Decades Of Research Show That Spanking Is Ineffective At Best, Harmful At Worst

by Annie Reneau
Monkey Business Images / Shutterstock

I went to a friend’s house one day when I was 8 or 9, and while I was there, my friend got in trouble for something. She was taken into another room, spanked, and then sent back out to play with me, red-faced and teary.

There was no yelling or overt anger from her parents when this occurred, but it still freaked me out. I don’t remember the infraction that warranted a spanking in her parents’ eyes, but I remember thinking it was just a normal kid mistake.

I didn’t grow up in a spanking household. I couldn’t imagine my parents hitting me for any reason, but especially for something I didn’t even see as bad behavior.

I was very young then, but my thoughts on spanking haven’t changed much over the years. Not growing up with it, I’ve never seen the need for it. Striking anyone has always felt wrong to me, but a child? On the bottom? People seem to think that hitting a kid on the butt is somehow more acceptable than, say, slapping them across the face, but I don’t see how. We teach kids that people shouldn’t be touching their bottoms, but it’s okay to hit them there as a punishment? It’s just always seemed so odd to me.

Of course, we are used to what we grow up with, and many people grew up being spanked. Many of those people don’t feel like they were harmed by it, so they don’t question it much. In fact, plenty of people associate spanking with discipline and don’t see how you can possibly raise a well-behaved, responsible human being without it.

I have my own experience as anecdotal evidence to prove how it can be done, but it’s just that — anecdotal. However, we also have 50 years of studies on spanking to back up the assertion that spanking isn’t a good idea.

Not just one study — studies. Hundreds of them.

One study alone is never enough to draw definitive conclusions. When researchers really want to examine the efficacy and impact of a practice, they don’t just conduct a study; they do a meta-analysis, which is systematic review of the studies that have already been done. A meta-analysis has more weight to it than a normal study, as it uses specific criteria for weeding out low-quality studies and synthesizes the results of multiple studies to find out where the consensus lies.

According to a 2016 meta-analysis of spanking studies, published in the Journal of Family Psychology, the news is not good for spanking. The researchers from the University of Texas analyzed studies covering 160,000 kids over a period of five decades and concluded that spanking is ineffectual at best and harmful at worst.

The more kids are spanked, the worse they behave, the more likely they are to exhibit antisocial behavior, and the more likely they are to experience mental health problems. Spanked kids defy their parents more often, show more aggressive behaviors than non-spanked kids, and exhibit more cognitive difficulties. Spanking simply isn’t an effective form of discipline.

This was not the first meta-analysis of spanking to come to this conclusion, however. An analysis of 88 studies published in 2002 also pointed to a myriad of negative outcomes of spanking, including poorer relationships with parents and a decreased ability to tell right from wrong. The only positive that study found was that kids who are spanked tended to immediately comply with parents’ instructions. However, over time, that immediate compliance waned even if kids continued to be spanked. So even that one positive didn’t continue long-term.

It’s important to note that the spanking included in these analyses does not include what would be considered child abuse — the spanking being studied is what most people think of as “normal,” non-abusive spanking. That being said, another finding of the study was that the more parents spank, the more likely they are to abuse their children at some point. The line between spanking and abuse, as well as the effect that both can have on kids, is not as clear-cut as many believe.

“We as a society think of spanking and physical abuse as distinct behaviors,” says Elizabeth Gershoff, one of the authors of the 2016 study. “Yet our research shows that spanking is linked with the same negative child outcomes as abuse, just to a slightly lesser degree.”

Defenders of spanking tend to fall back on justifications such as “I was spanked and I turned out just fine,” or “There’s a big difference between spanking and abuse,” or “We spank, our kids are well-behaved, and we have a good relationship, so those studies are hogwash,” or my personal favorite, “The reason the world is going to hell in handbasket is because kids these days aren’t spanked.”

Will all kids who are spanked exhibit the problematic behaviors listed above? No. Are they more likely to than kids who aren’t spanked? Yes.

Is it possible to raise kids to be responsible, respectful human beings without spanking? Yes. Are some kids harder than others to teach and train? Absolutely. Does that mean spanking is necessary? Absolutely not.

It took years of studies of car accident outcomes for people to understand the need for seat belts and car seats. We now have decades of studies on spanking, with an overwhelming consensus that it simply isn’t worth it. When we know better, we do better. Well, we know better now. Let’s put that knowledge into practice and explore other less harmful ways to discipline children.