Spanking Causes Harm, Says a Review of 5 Decades of Research

Why it's not effective and harms kids in the long run

sad girl talking to parents - child discipline
Use your words: Teaching, firm rules, and other discipline methods work; spanking does not, says research. Altrendo Images/Getty Images

Many parents who wouldn't dream of doing anything to hurt their child's chances of growing up to be healthy, happy, and smart but who spank their kids to discipline them may be unwittingly causing harm—and encouraging worse behavior, to boot. A comprehensive new analysis of 50 years of data on spanking shows that there is definitive, overwhelming evidence against corporal punishment: The studies found that spanking not only leads to worse behavior in the long run (which is exactly the opposite of what parents are trying to achieve when they spank), but is also linked to a number of negative outcomes in children, including lower cognitive ability and a greater likelihood of there being problems in the parent-child relationship.

The study, which reviewed the findings of 75 studies on corporal punishment spanning 5 decades of research involving more than 160,000 children, was conducted by co-authors Liz Gershoff, Ph.D, a developmental psychologist and associate professor at the Department of Human Development and Family Science at the University of Texas at Austin, and Andrew Grogan-Kaylor, an associate professor at the University of Michigan School of Social Work. Spanking was defined by the researchers as swatting the behind with an open palm.

They found some startling and important facts about spanking and kids, some that previous research studies also found:

  • Spanking is linked to increased aggression, antisocial behaviors, mental health problems, lower self-esteem, and even lower cognitive ability.
  • Spanking was found to increase problems in parent-child relationships
  • Spanking and child abuse are both linked to the same negative outcomes for kids, albeit to a slightly lesser degree for spanking.
  • The more children are spanked, the more likely they were to show anti-social behavior, mental health issues, and other negative developments.
  • The more children are spanked, the greater the likelihood that they will be abused by their parents.
  • The evidence was extremely consistent, with almost all the studies showing a link between spanking and negative outcomes for kids.

Spanking Is Hitting

One of the most significant facts about spanking that parents should remember is that spanking and child abuse lead to the same outcomes. We may use euphemisms like "spanking" or "corporal punishment," says Dr. Gershoff, "but what we are talking about is hitting or striking a child. And while parents who spank may be well-meaning and loving, and do not consider spanking abuse, the fact that they both lead to the same mental, emotional, and social problems for kids speaks volumes." People don't want to think about spanking as abuse, but it's on the same continuum," says Dr. Gershoff. The problems may be to a slightly lesser degree for kids who were spanked compared to kids who were physically abused, but they are the same problems.

Why Spanking Persists

As many as 83 percent of kids in America have been punished physically by their parents by the time they reach 5th grade, according to Dr. Gershoff. Corporal punishment continues in homes and schools across America, and often continues from one generation to the next. Studies have shown that a history of having received spankings makes it more likely that one will in turn support spanking their own kids. Some of the reasons parents give for spanking include a belief that they were themselves spanked and "turned out just fine" or that spanking is effective. They may also believe that by not hitting their children, they may spoil them.

But as the overwhelming amount of research shows, there is indisputable evidence that spanking is associated with harmful effects and bad behavior. While parents may see an immediate result (your child may stop hitting his sibling), a swat on the behind won't teach him how to negotiate or work things out with his sibling the next time they have a conflict; it will, however, teach him that aggression is an answer (kids are master imitators, after all), and it will teach him to hide his behavior from you the next time.

And as pointed out by educators like Dr. Gershoff and experts at The Center for Effective Discipline, a program of Gundersen National Child Protection Training Center, which works to promote effective discipline of children and to end all corporal punishment of children, physical discipline is proven to be linked to harmful effects and should not be considered a good choice to teach kids better behavior. Why take the risk and continue to use a method that might harm when firm and much more effective discipline can be done with strategies like consequences or time-outs?

Studies like this meta analysis of data on spanking make it clear: Hitting does not work and it does harm kids. "We like evidence-based things," says Dr. Gershoff." The evidence shows that spanking doesn't work."

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