Should You Spank Your Kid? The Great Debate

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Whether you remember that painful and embarrassing smack on the bottom or have blocked it out, chances are, you were spanked when you were a kid. Nearly 90 percent of Americans say they were spanked by their parents, the same as in 1995, according to a 2013 Harris Interactive poll of 2,286 adults.

The majority of Americans (81%) believe that spanking is sometimes appropriate, compared to nearly 20 percent who say it’s never okay to spank a child, according to the poll. This week, the Pope even weighed in on spanking, saying that one trait of a good father is the ability to forgive but also to “correct with firmness.” He elaborated that not striking a child on his or her face will preserve their dignity. 

Is spanking a successful form of punishment? Or are we sending a confusing message to kids that it’s wrong to hit another person — unless mom or dad does it?

The Research

Multiple studies show that kids who are spanked frequently at age three and older are more likely to act aggressively than kids who aren’t spanked. And an October 2013 study says that children who were spanked at ages three and five had vocabulary problems at age nine. “We found that there were impacts not just on the behavioral development that folks normally look at, but also on markers of cognitive development, like the verbal capacity of the child,” Michael Mackenzie, co-author of the study and an associate professor at the Columbia University School of Social Work, tells HealthDay. “These effects are long-lasting. They aren’t just short-term problems that wash out over time.”

A 2009 study even found that “harsh” corporal punishment (defined as at least one spanking per month for more than three years), sometimes with an object such as a belt or hairbrush, alters the structure of the brain. Children who were spanked regularly—a chronic, developmental stressor that’s associated with depression, aggression and addiction—had less gray matter in certain areas of the prefrontal cortex.

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What the Experts Say

"Research shows that spanking corrects misbehavior,” Murray Straus, professor emeritus of sociology at the University of New Hampshire, tells ScienceDaily. “But it also shows that spanking does not work better than other modes of correction, such as time out, explaining, and depriving a child of privileges. Moreover, the research clearly shows that the gains from spanking come at a big cost. These include weakening the tie between children and parents and increasing the probability that the child will hit other children and their parents, and as adults, hit a dating or marital partner. Spanking also slows down mental development and lowers the probability of a child doing well in school.”

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Stacy Drury, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Tulane University, agrees. “The goal of discipline, which actually comes from the Latin root meaning ‘to teach,’ is to change behavior,” Drury says in an interview with the New Republic. “And physical discipline across many, many, many studies is ineffective at changing behavior and it’s ineffective for many reasons … corporal punishment actually teaches children is that aggression is an acceptable method of problem solving.”

She adds: “When corporal punishment is utilized, it creates an emotional state of fear in the child. Physical pain leads children to fear things and when we are afraid, we don’t learn well. We don’t respond well. And if we’re learning anything, we learn to respond to that behavior with fear. And the third thing that corporal punishment actually teaches children is that aggression is an acceptable method of problem solving.”

Spanking is also not advised by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). From its website Healthy Children: “Spanking is never recommended; infants may be physically harmed by a parent who strikes the child. If a spanking is spontaneous, parents should later explain calmly why they did it, the specific behavior that provoked it, and how angry they felt. They also might apologize to their child for their loss of control. This usually helps the youngster to understand and accept the spanking, and it models for the child how to remediate a wrong.”

Yet there is one form of spanking that, according to Robert Larzelere, professor of research methodology and statistics at Oklahoma State University, tells the Los Angeles Times, may be somewhat effective. “In reviewing all the literature that compares various kinds of punishment, there’s one that leads to better outcomes, reduced defiance and reduced aggression in children, and that’s what I call backup spanking,” he says. “In disciplining children, parents should do everything as kindly and gently as they can first. They should try to understand a child, make sure the child understands what is expected of them, use reasoning and find an adequate nonphysical consequence, like a ‘timeout’ or taking away privileges. But if the child won’t cooperate, some kids—at least some of the time—need something more forceful to back it up.” 

What the Parents Say

“Spanking is okay if used sparingly. Unfortunately, sometimes it takes something completely out of left field to make your kids realize they need to take you seriously. I wish talking to them did the job.” —Melissa G.

“I’ve never spanked my kids, but there are times I regret it. I think we’ve raised a generation of children who know they aren’t ever going to get spanked, and that’s just one more way their misdeeds won’t have tangible repercussions. I remember being spanked twice—neither really hurt. Both were embarrassing. They made me realize I had rules I couldn’t break. Now, where is that line for kids?” —Shawn P.

“I’ve definitely had the thought, ‘I wish I believed in spanking right now. I just want this behavior to stop.’ But my mom hit me once, and I still remember the devastation in that moment more than I remember what I did wrong. Whatever lesson was supposed to be learned, wasn’t. All it engendered in me was mistrust.” —Amy K.

The Bottom Line

A single smack on the tush, followed quickly by an explanation of why your child was spanked, likely won’t mar your kid for life. But regular spankings as a go-to form of punishment are not recommended and can have negative emotional and physical consequences for your child.

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