Is Spanking Effective?

Spanking is in the news again (see the recent blog post in Parents News Now). If you a parent sorting through the debate, you will typically see two viewpoints – some say that spanking is unacceptable or “wrong” and others argue that it is necessary and “right.” I suggest the debate centers around a different question: is spanking effective? And this is where research can, at a minimum, provide some information that parents can consider. 

The most important conclusion that researchers are coming to these days is that spanking is associated with behavior problems over time. Many studies have shown this and continue to come up with this result. For example, a paper just published online in the journal Child Development reported the results of a study of over 11,000 families, chosen to reflect a nationally representative sample of US families. Parents and their kids participated when the kids were in kindergarten, and again when they were in 3rd grade. Parents were asked – at both times – if they ever spanked their child, if they spanked their child in the past week, and if so, how frequently they spanked in the last week. Teachers provided an independent report of the kids’ behavior problems (things like acting out, arguing, fighting) during kindergarten and 3rd grade. The results? Spanking was associated with behavior problems in kindergarten and 3rd grade – and behavior problems were associated with spanking.

These results suggest spanking is not effective because it predicts later problems and also becomes part of a cycle of negative parent-child interaction (as kids problems get worse, parents spank in reaction). What I would like to highlight is that the lens for evaluating effectiveness here is not in the moment, but rather over time. And this is where the difference of opinion can emerge. In the moment, spanking may produce a desired result – the behavior in question goes away. But over time, it may not produce the desired result – it does not lead to better behavior, and in fact may lead to worse behavior.

All of this is said with full knowledge that the vast majority of US parents (80% or more) report that they have spanked their kids at some point in time. Many will say that they see that it works. Many will say that spanking was part of their childhood and it taught them right from wrong. Research doesn’t speak to any one individual’s story. What I suggest, from the perspective of a researcher, is that parents revisit their motivations for spanking. If it’s reactive and emotional, we know that there is no lesson learned there for a child – and it could spiral out of control. If it’s purposeful and used as a form of discipline, I would at least say that you consider other methods that can be used that don’t involve physical contact, simply because, unlike spanking, they have all been shown in research studies to be effective in producing positive changes in children’s behavior over time.

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  1. by Lillian

    On February 8, 2012 at 10:37 am

    I have worked in with many children – the terrors were always spanked. Spanking is not discipline. Discipline is looking after your child and using each moment as a teachable moment. Most parents who spank that I have had to deal with are busy working and are not able watch over their kids. The parents are tired. The kid then gets into trouble. The parent then punishes the kid by spanking in an attempt to discipline. The kid then is unsupervised again and does the same exact thing but learns to make sure that he doesn’t get caught this time. Spanking does not teach moral values. These same kids then hit other kids to make them do what they want – just like the parent spanks them – to make them do what the parent wants (in this case to behave). Now I am stuck with a sneaky kid, who knows how to get away with all hell and strikes other kids. And if I tell the parents, they “discipline” them with spanking! Agghhh!!!! The cycle. Yes, these kids make me want to hit them, but that is part of the problem. I agree parents are not truly disciplining their kids. But spanking is not discipline – it is the opposite of discipline. Spanking, even with love, is meant to “shock” into correct behavior. Discipline means to teach through example. Parents are overworked now a days and don’t have time to teach … in other words discipline. Instead they spank. And each of these spanking turns into a teachable moment – just not want the parents intended.

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  5. by Joey E

    On May 13, 2012 at 10:45 pm

    I know kids who have spanked who have continued to be terrors, but also plenty of kids who were spanked who have gone the opposite direction — turning into well-behaved, respectful, and caring young adults. Surely there is more going on than just whether a spanking occurs.

  6. by Nellie

    On May 1, 2013 at 11:53 pm

    As a child, my parents did not believe in spanking and I think I turned out just fine. However in my opinion, I think spanking is an acceptable discipline to a certain point. How much is too much? It really all depends on the temperament of the child, what the child did that brought up the spanking, and other factors. I understand that sometimes parents spank their child simply because of the parent’s own anger, emotional distress, etc. and that’s probably why the child acts out in school or has behavior problems. However, if parents occasionally spank their children and have legitimate reasons to spanking their children then spanking should be acceptable. Spanking reinforces the parents’ authority over the child.