Is Spanking Harmful to Children?

In the wake of increased concerns about violence in our society many child development professionals have targeted spanking as a significant cause of violent behavior. The concept is that violence begets violence and that spanking is a violent act by parents. Those who take this position have pointed to research that shows a correlation between spanking and aggressive or violent behavior in adolescence and early adulthood. This correlation (the degree to which two events or factors occur in two compared groups) has been interpreted as proof of causality but as I am about to explain, causality requires very different proof. This is a critical issue not only because it is important to give parents correct information about research results but also because in some societies or segments of societies, laws are being passed to ban spanking, bringing the government into people’s homes and criminalizing the actions of millions of parents.

Dr. Diana Baumrind is a noted developmental psychologist who has been doing highly respected research on children and families for a few decades. Although she does not advocate the use of spanking, she believed that the research being used to prohibit it was flawed and set out to do one of the best designed, most thorough pieces of research that I have seen. The key issue as noted above is that just because two or more behaviors may be correlated, e.g., children who are read to more when young have higher I.Q’s, doesn’t mean that one behavior, the reading, causes the other, the higher intelligence. That’s because many other factors could actually be the causal one’s and need to be controlled for in order to conclude what is truly causal. In this example, factors such as the parents’ intelligence (I.Q. is at least partly genetically determined) and poverty (several aspects of growing up in very poor homes and neighborhoods result in poorer performance on I.Q. tests) may be the causal factors. Reading to children may simply be more associated with growing up in a non-poverty home.

Thus, Dr. Baumrind set out to try to separate simple associations with spanking from actual causal factors of future aggressive or violent behavior. She followed a large group of middle class children from early childhood to adolescence. By not including poverty families it was easier to isolate significant issues because poverty brings many complicating factors into play including the difficulties in following these families for extended periods of time. She used the concept of “Normative Physical Punishment (NPP)” to refer to spanking defined as “striking the child on the buttocks or extremities with an open hand without inflicting physical injury with the intention to modify behavior.” Dr. Baumrind believed there was such a thing as normal usage of spanking that would prove not to be harmful and indeed that is what her research ultimately showed.

First, however, her data also showed a correlation between spanking and behavioral problems in later years. In families where spanking was never used there was less aggressive behavior as the children reached adolescence and older. But when she removed the data from about 5% of the “spanking families” whose use of spanking was identified as abusive, there was no significant difference in outcomes. Furthermore when she accounted for the temperament of the children, there was also no difference between the two groups. These are very important findings, especially the latter issue of temperament. Those children who were born with difficult to manage personalities elicited more spanking from their parents. Parenting is a two-way process and children influence how they are parented.

The research also suggested that most spanking is done with preschool children, especially toddlers. This may be partly due to the fact that very young children have limited language skills. They often cannot explain what is bothering them. They are more difficult to reason with. Also very young children are much more demanding of parental attention. Spanking is most often used when parents perceive risk to the child such as touching something hot or playing with something breakable and more than a “No!” and removal seems needed for emphasis. But there is also the frustration level, especially when there are two or more preschoolers in the family and the caretaking parent gets burned out.

Thus the research concludes that in most of the families where spanking was used, where it was one of many forms of discipline, and it was not used to a degree that the researchers judged abusive, spanking did not produce negative outcomes in later years. Another key finding is that the effects of spanking are mediated by how the children perceive their parents, i.e., when the parents are experienced as loving and caring, spanking is perceived as a reasonable way to be treated. In fact, interviews with adolescents whose parents used NPP indicated that the teenagers not only gave positive reports about being spanked as part of their childhood but they also planned to use spanking with their own children.

Punishment should not be the dominant form of discipline. In fact, Baumrind’s research showed that extensive use of verbal criticism had as negative effect as overuse of punishment. We need to raise our children in loving environments, with as much consistency as possible in enforcing rules and limits, and rely more on positive reinforcements than negative ones. We need to convey that making mistakes is normal and not constantly be trying to “fix” our children. But, it seems clear from this research, and my own three plus decades as a psychologist and parent, that normative use of spanking with young children is not harmful and may be used by parents as one aspect of discipline.