Pediatrics. Published online December 1, 2018. doi:10.1542/peds.2018-3112
- 2.MacKenzie MJ, Nicklas E, Waldfogel J, Brooks-Gunn J. Spanking and Child Development Across the First Decade of Life. Pediatrics. Published online November 1, 2013:e1118-e1125. doi:10.1542/peds.2013-1227
- 3.Canady VA. APA policy calls spanking harmful discipline for children. Mental Health Weekly. Published online February 25, 2019:7-7. doi:10.1002/mhw.31790
- 4.Gershoff ET, Grogan-Kaylor A. Spanking and child outcomes: Old controversies and new meta-analyses. Journal of Family Psychology. Published online 2016:453-469. doi:10.1037/fam0000191
- 5.Gershoff ET. Spanking and Child Development: We Know Enough Now to Stop Hitting Our Children. Child Dev Perspect. Published online July 10, 2013:133-137. doi:10.1111/cdep.12038
- 6.Strassberg Z, Dodge KA, Pettit GS, Bates JE. Spanking in the home and children’s subsequent aggression toward kindergarten peers. Dev Psychopathol. Published online 1994:445-461. doi:10.1017/s0954579400006040
- 7.Underwood MK. Sticks and stones and social exclusion: Aggression among girls and boys. In: Blackwell Handbook of Childhood Social Development. Blackwell Publishing; 2002:533–548.
- 8.Ulman A, Straus MA. Violence by Children Against Mothers in Relation to Violence Between Parents and Corporal Punishment by Parents. Journal of Comparative Family Studies. Published online March 1, 2003:41-60. doi:10.3138/jcfs.34.1.41
- 9.Cuartas J, Weissman DG, Sheridan MA, Lengua L, McLaughlin KA. Corporal Punishment and Elevated Neural Response to Threat in Children. Child Dev. Published online April 9, 2021:821-832. doi:10.1111/cdev.13565
- 10.Bugental DB, Martorell GA, Barraza V. The hormonal costs of subtle forms of infant maltreatment. Hormones and Behavior. Published online January 2003:237-244. doi:10.1016/s0018-506x(02)00008-9
- 11.Pagliaccio D, Luby JL, Bogdan R, et al. Stress-System Genes and Life Stress Predict Cortisol Levels and Amygdala and Hippocampal Volumes in Children. Neuropsychopharmacol. Published online November 25, 2013:1245-1253. doi:10.1038/npp.2013.327
- 12.Tomoda A, Suzuki H, Rabi K, Sheu YS, Polcari A, Teicher MH. Reduced prefrontal cortical gray matter volume in young adults exposed to harsh corporal punishment. NeuroImage. Published online August 2009:T66-T71. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2009.03.005
- 13.Miller GE, Chen E, Parker KJ. Psychological stress in childhood and susceptibility to the chronic diseases of aging: Moving toward a model of behavioral and biological mechanisms. Psychological Bulletin. Published online 2011:959-997. doi:10.1037/a0024768
- 14.Gershoff ET. Corporal punishment by parents and associated child behaviors and experiences: A meta-analytic and theoretical review. Psychological Bulletin. Published online 2002:539-579. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.128.4.539
- 15.Lopez NL, Bonenberger JL, Schneider HG. Parental disciplinary history, current levels of empathy, and moral reasoning in young adults. North American Journal of Psychology. 2001;3(2):193–204.
- 16.Ferguson CJ. Spanking, corporal punishment and negative long-term outcomes: A meta-analytic review of longitudinal studies. Clinical Psychology Review. Published online February 2013:196-208. doi:10.1016/j.cpr.2012.11.002
- 17.Holden GW, Grogan-Kaylor A, Durrant JE, Gershoff ET. Researchers Deserve a Better Critique: Response to Larzelere, Gunnoe, Roberts, and Ferguson (2017). Marriage & Family Review. Published online March 27, 2017:465-490. doi:10.1080/01494929.2017.1308899
- 18.Gagné MH, Tourigny M, Joly J, Pouliot-Lapointe J. Predictors of Adult Attitudes Toward Corporal Punishment of Children. J Interpers Violence. Published online October 2007:1285-1304. doi:10.1177/0886260507304550
- 19.Simons DA, Wurtele SK. Relationships between parents’ use of corporal punishment and their children’s endorsement of spanking and hitting other children. Child Abuse & Neglect. Published online September 2010:639-646. doi:10.1016/j.chiabu.2010.01.012
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