Spanking children:
What are the consequences?

© 2010 - 2015 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

An evidence-based guide about the effects of spanking children

"Spanking" usually refers to slapping a child across the buttocks with a bare hand. Is it an acceptable disciplinary tactic? The answer varies from society to society. Hunter-gatherers rarely spank their children (Konner 2005). In Sweden, it's against the law. But spanking is favored by many parents, especially those who endorse authoritarian principles of child-rearing (Coley et al 2016; Friedson 2016; Gunroe 2013).

What does research reveal about the effects? The data aren't always clear-cut, so there is some controversy. But researchers on all sides of the debate agree on the following points: 

  • Infants shouldn't be spanked. There is no evidence that babies learn anything helpful from the experience, and reason to think it may cause harm. 
  • Spanking children has been linked with the development of behavior problems, including increased aggression and poor emotional regulation.
  • Spanking children older than 5 or 6 is counterproductive. 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. Kids tend to develop more behavior problems when they are spanked regularly, spanked in anger, or spanked with objects. 
  • 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 less effective than these 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 of a child's behavior problems are 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

Spanking babies is a bad idea, and a potentially dangerous one

Research reveals that some parents routinely spank infants under the age of 12 months (MacKenzie et al 2015). Why does it happen? Babies targeted for spanking are are more likely to have fussy or difficult temperaments, so perhaps parents use spanking as a response to crying or tantrums (MacKenzie et al 2011). If so, it's a counterproductive tactic. Studies indicate that babies learn to regulate their emotions through emotionally sensitive, positive interactions -- not intrusive or angry physical contact. And in fact, stress hormone research indicates that frequently-spanked children are more likely to become hyperreactive in stressful situations (Bugental et al 2003).

Just as important, babies are physically dependent and highly vulnerable to injury. For this reason, adults who are angry or otherwise at risk of mishandling a young child should avoid physical contact until they've cooled down.

Given these risks, and the absence of evidence that spanking has any beneficial effects, organizations like the American Psychological Association have urged parents never to spank an infant.

What about older children?

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).

But 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 forms of corporal punishment. Many studies lump together spanking and harsher forms of discipline, like hitting children with objects. As a result, it’s not clear how much trouble is associated with spanking, as opposed to more extreme punishments and abuse.

2. We need to rule out alternative explanations for the link between spanking 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 these pre-existing 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 studies have reported similar results, even after controlling for additional risk factors, like child neglect, abuse, or having a mother with mental health problems (Lansford et al 2009; Coley et al 2014; Taylor et al 2010; 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 over time.

In addition, there is evidence that the risk increases over time. When Jennifer Lansford and her colleagues tracked a group of children for more than a decade, they found links between spanking and aggressive behavior problems, but the effect depended on how long parents used spanking as a disciplinary tactic.

The kids who developed the fewest antisocial tendencies as adolescents were the ones whose parents discontinued spanking during early childhood. Kids spanked during their primary school years ended up with the worst behavior problems. They also had the least positive relationships with their parents (Lansford et al 2009).

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 unruly, so they provoke more censure.

If true, we should find links between antisocial behavior and disciplinary actions in general--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" (i.e., punishing kids by taking away their privileges), and
  • antisocial behavior and psychotherapy.

Of course, this doesn’t indicate that spanking children is beneficial. On the contrary, 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 much of the correlation between antisocial behavior and spanking. Some parents have to cope with more difficult kids. We can’t assume that spanking created their behavior problems.

Nor should we assume that all forms of spanking are equally problematic. In a long-term observational study, researchers found that one group of spanked children did not show the typical increase in behavior problems over time. These kids were the ones who received the least frequent spankings (less than one per month) and never got swatted with anything other than an open hand (Lansford et al 2012). Perhaps the frequently-observed link between spanking and the development of aggression is driven by harsh spanking.

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

Research suggests that the answer is yes. The only form I’ve seen researchers 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 only after the child has failed to heed a warning.

In the meta-analysis mentioned above, Robert Larzelere and Brett Kuhn found that calmly-administered, 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 also appears that the effects of spanking children depend on parenting style. In the study of toddlers mentioned above, 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. His parents' disciplinary tactics are out of step with community norms. As a result, Fred may be more likely to view spanking as a sign that his parents are--frighteningly--out of control. Do the data bear this interpretation 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 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." As extensive list of his publications can be found on this page; it includes links to several studies and papers about spanking children.

References: Spanking children

Alyahri A and Goodman R. 2008. Harsh corporal punishment of Yemeni children: occurrence, type and associations. Child Abuse Negl. 32(8):766-73.

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.

Coley RL, Kull MA, and Carrano J. 2014. Parental endorsement of spanking and children's internalizing and externalizing problems in African American and Hispanic families. J Fam Psychol. 28(1):22-31.

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.

Friedson 2016. Authoritarian parenting attitudes and social origin: The multigenerational relationship of socioeconomic position to childrearing values. Child Abuse Negl. 51:263-75.

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.

Gunnoe ML. 2013. Associations between parenting style, physical discipline, and adjustment in adolescents' reports. Psychol Rep. 112(3):933-75.

Javo C, Rønning JA, Heyerdahl S, and Rudmin FW. 2004. Parenting correlates of child behavior problems in a multiethnic community sample of preschool children in northern Norway. Eur Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 13(1):8-18.

Johnson JG, Cohen P, Chen H, Kasen S, and Brook JS. 2006. Parenting behaviors associated with risk for offspring personality disorder during adulthood. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 63(5):579-87.

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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.

MacKenzie MJ, Nicklas E, Brooks-Gunn J, and Waldfogel J. 2015. Spanking and children's externalizing behavior across the first decade of life: evidence for transactional processes. J Youth Adolesc. 44(3):658-69.

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 3/15