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.
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
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 (MacKenzie et al 2015). 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
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
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
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 studies have reported similar results
(Grogan-Kaylor 2005; Mulvaney and Mebert 2007; Lansford et al 2009; Coley et al 2014; MacKenzie et al 2015), 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
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
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
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
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
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
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. More recent studies have obtained similar results (MacKenzie et al 2015; Coley et al 2014).
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
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.
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
His 2005 chapter, “Children should never, ever be spanked no matter what the circumstances," can be downloaded directly if you
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
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.
References: Spanking children
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Content of "Spanking children: A guide for the science-minded" last modified 9/13