For years people have debated whether punishing children works, correcting their behaviors without having any negative long-term consequences. Spanking is one such form of discipline. Does spanking children work?
A paper published in the July/August issue of the American Psychologist, concludes that physical punishment of children (including spanking) is ineffective, and more importantly, is harmful―it results in behavioral and mental health problems.1
Let us start by by discussing the meaning of punishment, before examining the review’s conclusions about spanking children.
Physical punishment refers to the use of physical force intended to cause discomfort or pain, thus reducing the likelihood of a particular behavior. Punishment includes hitting with the hands or with a tool (like a belt or a stick), but also more general kinds of violent actions like kicking, burning, etc.
A common form of physical punishment for modifying the behaviors of children is spanking, which involves striking the buttocks with an open hand (often repeatedly).
Spanking is a common form of discipline. A 2012 study, involving over 11,000 American families and their kindergarteners, showed that over 80% of mothers spank their children. In fact, when the mothers were asked if they had spanked their children in the week prior to the interview, nearly 30% said yes.2
Beliefs about spanking
Why do parents spank their children? Perhaps because they truly believe that spanking is effective or because as children they were spanked too.
But spanking has been shown to be correlated with disruptive, delinquent, or aggressive acts in children; these, in turn, often result in more spanking, contributing to a vicious cycle.2
The belief that spanking is effective is not limited only to people without extensive knowledge of psychology. As the authors of the present paper note, a 2016 survey of over 800 members of the American Psychological Association found that 30% did not believe that spanking was harmful to children and 17% did not consider spanking a problematic way to discipline a child. Indeed, 14% had advised parents who were their clients to use spanking from time to time.1
So where is the evidence that spanking is actually harmful? One of the difficulties in proving that spanking is detrimental, is that, as the authors of the present paper note, conducting a true experiment on spanking is unethical.
A true experiment on spanking would require almost the impossible and certainly the unethical: Random selection of pregnant mothers, random assignment of half of them to the condition of spanking their children and the other half to a no-spank condition (to serve as controls), so that we can determine the effects (both short- and long-term) of spanking children.
Why can’t researchers merely compare people who already spank their children with people who do not? Because these groups might differ in many other ways (aside from whether they spank their children). For instance, it may be that parents who spank their children are also more likely to have children who have behavior problems to begin with. So if the child who is frequently spanked becomes a criminal in future, we can not determine whether the spanking or the behavioral problems were the cause.
But just because we can not conduct true experiments, does that mean that lesser evidence should be ignored? Likely not. After all, no researchers conducted true experiments on cigarette smoking (as far as I know), yet how many respected scientists or healthcare providers would nowadays claim that smoking is harmless?
So what can we say about the effects of spanking?
In cases when true experiments are not possible or ethical, researchers often refer to criteria now known as Hill’s criteria. The English epidemiologist Austin Bradford Hill suggested a number of principles required for establishing causality, seven of which were used in this study:
Plausibility of the causal connection, consistency and strength of the proposed connection, temporal precedence (i.e., spanking must precede the negative outcomes), other experiments ruling out alternative factors, and a dose-response relationship.
Using these criteria, Gershoff and colleagues reviewed the available evidence, eventually concluding that the findings point to a causal connection between spanking and negative outcomes. Furthermore, they found no evidence showing that physical punishment is useful in improving behavior.
The authors then addressed a common assumption, which is that punishment might be effective and harmless up to some threshold. The assumption that unlike more regular spanking or the use of severe forms of punishment (e.g., kicking and burning), occasional spanking might be effective. But again, the available data fails to support this view; instead, it appears that physical punishment and physical abuse are both linked with the same negative outcomes, “just to varying degrees.”1
“The message to parents, psychologists, and policy-makers is clear,” the authors state, adding that “it is time to end the debate about physical punishment and to end this outdated parenting practice.”
Many parents who punish their children mean well, but are not aware of the true nature of the harm that they are causing, and furthermore, are not aware of more effective alternatives to shaping the behavior of their children.
So what are some of these effective alternatives? Depending on the child’s age and the behavior the parent would like to target, the parent can:
- Set age-appropriate limits.
- Inform the child of the consequences of the problematic behavior.
- Take away privileges.
It is important to remain consistent. With consistency, the child comes to expect the same negative consequences, and as a result learns to modify the particular behavior.
It is also essential to attend to your child’s basic needs (e.g., nutritious food, safety, social needs, medical care, etc), while at the same time be firm and clear about the rules that you set. And remember to reward positive behavior too.
Just remember that spanking children is harmful and ineffective. There are more effective and humane ways to modify unwanted behavior, than by physical punishment and spanking. If you feel that your methods are not working, consulting a healthcare professional might help determine what lies at the root of the problem.