Spanking children:

What are the consequences?

An evidence-based guide

© 2010 -2013 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

Spanking children is rare among hunter-gatherers (Konner 2005). It’s frowned upon in the United States, and illegal in Sweden. Should people spank their kids?

Your own answer to this question may depend on your definition of spanking.

“Spanking” usually refers to slapping a child across the buttocks with a bare hand. But this leaves lots of ambiguity.

A spanking might consist of two light swats on the bottom, administered with a bare hand immediately after an unusual, dangerous transgression (e.g., the three year old rushes out into the street). Or a spanking might be an abusive ritual that is designed to injure, frighten, or humiliate the child.

Some people believe that all forms of spanking should be banned. Others disagree. But researchers from both sides of the debate agree on the following points:

Babies shouldn’t be spanked. (See below.)

Spanking children has been linked with the development of all sorts of behavior problems, including increased aggression and poor emotional regulation. It’s even been linked with slower mental development.

Spanking children older than 5 or 6 is a bad idea. Research suggests that older kids are especially susceptible to the negative effects of spanking. They are more likely to become antisocial or distressed. They are also more likely to develop negative relationships with their parents.

Severity, frequency, and emotional contexts matter. Studies report worse outcomes for kids who are spanked regularly or who are spanked with objects. Some research suggests that spankings are more detrimental when parents are angry, cold, or insensitive.

Spanking isn't more effective than non-physical punishments that include reasoning. The most recent analyses of published research suggest that spanking--even the most restrained and careful use of spanking-- is no more effective than disciplinary tactics that combine non-physical punishments with reasoning. When spanking is used as the primary disciplinary method, it is clearly less effective than the alternatives.

And what about spanking -- or other forms of corporal punishment -- administered in a school setting? While virtually all the published studies on spanking concern punishment at home, research suggests that harsh physical discipline makes students distrust authority.

Moreover, there is evidence that public shaming makes people feel angry...and unrepentant.

Are there complicating factors? Yes. Some parents resort to spanking because their kids are particularly aggressive or defiant, which means the causation is bidirectional: Child aggression can trigger spanking, and spanking can make kids more aggressive (Barnes et al 2013).

This doesn’t mean spanking is a good way to handle defiance. But it does make it hard to tell how much trouble is caused by spanking.

And the effects of spanking may depend--in part--on culture. In communities where spanking is less common, the effects are more negative.

Here is a review of the evidence.


The effects of spanking children

Some practices are clearly indefensible, like spanking children who are developmentally incapable of wrongdoing

It’s pointless to punish children who can’t control their own impulses. Yet I’ve seen research describing parents who routinely spank infants under the age of 12 months. These babies already showed signs of abnormal hormonal activity, their stress response systems overreacting to anxiety-provoking situations (Bugental et al 2003).

What about older children—kids more than two years old?

Again, some practices are obviously bad. Severe physical punishment--like shaking a child or hitting him with an object--is dangerous and abusive. And it’s not just a question of physical injury.

Corporal punishment has been linked with all sorts of behavior problems, including aggression, paranoia, school failure, poor emotional regulation, and low empathy (Larzelere and Kuhn 2005; Johnson et al 2006; Alyahri and Goodman 2008; Chang et al 2003; Gershoff 2002).

Does this mean that spanking children causes behavior problems?

Not necessarily. To understand the effects of spanking, we need two things.

1. We need to distinguish spanking from other, harsher forms of punishment. Many studies lump together spanking and other, harsher forms of discipline. As a result, it’s not clear how much trouble is associated with spanking alone.

2. We need to rule out alternative explanations for the link between corporal punishment and behavior problems. Some kids are more defiant, difficult, or slow to obey. We’d expect these kids to get spanked more frequently than kids who are well-behaved. If there is a link between spanking and behavior problems, we need to be sure it isn’t driven by differences between kids.

Ordinarily, the best way to get answers is to run controlled, randomized experiments. But that would be unethical. So researchers have tried another approach--the prospective study.

Prospective studies follow the same individuals over the long term. They measure behavior at several points in time, allowing them to track how people change. This allows researchers to control for individual differences in child aggression, intelligence, and other traits.

If, for example, a study shows that kids who are spanked are more likely than other kids to become increasingly antisocial, we’ve got evidence that spanking causes aggression.

And that’s what the research shows.

Toddlers who get spanked may develop more behavior problems—and show slower mental development

A recent study of low-income European-American, African-American, and Mexican-American toddlers found that kids who were spanked at age 1 were more likely to have aggressive behavior problems at age 3. They also scored lower on the Bayley test of mental development (Berlin et al 2009).

Were these kids were getting spanked because they were more aggressive or slow to begin with? It doesn’t seem so. Neither aggressive behavior problems nor lower developmental scores predicted increases in spanking over time.

Other factors might explain the link. Perhaps toddlers who get spanked are more likely to be psychologically maltreated, physically abused, or neglected. Maybe they are more likely to witness domestic violence. Or maybe their mothers are more likely to be depressed or stressed out.

These factors do indeed seem to cause behavior problems in children. But when Catherine Taylor and her colleagues controlled for these factors, she found that spanking was still linked with a pattern of increased aggression (Taylor et al 2010).

Other prospective studies have reported similar results (Grogan-Kaylor 2005; Mulvaney and Mebert 2007; Lansford et al 2009), and while some research has failed to find a link between spanking and cognitive outcomes (Maguire-Jack et al 2012), the link between early spanking and later behavior problems is well-established: The more often kids get spanked, the more likely they are to become more antisocial over time.

In addition, there is evidence that the risk seems to accumulate over the years. Jennifer Lansford and her colleagues tracked a group of children for more than a decade (Lansford et al 2009). The researchers found links between spanking and aggressive behavior problems, but the effect depended on how long parents persisted to punish with spanking.

The kids who developed the fewest antisocial tendencies as adolescents were the ones whose parents stopped spanking them in the early years.

The parents who continued spanking throughout the school years had the kids with the worst behavior problems. They also had the least positive relationships with their kids.

Similar studies have prompted researchers on both sides of the spanking debate to view spanking of older children as counterproductive (Lazerlere 2000; Lansford et al 2012).

Reasonable doubt: Why some researchers are still skeptical about the effects of spanking kids

Prospective research isn’t the only non-experimental way to tease apart cause and effect.

Robert Larzelere and his colleagues--who have voiced skepticism about the causal link between spanking and antisocial behavior--have proposed another approach (Larzelere et al 2010). Their reasoning goes like this:

Suppose that the observed link between spanking and antisocial behavior is driven by the kids themselves. Some kids are more trouble, and they provoke more disciplinary action.

If so, we should find links between antisocial behavior and all sorts of discipline methods--not just physical punishments.

Larzelere’s team tested this prediction by re-analyzing data from an older study that reported correlations between spanking and antisocial behavior.

Their results? In addition to a link between antisocial behavior and spanking, the researchers also found links between

• antisocial behavior and “grounding,” or punishing kids by taking away their privileges to go out, and

• antisocial behavior and psychotherapy.

This doesn’t mean that spanking children is beneficial. In fact, when Larzelere conducted a meta analysis of 26 published studies on corporal punishment, he and his colleague Brett Kuhn concluded that even mild physical punishment--if used as the primary method of discipline-- was linked with poorer child outcomes (Larzelere and Kuhn 2005).

But it does suggest that individual differences can explain a great deal of the correlation between antisocial behavior and spanking. Some parents really do have to cope with more difficult kids. We can’t assume that spanking created the problem.

Nor should we assume that all forms of spanking make a big difference. After performing another meta-analysis of published studies, Christopher Ferguson found that the average effects of spanking on behavior problems were negative but very small (Ferguson 2013).

Why? I suspect it's because spanking studies have often lumped together kids who get occasional, mild, conditional spankings with kids who receive more severe spankings on a regular basis. Doing so may conceal the serious trouble associated with harsh punishment.

When Jennifer Lansford and her colleagues tracked hundreds of American school kids over the years, they found that the typical pattern: That children who were spanked at the beginning of the study developed more aggressive behavioral problems as time went by. But the pattern didn't hold for children who were only ever spanked with a hand (not an object) and who received fewer than one spanking per month (Lansford et al 2012). Perhaps, then, the frequently-observed link between spanking and the development of aggression is primarily driven by harsh spanking.

What about the emotional context? Does the parent’s mood matter? Do the parent’s intentions matter?

Surely the answer is yes. As noted above, spankings may take many forms.

The only form I’ve seen a researcher defend is “conditional spanking,” which consists of no more than two light slaps to the buttocks, administered without anger and immediately after a child has misbehaved.

By definition, conditional spanking is used sparingly--only after non-physical punishments have been attempted and after the child has failed to heed a warning.

In the study mentioned above, Robert Larzelere and Brett Kuhn found that conditional spanking was the only kind of spanking that compared favorably to other disciplinary tactics (Larzelere and Kuhn 2005).

Even this conditional spanking wasn’t as effective as the combination of reasoning and non-physical punishment. But it was more effective than tactics like threats, scolding, or time outs that are unaccompanied by reasoning.

It’s also evident that the effects of spanking children depend, in part, on parenting style. In the rather alarming study of toddlers mentioned above, parental responsiveness moderated the effects of spanking. In other words, the toddlers with the worst outcomes were both spanked AND treated with less warmth and sensitivity by their parents (Berlin et al 2009).

And perhaps that shouldn’t surprise us. Research demonstrates that children suffer when their parents are frequently angry, cold, mean-spirited, or cruel (O’Leary 1995).

As noted by Lei Chang and colleagues, “the expression of anger, coldness, or hatred that accompanies the physical act of parental aggression could well be more detrimental than the act of aggression itself” (Chang et al 2003).

Do the effects of corporal punishment depend on culture?

Again, the answer is yes. Imagine two kids. Both get spankings, but they live in different worlds.

• Buddy lives in a place where most kids get spanked.

• Fred lives in a community where corporal punishment is uncommon.

We might expect Fred to have a tougher time. Not only is he spanked, his spankings seem more unusual. Fred might be more likely to see spanking as a sign that his parents are--frighteningly--out of control.

Do the data bear this out?

Arthur Whaley notes that spanking children is not stigmatized in many African American communities, and that--unlike European American kids--African American kids are less likely to become more aggressive when they are spanked (Whaley 2000).

Similarly, researchers in Norway compared ethnic Norwegians with ethnic Sami. Among Norwegians, physical punishment was linked with anti-social behavior. Among the Sami, there was no such correlation (Javo et al 2004).

Finally, a study of corporal punishment in 6 cultures (China, India, Italy, Kenya, Philippines, and Thailand) found that physical discipline was always linked with increased child aggression and anxiety. But the link was weaker in countries where corporal punishment was commonplace (Lansford et al 2005).

Does this mean we shouldn’t be concerned about culturally-sanctioned spanking?

I don’t think so.

First, the data don’t suggest that spanking is a good thing. Rather, they suggest that spanking kids may be less harmful in certain cultural settings. And even then, it's not clear how much cultural variation there really is.

When Elizabeth Gershoff and her colleagues (2012) tracked over 11,000 American families, they found no evidence that ethnicity moderated the link between spanking and aggression. Early spanking predicted the development of aggressive behavior problems in all ethnic groups.

Second, as many people have pointed out, spanking children may teach kids that violence is an acceptable way to solve problems. Even conditional spanking raises this objection. And there is anthropological evidence in support of the idea that physical punishment trains people to accept higher levels of societal aggression.

In a cross-cultural study of 186 different societies, Jennifer Lansford and Kenneth Dodge found that corporal punishment was more common in societies that endorse violence and engage in frequent warfare (Lansford and Dodge 2008).

Similar work by Carol and Melvin Ember reveals links between corporal punishment and political inequality (Ember and Ember 2005). In their world review of nonindustrial societies, the Embers found that frequent corporal punishment of children is more common in societies with high levels of social stratification and/or low levels of democracy. In other words, corporal punishment is more common where people live under restrictive, authoritarian rule.

These studies address all forms of corporal punishment--including very harsh, cruel practices. So we can’t assume they apply to cases of mild physical discipline, like conditional spanking. But they raise important questions about the effects of spanking on society as a whole. And we might ask ourselves if spanking represents a sort of slippery slope.

In one of the studies mentioned above -- that one that differentiated between mild and harsh spanking -- researchers found that mild spanking in one year was a risk factor for harsh spanking the next (Lansford et al 2012). Might occasional, mild spankings pave the way for more harsh disciplinary tactics? It's something to think about.


More information about the effects of spanking children

For more opposing viewpoints about the proposal to ban spanking, I recommend two websites.

Murray Straus is perhaps the most eminent researcher to advocate the abolition of spanking. He takes position that pediatricians, developmental psychologists, and writers (including me, presumably) should tell parents that they should never spank their children. His website includes many papers about spanking children, corporal punishment, and domestic violence.

His 2005 chapter, “Children should never, ever be spanked no matter what the circumstances,” can be downloaded directly if you click here. In this paper, Straus drives home the points that (1) spanking children may be harmful in ways that aren’t evident until kids get older and (2) spanking children isn’t especially effective, and is therefore unnecessary.

Robert Larzelere has published several methodological critiques of anti-spanking research. As noted on his university’s website, “Dr. Larzelere is concerned about the trend to adopt increasingly extreme anti-spanking bans throughout the world, bans that have no sound scientific basis.” This webpage includes links to several studies and papers about spanking children.



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References: Spanking children

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Barnes JC, Boutwell BB, Beaver KM, Gibson CL. 2013. Analyzing the Origins of Childhood Externalizing Behavioral Problems. Dev Psychol. 2013 Mar 11. [Epub ahead of print]

Berlin LJ, Ispa JM, Fine MA, Malone PS, Brooks-Gunn J, Brady-Smith C, Ayoub C, and Bai Y. 2009. Correlates and consequences of spanking and verbal punishment for low-income white, african american, and mexican american toddlers. Child Dev. 80(5):1403-20.

Bugental DB, Martorell GA, and Barraza V. 2003. The hormonal costs of subtle forms of infant maltreatment. Horm Behav. 43(1):237-44.

Chang L, Schwartz D, Dodge K, McBride-Chang C. 2003. Harsh parenting in relation to child emotion regulation and aggression. Journal of Family Psychology. 17:598–606.

Ember C and Ember M. 2005. Explaining Corporal Punishment of Children: A Cross-Cultural Study. American Anthropologist 107(4): 609-619.

Ferguson CJ. 2013. Spanking, corporal punishment and negative long-term outcomes: a meta-analytic review of longitudinal studies. Clin Psychol Rev. 33(1):196-208.

Gershoff ET, Lansford JE, Sexton HR, Davis-Kean P, and Sameroff AJ. 2012. Longitudinal links between spanking and children's externalizing behaviors in a national sample of White, Black, Hispanic, and Asian American families. Child Dev. 83(3):838-43.

Grogan-Kaylor A. 2005. Relationship of corporal punishment and antisocial behavior by neighborhood. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 159(10):938-42.

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Lansford JE, Dodge KA, Pettit GS, Criss MM, Shaw DS, and Bates JE. 2009. Trajectories of physical discipline: Early childhood antecedents and developmental outcomes. Child Development 80(5): 1385-1402.

Lansford JE, Wager LB, Bates JE, Pettit GS, and Dodge KA. 2012. Forms of Spanking and Children's Externalizing Behaviors. Fam Relat. 61(2):224-236.

Larzelere RE. 2000. Child outcomes of nonabusive and customary physical punishment by parents: An updated literature review. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review 3:199–221.

Larzelere RE, Cox RB Jr, Smith GL. 2010. Do nonphysical punishments reduce antisocial behavior more than spanking? a comparison using the strongest previous causal evidence against spanking BMC Pediatr. 2010 10(1):10.

Maguire-Jack K, Gromoske AN, Berger LM.2012. Spanking and child development during the first 5 years of life. Child Dev. 83(6):1960-77.

Mulvaney MK and Mebert CJ. 2007. Parental corporal punishment predicts behavior problems in early childhood. J Fam Psychol. 21(3):389-97.

O’Leary SG. 1995. Parental discipline mistakes. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 4(1): 11-13.

Taylor CA, Manganello JA, Lee SJ, and Rice JC. 2010. Mothers' Spanking of 3-Year-Old Children and Subsequent Risk of Children's Aggressive Behavior. Published online April 12, 2010.

Whaley AL. 2000. Sociocultural differences in the developmental consequences of the use of physical discipline during childhood for African Americans. Cultur Divers Ethnic Minor Psychol. 6(1):5-12.

Content of "Spanking children: A guide for the science-minded" last modified 9/13