While most parents spank their children at some point, experts advise against the disciplinary practice. Learn more about the negative psychological, behavioral, and emotional effects of spanking, and figure out better alternatives for discipline.

By Nicole Harris and Natalie Lorenzi
Updated September 22, 2020
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Few topics spark more debate among parents than spanking. But even though a majority of parents have used physical punishment on their children at some point, according to the including the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), many experts and organizations, have spoken out against it.

“Parents who occasionally spank aren't bad people,” explains George W. Holden, Ph.D., Professor and Chair of the Department of Psychology at Southern Methodist University and author of Parenting: A Dynamic Perspective, 2nd ed, who has studied the topic for about 25 years. “But there’s an amazing amount of research, and virtually all of it found significant negative effects associated with corporal punishment.”

Here, we spoke with experts to learn more about the controversy behind the spanking debate, as well as alternative methods of discipline they recommend instead. 

Why Do Parents Spank?

According to Dr. Holden, some parents spank because they believe it’s an effective disciplinary technique. “Maybe they were spanked by their parents, so they think it’s the right way to discipline. Spanking often gets passed down from generation to generation,” he says. Parents may also be encouraged to spank from their minister or other religious authority, as well as media like TV shows and movies.

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But even though some parents are pro-spanking, the majority don’t set out to spank their children. Instead, they do it out of anger and agitation. “Parents get frustrated because the techniques they usually use sometimes don’t work, and things can escalate,” says Alan E. Kazdin, PhD, ABPP, Research Professor and Sterling Professor of Psychology & Professor of Child Psychiatry (Emeritus) at Yale University, who created the Kazdin Method of Parenting. These parents don’t necessarily think spanking works, and they often regret it afterward.

Is Spanking Effective?

Almost every expert agrees that spanking isn’t an effective form of discipline. Countless psychological studies can back up these claims, and the AAP has also taken a stance against corporal punishment. "The AAP doesn't endorse spanking, because it is not effective in the long term, can hurt a child's self-esteem, and can cause physical harm," says pediatrician William Coleman, M.D., of the Center for Development and Learning at the University of North Carolina, in Chapel Hill, and former chair of the AAP's committee on psychosocial aspects of child and family health.

A 2016 survey from the AAP found that most American pediatricians are against corporal punishment as well. Out of 787 pediatricians surveyed, merely 6 percent “held positive attitudes toward spanking,” while 2.5 percent “expected positive outcomes from spanking,” according to the organization. 

Why is spanking so ineffective? It doesn’t change human behavior because it merely suppresses negative actions short-term. “You can hit a child and they’ll stop because of a startle effect,” says Dr. Kazdin “But it doesn’t teach the child what to do. The momentary stop has no impact on the overall rate of that behavior, and the next moment or day, it can start right back up.” In other words, the child won’t focus on what they did wrong—they’ll only focus on the pain of the spanking.

Elizabeth Gershoff, PhD, assistant professor at the School of Social Work at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor, agrees with this sentiment. "If children are hit, they'll stop what they're doing right away. But they will not stop in the future," she says. "When people say that spanking works, they're probably spanking and doing something else."

The Negative Effects of Spanking 

Moderate or frequent spanking has been linked to many adverse psychological, emotional, and behavioral adverse outcomes. Here are some of the negative effects, based on spanking research and studies.

  • Aggressive and antisocial behavior. Robert Larzelere, PhD, associate professor of human development and family science at Oklahoma State University, in Stillwater, cautions that spanking in frustration sends the message that "if you're frustrated, you can just lash out at whoever you're mad at." Kids who have been hit by their parents might resort to hitting when they feel angry or upset. They’re also more likely to engage in domestic violence and spank their own kids. 
  • Increased likelihood of substance abuse in the future
  • Poor performance in school and on standardized tests
  • Impacted cognitive development. “Children who are hit may have very subtle negative impacts on their brain development” says Dr. Holden. 
  • Increased risk of physical health problems such as heart disease, cancer, and respiratory issues. Spanking has also been linked to an earlier death. “We think it’s because of stress and a breakdown in the immune system,” says Dr. Kazdin.
  • Poor parent-child relationships. “Parents who use spanking are less likely to have a good quality relationship with the child,” says Dr. Holden. Children might begin to fear their parents, and they won’t open up in an effort to avoid physical punishment.  
  • Increased likelihood of physical injury, especially if the child is younger than 18 months, says the AAP. Also, if the parent is stressed by issues like finances or mental health problems, the threat of harsh punishment becomes more severe. "The intensity will continue to rise if the parent continues to be physical," says Dr. Coleman—and that increases the risk of abuse.

Better Alternatives to Spanking

Fortunately, parents don’t need to spank in order to promote good behavior in kids. "Parents who don't spank their children still discipline; they just do it in ways that don't involve hitting," says Dr. Gershoff. Although some parents may equate spanking with discipline, Gershoff says the two are not synonymous: "Discipline is teaching; spanking is punishment." 

The key is using positive disciplinary tactics that suit the child’s developmental age. When dealing with toddlers, for example, Dr. Holden recommends distracting them from the negative action or preventing it from happening in the first place. “Parents often have inappropriate expectations about a young child’s behavior; they expect too much from young children,” Dr. Holden says. “They need to structure situations so they don’t cause that conflict.”

Older kids benefit from parenting that focuses on cooperation and developing a loving relationship. “The parent should react to desired behavior with three characteristics: effusive praise, restating the behavior, and showing affection,” says Dr. Kazdin. Negative behaviors should be handled with a “mild and brief punishment” (like a time-out or taking away privileges). Parents should also promote open communication and clearly explain why the negative behavior isn’t acceptable.

The AAP agrees with these tips. The organization “recommends healthy forms of discipline, such as positive reinforcement of appropriate behaviors, limit setting, redirecting, and setting future expectations.”

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