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Spanking Your Children – What Are the Effects?

One of the most long-standing debates in parenting circles is whether or not to spank your children. There are those who believe it is absolutely necessary and others who are fundamentally opposed to the practice. Of course, there are also those who fall somewhere in between the two extremes. However, new research is emerging about the long term effects of spanking, and the information may change opinions.

It seems as though every parent has a personal opinion about spanking. In my years of working with hundreds of parents, I have heard many different beliefs about the discipline strategy. Parents have told me they only use an object (brush, paddle, wooden spoon, etc.) when they spank so the child is not hit by their hand. Another told me she only spanks when it is teaching a lesson about safety. I also had one tell me he spanks and then hugs, so the child knows he still loves her.

Regardless of what your thoughts are about spanking, it is a common practice. Over 54% of 2500 moms surveyed in a recent study reported spanking their three year old at least once in the past month. That means for every two moms with toddlers, one of them is spanking as part of their discipline routine. Or, in other words, for every two toddlers that you see, one of them is being spanked. That actually surprises me, which is pretty difficult to do.

So, what kind of parents are most likely to be spanking? First, spanking is most common among young, uneducated, stressed, low-income or single parents. Second, it is more common in the South, in conservative Christian homes, and among parents who were spanked themselves as children. Finally, African American parents were the most likely to spank, more than Caucasian or Hispanic parents.

Further, what are the long-term effects of spanking on children, according to the research? Children who were spanked at age three were 50 percent more likely to be aggressive at age five. Also, studies indicate that spanking can be as far reaching as marital aggression in adulthood. The study showed that among adults who were not spanked as kids, 6 or 7 percent had hit their partner in the past 12 months. Among those who were spanked the most, it went up to 25 percent.

Interestingly, The American Academy of Pediatrics came out with a statement on corporal punishment in 1998. Among other things, it says you should not hit kids under a certain age or over age 6 or 7. Implicitly, it’s free rein on kids between 2 and 6. Sadly, this is a stage of development most would agree requires trust, attachment, love, support and encouragement. Spanking could arguably break all of those needs in a child during that time, creating lasting impact on emotional, social and psychological development.

For those parents who choose to spank, there are certain things that should be kept in mind. First, spanking should never occur in anger. If you spank when you are angry, it teaches your child that it is okay to act out aggressively when they are mad. That breeds violence at the first sign of frustration. Second, a child under the age of three does not have the cognitive capacity to understand how being spanked correlates with doing something inappropriate. Their brains work in a “here and now” manner, and an action five minutes ago does not relate to this very moment. Finally, a child needs to clearly understand why they are being spanked. Hitting a child in discipline is NOT effective if they do not connect the behavior to the consequence. So, you will need to actually say the words, “I spanked you because…” after you do so. It is not enough to think that they “know why they are getting punished”.

For those who choose not to spank, or for those deciding they no longer want to spank, there are many other effective approaches to discipline. First, you need to clearly communicate expectations and rules to children. That may mean writing the rules down on a board, having a weekly family meeting, reminding them gently throughout the day, etc. It is unreasonable to punish a child if they have not fully grasped what is expected of them in a calm and loving way. Second, you can approach your discipline in a very specific manner. I have written past articles on Limit Setting or Discipline Techniques that you can read. Finally, positive reinforcement is the most effective behavior modification tool, even though punishment is the most widely used. So, acknowledge when your child behaves appropriately more frequently than you catch them breaking the rules and they will naturally strive to make appropriate decisions.

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  • TBD TherapistByDay

    In every developmental psych class I took, Piaget, Erikson, etc… define ages 2-6 as corporal. If a child interprets the world through their bodies, then it seems sensical to also communicate consequences in the same way. Isn’t speaking their language the most loving thing to do? Reasoning with a pre-schooler is not only ineffective but cruel if they cannot process and respond to it.

  • Melissa Benko

    I am very opposed to spanking, I was hit as a child by hand, switches, and belts. It taught me nothing but fear. When I have children, I will never lay a hand on them in that way, my brother and sister feel the same.