Science Keeps Telling Us The Same Thing: Spanking Causes Long-Term Harm To Children

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Originally Published: 
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You probably don’t like to admit it, but like 94% of us, you’ve probably spanked your child in the past year. While those numbers apply only to parents of 3- and 4-year-olds, a 2014 survey asking people if a child sometimes needed a “good hard spanking” found that 76% of men and 65% of women agreed. Both figures have declined since 1986 when 84% of men and 82% of women agreed with the statement, but the numbers are still startling.

Despite its prevalence, spanking is still a problematic discipline technique. A new meta-study published in the American Journal of Family Psychology brought together five decades of research, involving 160,000 children, and found that spanking is bad for kids. Scientists are calling it the “most complete analysis to date of the outcomes associated with spanking.”

What’s more, according to researchers at the University of Austin, Texas and the University of Michigan, “The more children are spanked, the more likely they are to defy their parents and to experience increased anti-social behavior, aggression, mental health problems and cognitive difficulties.” Wowza.

We’ve heard these claims from studies before, and most of them fall short in some way. For instance, many didn’t separate spanking from abusive behavior. But researcher Elizabeth Gershoff says this study is different because it focuses on what most Americans consider spanking — which researchers defined as “an open-handed hit on the behind or extremities” — and not on potentially abusive behaviors. This study was also careful to separate the effects of spanking alone, instead of lumping it in with “other types of physical punishment.”

The study has generated a lot of buzz because it’s so large and also because it’s legit, and the results are not encouraging. In the short-term, Gershoff says, “We found that spanking…was not associated with more immediate or long-term compliance, which are parents’ intended outcomes when they discipline their children.” In other words, popping your kid on the butt isn’t going to make him listen in the short term, and it’s not going to teach him a lesson he’ll never forget, like all those people in the spanking survey are hoping.

In fact, Gershoff tells the Chicago Tribune, “Spanking makes children’s behavior worse. It has the opposite effect parents want.” It doesn’t lead to better behavior or a knowledge of right from wrong, she continues, nor is it related to immediate compliance or better behavior in the future. So swatting Junior when he won’t freaking stop making that annoying noise, after repeated warnings and pleas, won’t actually make him more likely to cut it out. Nor will it make him more likely to listen to what you ask him to do in the future.

Not only is spanking ineffective in the short- and long-term, the study also found that it’s actually damaging.

“Spanking increases the likelihood of a wide variety of undesired outcomes for children,” says researcher Andrew Grogan-Taylor. The study examined the effects on adults who were spanked as children, and the results weren’t positive. Specifically, the more adults were spanked, the more likely they were to “exhibit anti-social behavior” or suffer from mental health problems. They became more aggressive. They were more likely to engage in delinquent behavior, to have anxiety and depression. They were also more likely to support corporal punishment as a disciplinary measure for their own children.

Most worryingly, researchers claim that spanking and physical abuse were “associated with the same detrimental child outcomes in the same direction and nearly the same strength.”

“We as a society think of spanking and physical abuse as distinct behaviors,” Gerhoff says. “Yet our research shows that spanking is linked with the same negative child outcomes as abuse, just to a slightly lesser degree.”

Considering that 60% of children worldwide are spanked or “otherwise physically punished,” according to UNICEF, that’s a hard pill to swallow.

As Christopher Ferguson, a psychologist at Stetson University in Florida tells Scientific American, parents who spank probably use some other forms of discipline, some of which may be harsher, so “you’re still not really isolating spanking from overall abusiveness.” Some research suggests that the effects of spanking differ according to how often it happens, why it happens, and how old the kids are. Moreover, they didn’t control for the big question: Are kids spanked because they act out, or do they act out because they’re spanked?

Still, Gershoff says that in spite of the controversy, the best thing parents can do is not spank their kids. As for the “I got spanked and I turned out okay” argument? Gershoff replies, “First, we turned out OK because our parents did other things, like sat us down at the kitchen table and talked to us and gave us reasons why they wanted to see us behave. We turned out OK in spite of spanking, not because of it,” she says.

And when we know better, we do better. “When I was a child, there were no seat belts in cars,” Gershoff says. “Do I think I turned out OK because my parents didn’t put me in a seat belt? No. I think I turned out because we didn’t get in an accident.”

Parents will likely continue to argue about corporal punishment, regardless of what the research finds. It is, of course, up to the parent to decide how best to discipline their child, within reason. But I, for one, will be doing my very best not to spank. As Gershoff points out, “Studies continue to find that spanking predicts negative behavior changes — there are no studies showing that kids improve.”

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