Spanking Children: The Facts About Corporal Punishment

SpankingSpanking children – should parents be using corporal punishment? This debate comes up periodically and has recently been reignited in light of Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson’s indictment for child abuse for spanking (hitting?) his 4-year-old son with a switch. Of course, this is a hotly debated issue and is very value-laden. In fact, it is so value-laden that our previously established values often determine our views on the subject.
This debate reminds me of one of the most illuminating and influential books that I have read in recent years, Dr. Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. I discussed this in a previous blog but, in brief, our views on issues such as spanking (and politics and religion) aren’t typically based on reason and facts even though we might think that they are. They are more emotionally-based and rooted in deeply held values, which is why research findings and data tend not to sway our views much.
With such value-laden topics such as spanking, all of us are influenced by a cognitive bias know as a confirmation bias. That is, we focus on information and findings that support what we already believe to be true and tend to discount information that conflicts with our established views. And if we think we aren’t affected by the confirmation bias, then that is known as the bias bias – the mistaken notion that we are not influenced as much by biases as others are.
So, if you already believe corporal punishment is effective and necessary, this blog will probably not convince you otherwise and, if you already believe corporal punishment is ineffective and/or harmful, this blog will reinforce what you already believe to be true. However, if you are straddling the fence on the issue, I hope that the information below might convince you that corporal punishment should be avoided.
Problems with the Arguments in Support of Spanking

  1. My parents spanked me, and I turned out well. In a statement in response to his indictment, Adrian Peterson offered a version of this when he said, “I have always believed that the way my parents disciplined me has a great deal to do with the success I have enjoyed as a man.” This is anecdotal evidence, and one can conclude anything from single examples. After all, one can easily find others (I include myself here) that were not spanked and turned out fine. Moreover, prisons are filled with inmates who received a high degree of physical punishment. So, what is one to conclude – should a parent spank or not spank? One can’t draw any conclusion from such anecdotal evidence. Also, one can turn out well despite being spanked and not necessarily because of it.
  2. This is the way parenting has been done for years. This related to the above point, and Mr. Peterson’s statement above includes this idea. There are many parenting practices from the past that we now know aren’t healthy – such as smoking/drinking during pregnancy, allowing children to work in factories, etc. I grew up in an era in which most parents and kids didn’t wear seatbelts. I distinctly remember clambering around the back of our car all the time – including lying above the backseat window during long trips!  Just because we did something in the past is not a great argument that we should continue doing it. Think of other past medical practices – leeches, bloodletting, drilling holes in the skull to release demons, and so on. We are glad that we have moved beyond such antiquated practices because advances in our knowledge have proven such practices were not only ineffective, they could be quite harmful. The same idea applies to spanking – just because it has been a widespread practice doesn’t mean that it is a beneficial one.
  3. Kids need discipline, so we need to spank! This is kind of a “straw man” argument – if we don’t discipline our kids, then they will become spoiled, indulgent, and never learn right from wrong. The fallacy here is conflating “spanking” with “discipline” – bundling those two together. One can discipline children (or manage their behavior) without spanking through the use of natural consequences, time-outs, withdrawal of privileges, making restitution, and so on.
  4. If our kids don’t fear us, then they won’t listen to/obey us as parents. Our leverage of influence as parents is the relationship. The stronger the relationship, the more likely our children are to listen to us, follow our directions, and accept our limits. Think about our other relationships – are our spouse, our friends, and co-workers cooperative with us because they fear we will hit them if they don’t listen to us? Do we listen to our spouse, friends, and co-workers because we fear they will hit us? Of course not! Just like in our other relationships, it isn’t necessary for our children to fear that we will inflict physical harm to them in order for them to listen and follow directions. Again, this doesn’t mean that we don’t ever use consequences – we need to as parents! It just doesn’t have to be the form of physical harm.
  5. I’ve used other behavior management techniques, and they don’t work. Parenting can definitely be a challenge. If well-established behavior management techniques aren’t working for us, chances are we aren’t implementing them properly and/or consistently. Just because corporal punishment can result in short-term, observable behavior change does not necessarily mean it is effective in the long-term. There are numerous other behavior management strategies that have been proven to be effective. If we can’t other behavior management strategies to work with our kids, it is because we are using the wrong ones or using them improperly.
  6. The research out there against spanking is biased. I might get myself into a bit of trouble by saying this, but there might be a bit of truth here. There is such a thing as a publication bias in the research literature, and the social sciences tend to be on the liberal side. However, if one discounts the literature, then A LOT of research needs to be discounted because the overwhelming preponderance of the research on spanking is that it is counterproductive and even harmful. Also, if we are going to discount the research in total, on what basis are we to evaluate the effectiveness of spanking?

What Does the Research Say About Spanking?
As I already mentioned, almost all studies on child physical punishment have found negative consequences both short and long-term. So much so that three leading child health organizations, the American Psychological Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry all formally advocate against the use of physical punishment for children. Research has shown that:

  • Repeated spanking leads to increases in aggressive behavior in children – both toward parents and towards others – when they reach school age
  • Using spanking and threats of physical punishment changes the parent-child relationship, making it more difficult to use other types of parenting strategies (such as time-out, giving choices, earning rewards for good behavior, etc.) when a child becomes too old for spanking
  • The more you physically punish your kids for their lack of self-control, the less internal self-control they actually have. Instead, they learn to be controlled by more powerful outside forces. Then, what happens when no one is looking?
  • Harsh physical punishment (hitting, slapping, pushing, grabbing) is associated with increased odds of mood disorders, anxiety disorders, alcohol and drug abuse, and several personality disorders. Researchers found 2 percent to 7 percent of mental disorders were attributable to physical punishment
  • Finally, one study found that harsh physical punishment was associated with decreased gray matter volume in the brain in later life, suggesting that physical punishment actually changes how a child’s brain develops!

What Can We Conclude About Spanking?
Ben Franklin once wrote, “‘In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”  We can’t point to many absolute truths in life – we can always find exceptions. What we are looking for is general truths – that’s the closest we can get. With regard to corporal punishment, what we are in effect asking is: Is it generally true that spanking is ineffective and/or harmful? When we look at it from that perspective, the research findings are very clear that spanking is not an effective parenting practice and can actually be harmful.
I want to be clear that I am not saying that mild, infrequent spanking is tantamount to child abuse and will definitely cause irreparable harm to children. It is likely that there is a continuum of negative effects of spanking such that mild, infrequent spanking is only mildly harmful whereas frequent, harsh physical punishment causes many more of the harmful effects listed in the above section.
It is clear that many parents raise happy, healthy, successful children without the use of corporal punishment. That fact alone is indisputable and must mean that one can effectively raise a child without the use of corporal punishment. For example, my wife and I don’t spank our 3 boys…not a once…but we do “discipline” them through the use of a variety of behavior management strategies (most of which are positive). The two eldest are school-aged and get perfect conduct ratings on their report cards just about every time. We are definitely not perfect parents, I’m just pointing out some evidence that one can raise kids successfully without the use of corporal punishment. And, if we can raise our children successfully without the use of physical punishment, shouldn’t we aspire to?

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Comments (2)

Thank you for sharing. I’m constantly debating with my fiancé regarding spanking. I really do not believe in spanking, but he does. All of the arguments you described above are the arguments he uses against me everyday. Thank you so much for sharing. Now, I have a supported ammunition to support my side of the argument to not spank.

Michael Babcock

I have a hard time taking any of these studies that claim “all spanking is negative and abusive” seriously when 26% of Canadians report having been spanked. With an incarceration rate of 118/100,000 (including youth and adults combined), any attempt at correlation with basic corporal punishment is spurious at best.
So long as research insists on lumping all forms of physical contact into one category called “abuse” we will never see good data. I seriously doubt many researchers even feel the freedom to run studies comparing outcomes from spanking and more abusive behaviours as you yourself hinted at.
While your comment that anecdotes are not data is valid, it is only valid until someone makes the claim (as has been done) that *all* corporal punishment leads to negative outcomes. The moment that claim is made, all anecdotal evidence to the contrary negates it.

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