Parents always want to make the best decisions for their children, particularly when it comes to discipline. Everyone will have an opinion and try to tell you how you should enforce household rules, but it seems like the most controversial method is spanking.
Spanking (defined as open-handed hitting on the buttocks or extremities with the intention of modifying a child’s behaviour) has historically been a common punishment for misbehaviour, both in North America and around the world. It is also a controversial topic when it comes to parenting, with arguments that stem from cultural, ethical, religious, or human rights perspectives.
Many have studied the effects of spanking, but the structure of these studies makes it difficult to continue investigation because children who were spanked might have also received harsher forms of physical punishment. This could result in the data becoming skewed. Many studies have suggested that spanking generally negatively impacted children. More recently, there was a very large study to determine whether spanking was associated with detrimental child outcomes, when other harsh and potentially abusive methods were removed from the analysis.
“Spanking and Child Outcomes: Old Controversies and New Meta-Analyses” was a new study published in 2016 in the Journal of Family Psychology. This study analyzed 17 child outcomes related to physical and mental health in over 160,000 children who received spanking as a form of punishment. What this study found was that spanking was related to many detrimental childhood and adult outcomes. These were the results of the study:
spanking was associated with poor outcomes in children
Spanking was associated with the following nine outcomes in children who were spanked:
- Aggression was higher
- Children who were spanked had more externalizing problems (these are behaviours that are directed outwards such as physical aggression, lying, stealing, disobeying, destroying property, bullying, etc.) compared to children who were not spanked.
- Internalizing problems were greater in children who were spanked vs. those who were not (these are behaviours that are directed inward such as social withdrawal, fearfulness, somatic complaints, etc.)
- More mental health problems were found in children who were spanked vs. those who were not
- Children who were spanked had a more negative relationship with their parents compared to those who were not spanked.
- Moral internalization (creation of personal attitudes, standards, and beliefs) was lower in children who were spanked.
- Cognitive ability (mental activities related to learning and problem solving) was lower in children who were spanked.
- Self-esteem was lower in children who were spanked.
- Children who were spanked were at greater risk for physical abuse by their parents, than children who were not spanked
Spanking was associated with mental health outcomes that followed into adulthood
Spanking was associated with the following 3 outcomes in adults whom were spanked as children:
- Antisocial behaviour (disruptive, hostile, and intentional behaviour towards others) was higher in adults who received spanking as a child compared to those who did not.
- More mental health problems were seen in adults who received spanking as a child compared to those who did not.
- Adult who received spanking as a child were more in support for physical punishment of children, compared to adults that did not receive spanking as a child.
“Spanking and Child Outcomes: Old Controversies and New Meta-Analyses” also analyzed four additional outcomes including immediate defiance, child alcohol or substance abuse, and low-self regulation (which is the ability to manage strong negative emotions). The study found was that childhood spanking was not strongly associated with any of these four outcomes.
The challenge with studies such as this is that outcomes can only prove correlation, and not causation. For example: spanking and problematic behaviour may reflect the fact that difficult children elicit more spanking from parents, and maybe not that spanking causes the problematic behaviour in the first place.
Altogether, however, this study helps support the conclusions that parental use of spanking is strongly associated with detrimental childhood and adult outcomes. Although spanking children to correct misbehaviour is a widespread practice, current studies suggest it could be ineffective as a form of discipline, and potentially worsen mental health and behaviour in the long run.
UNICEF. (2014). Hidden in plain sight: A statistical analysis of violence against children. New York, NY: UNICEF.
Gershoff, E. T. (2002). Corporal punishment by parents and associated child behaviors and experiences: A meta-analytic and theoretical review. Psychological Bulletin, 128, 539–579.
Gershoff, E. T. (2013). Spanking and child development: We know enough now to stop hitting our children. Child Development Perspectives, 7, 133–137. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/cdep.12038
Gershoff, E. T. (2016). Spanking and Child Outcomes: Old Controversies and New Meta-Analyses. Journal of Family Psychology. Vol. 30, No. 4, 453–469
Baumrind, D., Larzelere, R. E., & Cowan, P. A. (2002). Ordinary physical punishment: Is it harmful? Comment on Gershoff (2002). Psychological Bulletin, 128, 580 –589. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.128.4.580
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