Family Matters

Why Spanking Doesn’t Work

A new analysis concludes that spanking fails to alter kids' behavior in the long term. What it does instead is amp up their aggression.

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Want your kid to stop whatever dangerous/annoying/forbidden behavior he’s doing right now? Spanking will probably work — for now.

But be prepared for that same child to be more aggressive toward you and his siblings, his friends and his eventual spouse. Oh, and get ready for some other antisocial behaviors too.

A new analysis of two decades of research on the long-term effects of physical punishment in children concludes that spanking doesn’t work and can actually wreak havoc on kids’ long-term development, according to an article published Monday in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

Studying physical punishment is difficult for researchers, who can’t randomly assign children to groups that are hit and those that aren’t. Instead, they follow children over many years, monitor how much they’re spanked, and then take measure of their aggression over time. “We find children who are physically punished get more aggressive over time and those who are not physically punished get less aggressive over time,” says Joan Durrant, the article’s lead author and a child clinical psychologist and professor of family social sciences at the University of Manitoba.

In fact, regardless of the age of the children or the size of the sample, none of more than 80 studies on the effects of physical punishment have succeeded in finding positive associations. “If someone were to hit us to change our behavior, it might harm our relationship with that person. We might feel resentful,” says Durrant. “It’s no different for children. It’s not a constructive thing to do.”

(MORE: The Healthland Podcast: Spanking, Drinking and Mind Control)

Children who are spanked may feel depressed and devalued, and their sense of self-worth can suffer. Harsh punishments can wind up backfiring because they can foster lying in children who are desperate to avoid being spanked. Later in life, physical punishment is linked to mental-health problems including depression, anxiety and drug and alcohol use. There’s neuroimaging evidence that physical punishment may alter parts of the brain involved in performance on IQ tests and up the likelihood of substance abuse. And there’s also early data that spanking could affect areas of the brain involved in emotion and stress regulation.

Yet, as I wrote last summer in a story about the first real-time study of parents spanking their children, some research has found that up to 90% of parents say they use corporal punishment:

Despite a battery of disciplinary techniques, including the infamous “time out,” redirection and the increasing emphasis on positive discipline (try substituting “hold the cup carefully” for “don’t spill your juice”), spanking and slapping are still pretty popular.

Moms and dads who spank do so because they believe it’s effective, and research actually shows that it is — in the short term. A child reaching for a tempting object will stop if he gets swatted. “It does work in the immediate moment, but beyond that, in most cases, it’s very ineffective,” says George Holden, the study’s author and a professor of psychology at Southern Methodist University. “The most common long-term consequence is that children learn to use aggression.”

Case in point: one mother in the study hit her toddler after the toddler either hit or kicked the mother, admonishing, “This is to help you remember not to hit your mother.”

“The irony is just amazing,” says Holden.

In some countries, spanking is not a choice. Durrant is currently living in Sweden, where she’s researching child-and-family policies and the evolution of that country’s law prohibiting physical discipline of children. In 1979, Sweden was the first country to pass such legislation; now 32 countries — including much of Europe, Costa Rica, Israel, Tunisia and Kenya — have a similar law.

Neither the U.S. nor Canada has gotten on board. “Whenever I mention the law, there is an assumption that this is government telling me how to raise my child,” says Durrant. “[But in Sweden] they see it as a way to make sure children get the best start possible in life.”

(MORE: The Case of the Texas Judge: When Does Spanking Cross the Line to Abuse?)

Parents who spank often do so by default. Many, particularly those who were hit themselves, find that spanking is the only disciplinary tactic in their toolbox. Doctors are in a position to change that by educating parents about the stages of normal child development, recommending alternative ways to discipline and referring interested parents to appropriate resources and parenting classes. In Sweden, for example, new parents are hooked up with support groups and given information about developmental stages.

As a result, parents understand their children aren’t being intentional obstructionists; it’s just par for the course. “When children see someone resolve conflict with aggression, they are more likely to learn that behavior,” says Durrant. “Two-year-olds are the most aggressive people in the world. They don’t understand the impact of their behavior, and they can’t inhibit themselves. So the more a child sees someone resolving conflict with aggression, the more aggressive they become.”

A young toddler who upends her cereal bowl on her head probably isn’t being ornery; she’s just curious to see what will happen. Durrant likes to use her son as an example. When he was 3, he dropped his dad’s toothbrush into the toilet. Another parent might have yelled, but Durrant’s academic background helped her realize that he was just experimenting: he dropped objects into water floating in sinks and bathtubs with nary a scolding; why not toilets too? “I explained what goes into toilets and then said, Do you think Daddy is going to want to put that toothbrush in his mouth now?” Message transmitted with no yelling.

P.S. Durrant’s son never dropped anything verboten into the toilet again.

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31 comments
PaulMillar
PaulMillar

Sorry, another liberal study done by someone who never had a kid and giving advice on how to teach them right from wrong. HA! Hey BONNIE, tell us, with all your "wisdom", have you EVER done a study or story on LIBERAL children that don't go along with spanking? Show me those studies so we have something to compare to. There is a HUGE difference between spanking and ABUSE! You liberals need to stop minding everyone elses business and start MINDING YOUR OWN! STFU!!!

KathyDierking
KathyDierking

Spankings do work. I spanked my children. A couple swats to the behind and that was all that was necessary. Never spank more than 2-3 swats on the behind. My children only needed spanked once or twice and they learned and listened!


BenMiles
BenMiles

THOSE SPANKINGS TAUGHT ME RIGHT FROM WRONG AND KEPT ME FROM BEING A JAIL BIRD LIKE THOSE KIDS FROM LIBERAL STATES!


ONLY LIBERALS DO NOT DISCIPLINE THEIR KIDS AND WE ALL KNOW HOW THEY TURN OUT!

Meleas
Meleas

I call B.S. Those studies use the children who are abused, often verbally along with the physical (and often sexual on top). I know several people who were spanked as children, which have turend out happy, adjusted and succcessful adults. In one family i know of 3 who own sevral small businesses... that family used a switch to discipline their children. All of the now grown children have a very close relationship to their parents, are happy in life and marriage, and unlike many other people i know have very successful lifes and marriages. how do the studies explain those. And Yes I know some whom were abused as children, and I can report from the examples I know in life that they all told me that the spanking was the least of their worries, it was the verbal abuse coming from their parents. Sorry everyone can make any study to prove their point, especially in quack psychology. 


GilBarnett
GilBarnett

I Call B.S, My father (a United States Marine) Brought us up Country and strict. I pulled my own switch off the tree, knew that belt was lethal and came to know right from wrong. Dad  whipped my ass on the regular as a child but he always explained the "why's"  of the whippin' and at the end of it all always said "I love you dude, I just want you to do better than I did" and that was that... Fast forward to Present day 2015, Not an ounce of resentment for my father (I actually thank him on the regular for raising me the way he did) I followed in his footsteps right out of H.S and served my country,  I acquired a Degree in Criminal Justice have a beautiful loving Marriage , 1 daughter and and a baby boy on the way. I grew up with the easiest access to guns on the planet and never shot up a school (because along with a spanking came lessons on how to be a man....something common suburban male parents seem to lack) Through my father I learned how to handle bullies the correct way (and oh were there bullies) I never touched drugs  and the absolute best lesson i was taught was that EVERYTHING in life was earned THERE WERE NO GIMME'S... and to think it all started because like my grandfather and his father before him my dad knew the value of a good old fashioned whipping. Just like I do and my kid is constantly complimented on how well behaved and well mannered she is.  I guess somewhere along the line it became okay to teach your kids to be entitled punks with no brass to stand up for themselves like men/or woman and completely without respect for elders.... this article is pathetic and here is a good old fashioned tip.. you want your kid to respect you and do as you say? STOP trying to be there friend and BE THEIR PARENT... I know sounds crazy right?

HeatherHaze
HeatherHaze

Just because something is done a particular way for generations doesn't make it the right, or best, way. Science has completely disproved the idea that spanking is effective and necessary in the raising of children. It is neither, and in fact carries more detrimental than beneficial effects. In the past, spanking was the only tool in the toolbox. But now, there are far more effective and positive methods of discipline and teaching. But it is up to modern parents to learn these techniques and apply them, rather than simply perpetuate the same stone-age barbarism for generation after generation. Old ways are not necessarily better ways. That's why we're not still living in caves and throwing rocks at mammoths.

vance.ogden
vance.ogden

A joke. Here's my proof the study is junk science. Years ago spanking was accepted as the standard for discipline but we had no school shootings and kids that overall were not even close to being as aggressive then or later in life. Now when physical discipline is much less accepted. It's sad. Kids bringing weapons to school, going "postal" and shooting or stabbing people and as adults more so too. To the person that says the people that grew up as normal well-adjusted folk even tho they were spanked, then there must have been one heck of a lot of exceptions back then. I could make thw opposite case that removing some traditional punishments that were used back then has caused today's problems. Do you think domestic violence really is a lesser problem in today's society then in the 50's? Don't make me laugh. Find me a year from back then with as many cases as now. Good luck finding even one.

mleduc81
mleduc81

How do you explain Sweden? Spanking is forbidden and they don't have school shootings. However, another factor with Sweden is that it is the "best country" to be a parent. Longer and PAID maternity leaves, daycare set up in businesses close to the working mom, etc. Children's mental health and education seems to be valued a lot more than money in their country. Maybe the US should get their priorities straight and we will finally see the end of school shootings.

MarthaLoven
MarthaLoven

@vance.ogden Domestic violence used to be accepted to the point, at least when it was a husband hitting his wife, that it was reported very rarely, if at all. The definition of "normal, well-adjusted person" has also likely changed over the years. Also, hitting is an act of aggression. It doesn't matter if it's directed at a spouse, friend, stranger, or a child. The reasoning/excuse behind it also doesn't change the aggressive nature of a hit, spank, punch, slap, or other type of hit.


Also, this article is about multiple studies, not just one. "In fact, regardless of the age of the children or the size of the sample, none of more than 80 studies on the effects of physical punishment have succeeded in finding positive associations." 


As for the school shootings, I can't think of a single school shooting where the shooter wasn't mentally ill. De-stigmatizing mental illness & making it easier for mentally ill people to get the help they need will make a difference on that issue. Also, finding out what's happening in early childhood to make mental illness worse or appear (will differ in which from person to person) so that we as a species can have a better understanding, leading to better ways of dealing with things and/or treating people will also help. The studies the article is talking about are doing just that in one particular area. Finding more constructive, educational discipline won't solve everything, but that doesn't mean it's not a step in the right direction. 

Meleas
Meleas

@mleduc81 oh Sweden is so great... according to a study done in 2003 the child on child violence increased by 518% since spanking was banned in sweden. Very evident that not spanking keeps children from becoming violent... 

scubadiva27
scubadiva27

"none of more than 80 studies on the effects of physical punishment have succeeded in finding positive associations."  Spanking does not mean that a few instances of use will permanently and irreparably damage your child.  It CAN, however, have negative consequences, especially when used inappropriately or with great frequency.  Not every child who was spanked will have the exact same experience, but there are other options for parents who wish to discipline or teach consequences.    I was spanked frequently as a child (and I was not an atypically naughty child) and I internalized that when I fail or do wrong, I need to be hit.  As a result, I have had a terrible struggle with self-harm as an adult.  My brother exemplifies the results of the study, having problems with aggression, rage, drug and alcohol abuse, and emotional regulation, and I would estimate that he and I were spanked equally through childhood.   One particular instance stands out in my memory - at about 13 years old, I used a colloquial phrase for the first time, thinking that it meant something harmless.  When my father heard it, he assumed that I was trying to antagonize and be offensive, so I received a hard slap across the face.  It may have been a spank under different circumstances, but we were riding in the car.  This could have been a great opportunity for us to build rapport with each other and for him to teach me something, but without checking for understanding he decided to hit me.  I am not telling you how to raise your children, but I know how I am raising my son - with no spanking.  What I want to ask you is: if you could redirect, reinforce desired behaviors or teach your children empathy and consequences without hitting them, wouldn't you?

cowgirlcoffeezandgrub
cowgirlcoffeezandgrub

this is B.S. there is a difference between a spanking and a beating, I was spanked as a child. It took 3 spankings through my life, for 3 different events, basically , to not dis obey my parents. I turned out to be respectful, honest, loving, giving, a darn good person. I RESPECT my parents for disciplining me. I am thankful they loved me enough to give me a but spanking when I needed it.  it taught me to have respect, and be considerate of others, along with other values. if I didn't learn this, Where would I be. not the person I am today. so don't tell me a but spanking is bad, gives low self esteem, and so on.  Its bad parenting when parents are out of control and inflict abuse on kids, that's different than a but whooping. and my 3rd but kicking I was 15 years old, 10 min after my discipline , Dad came in and we hugged and cried together, to reinforce our love for each other, I also used this technique on my children. I also realized even at  the age of 15, if I didn't respect my parents rules,( which by the way for my own good)  I wasn't too old for the discipline. so ya seeing this rubbed a sore spot on my but, more than the but kicking I earned.   I feel sorry for the kids who grew up with abusive parents that didn't know how to parent correctly.

russellmbrown
russellmbrown

I think the point is, they could've achieved that without violence, and made you less likely to be a psychopath in the process. It's not that spanking never works, it's that it is a generally ineffective and dangerous tool in aggregate, compared to other tools of discipline.

LetitiaBrock
LetitiaBrock

I don't think dropping a toothbrush into the toilet would warrant a spanking. Me and my brothers all got spankings and we are very succesful and have never hit anyone.  One person's oopinoin that i totally disagree with.

russellmbrown
russellmbrown

You're using an extremely subjective and anecdotal example. First, you don't know if your brothers secretly suffer from conditions like depression as a result of spankings. Second, the author nor the studies claim spanking never works, they're saying it's a generally ineffective and dangerous method which fails more often than other methods and shouldn't be used, because better alternatives are available that will more reliably produce positive long term results. It would be like somebody saying "You shouldn't text and drive, it's dangerous. " and you replying "Nonsense, I've never personally been in a car accident while texting and driving, therefore it's just your opinion and it's perfectly safe."

Meleas
Meleas

@russellmbrown actually there have been several studies which show that spanking when used early, tends to increase school success... 100% of CEOs report having been spanked as children. hmm... it is this selective use of studies which brings all those issues to society.... 

fancytechno
fancytechno

These things always say what not to do instead of recommend what to do, which is the problem. Not everything is as innocently simple as the supplied toothbrush story.

SarahSweeney
SarahSweeney

@fancytechno I agree. If I'm going to be presented with a problem, then offer me a solution. This applies all across the board, not just the spanking issue.

LYRichardson
LYRichardson

There is a HUGE difference between a beating and a spanking, one BRUISES the other STINGS. It's like the difference between punishing and disciplining. 

BrettBenischek
BrettBenischek

@LYRichardson That's not a huge difference. The action is the same--you are still hitting a child.

mleduc81
mleduc81

The physical pain is just a small part of the damage.

russellmbrown
russellmbrown

Do you think a child cares if you leave a bruise? They care it hurts. Only ignorant parents who want to prove they aren't doing anything wrong use the bruise example. No bruises just means you probably aren't endangering the child's phtsical health, but says nothing of the mental ramifications, which is the entire point of the story. So congrats, your child isn't physically damaged from your spanking. They're far more likely to have long term psychological issues though.

Mookienuke
Mookienuke

I was spanked and have never put my hands on a woman or even called a woman out of name. Also I'm far frome aggressive. So who's doing these studies?

MattLoveless
MattLoveless

You're what's called the "exception" as opposed to the "rule". It's great that you don't hit women, but the study suggests that getting hit by your parents doesn't help.

Thanks to spanking/belts, I was taught that the solution to a problem was violence, aggression, and fear. And while I too have never hit another person or an animal, the emotional toll that took as an adolescent was pretty severe. Fortunately for some people, including myself, it's possible to overcome that when you get to age 15, 16 and lead an aggression-less life, but hitting makes that more difficult.

I always say, if you can't be more creative in your discipline than inflicting physical harm, then parenting may not be for you.

Also the statement: "(insert parental misstep here) and I turned out fine" is the worst defense for bad behavior I've ever heard of.

eagleeye_s1
eagleeye_s1

Totally agree. I still do not a child's Brain is located there. And, again there is a deference between a spanking and a beating.

LetitiaBrock
LetitiaBrock

@MattLoveless 

I think the study is biased. There could be a millioin reasons why children are aggressive and it doesn't have to do anything with them getting a spanking. My parent spanked but I always knew I was love, cared for and protected.  it didn't kill us and we're all successful, never been to jail, or anything.

russellmbrown
russellmbrown

Anecdotal evidence. The study never claimed 100%, it said 'more likely'. You probably lack the intelligence to understand the difference though, because of all the spankings lowering your IQ.

russellmbrown
russellmbrown

The studies aren't biased. They are correlative, not causative. They correlate higher aggression in those spanked. Spanking in a household could be indicative of other aspects of their home life based on parenting styles common to spankers causing that aggression. Could be many things. The point is, they made a statistical correlation. That's not ssomething you dismiss because you dont like the possible implications.

russellmbrown
russellmbrown

Not to a small child. They don't know bruised from not. They just know it hurt.

russellmbrown
russellmbrown

There should be a response to bad behavior. It doesn't need to be violent.

LetitiaBrock
LetitiaBrock

@MattLoveless 

Bad behavior is just that. when it happens, take care ot it. A lot of parents do nothing. If there are no consequences. then they repeat the behavior.