Dozens of studies in recent years have shown a connection between spanking and behavior problems in children later in life. But a recent study in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, took those findings a step farther by using a statistical method to approximate random assignment, so that researchers could better confirm that an increase in behavior problems is attributed directly to spanking, and not to various characteristics of the children, parents, or home environment.

Lead author Elizabeth T. Gershoff (University of Texas at Austin) and coauthors Kierra M. P. Sattler (University of Texas at Austin) and Arya Ansari (University of Virginia) examined data from 12,112 children who participated in a nationally representative Early Childhood Longitudinal Study. When the children were five years old, their parents reported how many times they had spanked their child in the past week (if at all). Any child with a number greater than zero was categorized as having been spanked. The researchers then compared children who had been spanked with those who hadn’t using 38 child- and family-related characteristics, including: “the child’s age, gender, overall health, and behavior problems at age five; the parent’s education, age, and marital status; the family socioeconomic status and household size; and factors related to parenting quality and conflict in the home.”

To measure the children’s behavior over time, Gershoff, Sattler, and Ansari studied teachers’ ratings when the children were five, six, and eight years old. The teachers “reported the frequency with which the children argued, fought, got angry, acted impulsively, and disturbed ongoing activities.” The results showed that children who had been spanked by age five demonstrated larger increases in behavioral issues by age six and age eight relative to children who had never been spanked.

The study team then executed a similar analysis, this time looking only at the children who had been spanked by their parents. They compared the kids who were frequently spanked with those who were not. Children who’d been spanked in the past week at age five (which suggested frequent spanking) showed more of an increase in behavioral problems at age six and eight compared to children who were not spanked as often.

These findings suggest that spanking is not only an ineffective technique, but that it also makes children’s behavior worse.

“The fact that knowing whether a child had ever been spanked was enough to predict their levels of behavior problems years later was a bit surprising,” Gershoff remarks. “It suggests that spanking at any frequency is potentially harmful to children.”

This scientific evidence adds support to Gershoff’s preexisting work, a meta analysis of 50 years of research involving over 160,000 children, which shows that the more children are spanked, the more apt they are to disobey their parents and exhibit increased anti-social behavior, aggression, mental health problems, and cognitive difficulties. A recent study out of the University of Michigan also reveals an association between the experience of being spanked as a child and mental health issues in adulthood, including depression, substance abuse, and suicide attempts.

With so much literature pointing to the adverse (not to mention ineffective) impact of spanking, it’s more important than ever for parents to have accessible information about healthy alternatives, positive parenting strategies. In a recent article published in the journal Child Abuse & Neglect, Gershoff and colleagues Shawna J. Lee and Joan E. Durrant outline a variety of programs and interventions designed to prevent and reduce physical punishment by parents, to be implemented through community based and clinical agencies, home visitation, media, and medical settings with the goals of:

  • Teaching skills to promote positive parent-child interactions
  • Modifying parents’ beliefs and attitudes about physical punishment
  • Teaching positive discipline approaches, including: providing children with praise and encouragement, routines, limit-setting, and problem-solving strategies
  • Increasing parents’ empathy for and appropriate expectations about their children
  • Teaching parents stress-management and anger-management techniques
  • Building nurturing parenting skills such as affirming, listening, and reassuring
  • Cognitive retraining to change how parents perceive and respond to conflict and how they view their parenting efficacy
  • Education about children’s emotional, social, and cognitive development from infancy to adolescence
  • Coaching parents in and creating a framework for non-punitive problem-solving
  • Helping parents understand children’s rights to “protection, dignity, and participation in their learning (e.g., time-out, taking away privilege, saying no)”
  • Teaching parents positive guidance techniques, such as redirection and offering choices

In conclusion, Gershoff says that, “Continuing evaluation of these and other approaches would be of great service to the field and to parents and children around the world.”

I couldn’t agree more. As hard as parenting is, it’s even harder to be a vulnerable kid. All of our children deserve discipline that guides them and teaches them in a loving, respectful way.