What About Spanking?
Ronald L. Pitzer, Family Sociologist and Professor — Family Social Science
Reviewed November 2008 by Kathleen A. Olson, Program Director — Partnering for school success.
Should parents spank or not? Some parents think spanking is the right thing to do when their children misbehave. Others believe any form of spanking is wrong and harmful.
Why Parents Spank
Parents spank their children for a variety of reasons.
- Spanking is easy to do and requires little thought on the part of parents.
- It seems to work. The child may stop misbehaving. But it is important to realize two things: 1) Spanking does not stop misbehavior any better than do other firm tactics; 2) Children often repeat the behavior for which they were spanked. It usually takes several repetitions of any disciplinary technique (including spanking) before the lesson is learned and the behavior is changed.
- It sends a clear message of disapproval. Children know immediately their parents are upset with their behavior. But an angry, concerned, or upset parental expression or tone of voice is also obvious to a child.
What's Wrong with Spanking
There are many teaching, nurturing, and disciplining tools available to parents that are more effective and less harmful than spanking and other forms of physical punishment.
- Spanking is humiliating and demeaning to both parent and child, often lowering self-esteem and morale. Children with low self-esteem are more likely to repeat the misbehavior, which leads to more spanking. Things get worse instead of better.
- Spanking sets a violent example, teaching children that hitting is the way to solve problems. Research consistently shows that children who are spanked are more likely to use physical force against siblings and peers, and later against their own spouse and children.
- Spanking can lead to battering and child abuse. It is estimated that 85-90 percent of child abuse cases were attempts to discipline by the use of physical punishment that got out of control. Spanking in the heat of anger, when a parent has more strength and less control, can lead to serious injury. Spanking after the anger has cooled may be less likely to lead to physical damage, but also is less effective in correcting behavior, since the punishment is so far removed from the offense.
- Children who are spanked may come to resent or fear their parents. Research studies have found that 40-50 percent of people, when asked how they felt when spanked, reported they “hated parent.” These emotions keep them from wanting to change their behavior and from learning how to do so. Also, each episode of physical punishment chips away at the bond of affection between parent and child.
- Children who are spanked may refrain from repeating the misbehavior, but they obey out of fear. Instead of learning to differentiate between right and wrong, they only learn to differentiate between what they get spanked for and don't get spanked for. They rarely learn self-discipline. Research has shown that children who are regularly or often spanked are less compliant with parental wishes when out of the presence of the punisher than are children who are not spanked (but are disciplined for their actions).
- Spanking hinders development of empathy, remorse, compassion, and conscience — because children spanked as a disciplinary technique focus on their own pain rather than considering the effect of their behavior on others.
- Spanking, especially when frequent and/or severe, is associated with a number of psychological and behavioral outcomes in later life — low self-esteem, anger, fear, depression, alienation, alcoholism, emotional instability and unresponsiveness, dependence, and abusiveness, among others.
Changing Spanking Behavior
If parents do not know any other choices or tools for handling misbehavior and teaching their children, they will be more likely to spank their children. Parents can avoid spanking if they know more effective ways to discipline their children. Explore other options as described on the resources linked in the following "Related Resources" section
If parents are extremely stressed, they may not be able to think about discipline alternatives and simply lash out. They may need help dealing with their own stress so that they can have stronger parent-child relationships. See the resources on the Dealing with stress and Taking Care of Yourself webpages to get more information and support in this area.
Remember, there are always better choices than spanking.
American Academy of Pediatrics. (1998). Guidance for effective discipline. Pediatrics, 101, 723-728.
Eisenberg, A., Murkoff, H., and Hathaway, S. (1994). What to expect: The toddler years. New York, NY: Workman Publishing Co.
Smith, C. A. (2010). Spanking. In Responsive Discipline: A decision-making approach to guidance in parent-child relationships.
Steinberg, L. (2004). The Ten Basic Principles of Good Parenting. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
Straus, M. A. (1994). Beating the devil out of them: Corporal punishment in American families. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.
University of Minnesota Extension. (1997). Positive parenting II: A video-based parent education curriculum. St. Paul, MN: University of Minnesota Extension. This product is no longer available.
Using Guidance Tools — Explore these strategies to help manage conflict and to teach responsibility to your children.
Setting Limits for Responsive Discipline — Provide a sense of security to your children by setting limits.
Guidelines for Consequences and Setting Limits — Use these guidelines to select effect consequences for your child.
Using 'time out' as a discipline tool — Follow these guidelines to use "time out"s effectively and get ideas for other discipline tools to consider.
Using natural and logical consequences — Get step-by-step instructions for using natural and logical consequences and see examples of this strategy in action.