Spanking children doesn’t work and creates problems, 50 years of research shows
Studies consistently show that physically disciplining children has unintended negative outcomes, making them aggressive and causing learning difficulties and mental health problems
Will sparing the rod really spoil the child?
The straight answer: no
The facts: rather than spoiling the child, sparing physical punishment can actually set a youngster up for better behaviour and development. In a new study published in this month’s Journal of Family Psychology, experts reviewed 50 years of research on spanking and found that the more children are spanked, the more likely they are to defy their parents and to experience increased antisocial behaviour, aggression, mental health problems and cognitive difficulties.
Spanking, which the researchers defined as an open-handed hit on the behind or extremities, was associated with negative outcomes consistently across the wide range of studies analysed that involved a total of more than 160,000 children, the researchers say.
“We found that spanking was associated with unintended detrimental outcomes and was not associated with more immediate or long-term compliance, which are parents’ intended outcomes when they discipline their children,” says Elizabeth Gershoff, an associate professor of human development and family sciences at the University of Texas at Austin in the US.
Co-author Andrew Grogan-Kaylor, an associate professor at the University of Michigan School of Social Work, emphasises: “Spanking thus does the opposite of what parents usually want it to do.”
Gershoff and Grogan-Kaylor tested for some long-term effects among adults who were spanked as children. The more they were spanked, the more likely they were to exhibit antisocial behaviour and to experience mental health problems. They were also more likely to support physical punishment for their own children, which highlights one of the key ways that attitudes towards physical punishment are passed from generation to generation.
Both 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 behaviours,” says Gershoff. “Yet our research shows that spanking is linked with the same negative child outcomes as abuse, just to a slightly lesser degree.”
As many as 80 per cent of parents around the world spank their children, according to a 2014 Unicef report. Gershoff notes that this persistence of spanking is in spite of the fact that there is no clear evidence of positive effects from spanking and ample evidence that it poses a risk of harm to children’s behaviour and development.
She adds that the study results are consistent with a report released recently by the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention that called for “public engagement and education campaigns and legislative approaches to reduce corporal punishment”, including spanking, as a means of reducing physical child abuse.
“We hope that our study can help educate parents about the potential harms of spanking and prompt them to try positive and non-punitive forms of discipline,” she says.