Is Spanking Really That Bad?

I remember sitting in Advanced Placement English class my senior year. It was only the second AP class my high school had ever offered, and they only allowed a select few to take the class. There were approximately fifteen of us, all of whom graduated in the top ten percent of our class of 400. One day our teacher asked, by show of hands, how many of us had been spanked. All but two of us raised our hands. This informal survey made it clear to me that spanking could not be as terrible as the experts claimed.

However, the research (from herehere, and here) says that children who are spanked:

  • Are more aggressive than their peers who were not.
  • Do not trust their parents and learn to mistrust the motives of others.
  • May stop the behavior in the short term, but will cause more problems later on.
  • Have lower IQs than classmates who were not spanked.
  • Have been traumatized and are more likely to abuse others.
  • Will not know how to solve problems without resorting to violence.

Such findings are disturbing to any parents looking to teach their children right from wrong. But are these findings conclusive reasons parents should never spank their children? Did my senior English class really defy all of the research?

Kitty O’Callaghan at summarizes why many pro-spanking families doubt these conclusions:

Researchers who gather spanking statistics often lump together parents who may smack a well-padded bottom with an open hand once a year with those who regularly reach for a brush or belt strap as discipline…. [combining] those who may spank because it’s “good for them” with those who’ve done it because they lost their temper.

Such a “lumping” skews the data collected in these studies. A child spanked once will have a different outcome than a child who is whipped by an out-of-control adult on a regular basis. These types of spankings should be evaluated separately.

“While spanking has been associated with a wide range of negative effects…studies can’t prove that these effects were caused by spanking,” O’Callaghan says. A child who has a lack of self-control modeled to them (i.e. only physical punishment performed at an unpredictable rate and for reasons not well-explained to the child) is likely to repeat these same practices. So, is the problem really that the child was spanked or that no one taught him self-control? Current studies have not adequately answered this question.

The reality is that research also tells us:

  • 94% of three-and-four-year-olds have been spanked at least once in the past year.
  • 74% of mothers believe spanking is acceptable for kids ages one to three.
  • 61% of parents condone spanking as a “regular form of punishment” for young children. 

While experts have long touted the horrors of corporal punishment, parents still find spanking to be a valuable tool in disciplining their children.

One researcher dared to speak up against the misleading conclusions on corporal punishment. Dr. Diana Baumrind oversaw research involving more than 100 families and the long-term impact of moderate spanking. She split the study’s participants into four groups, based on how frequently and with what force spankings were administered. “Red zone” parents indicated they “used a paddle or other instrument to strike the child, or hit on the face or torso, or lifted to throw or shake the child.” Children in the remaining three zones were spanked less frequently and with less force. Baumrind discovered that once the “red zone” families were removed from the data, “with them went most of the correlations initially found between spanking and long-term harm to children.” While admitting that she herself was “not an advocate of spanking,” she recognized that “a blanket injunction against its use is not warranted by the evidence.” She concluded that “…occasional spanking does not damage a child’s social or emotional development.”

Such research indicates that spanking, when used with appropriate force and frequency, can actually change children’s behavior in the short term (as all research indicates) without permanently damaging a child psychologically. We need more researchers who are willing to study the effects of spanking performed in a way that is truly designed to teach and benefit the child. Quality research in this area will give parents reliable data to help them discern what role spanking should play in their family’s discipline regimen.