Spanking is in the news again. If you a parent sorting through the debate, you will typically see two viewpoints—some say that spanking is unacceptable or “wrong” and others argue that it is necessary and “right.” I suggest the debate centers around a different question: is spanking effective? And this is where research can, at a minimum, provide some information that parents can consider.
The most important conclusion that researchers are coming to these days is that spanking is associated with behavior problems over time. Many studies have shown this and continue to come up with this result. For example, a paper just published online in the journal Child Development reported the results of a study of over 11,000 families, chosen to reflect a nationally representative sample of US families. Parents and their kids participated when the kids were in kindergarten, and again when they were in third grade. Parents were asked—at both times —if they ever spanked their child, if they spanked their child in the past week, and if so, how frequently they spanked in the last week. Teachers provided an independent report of the kids’ behavior problems (things like acting out, arguing, fighting) during kindergarten and third grade. The results? Spanking was associated with behavior problems in kindergarten and third grade—and behavior problems were associated with spanking.
These results suggest spanking is not effective because it predicts later problems and also becomes part of a cycle of negative parent-child interaction (as kids problems get worse, parents spank in reaction). What I would like to highlight is that the lens for evaluating effectiveness here is not in the moment, but rather over time. And this is where the difference of opinion can emerge. In the moment, spanking may produce a desired result—the behavior in question goes away. But over time, it may not produce the desired result—it does not lead to better behavior, and in fact may lead to worse behavior.
All of this is said with full knowledge that the vast majority of US parents (80 percent or more) report that they have spanked their kids at some point in time. Many will say that they see that it works. Many will say that spanking was part of their childhood and it taught them right from wrong. Research doesn’t speak to any one individual’s story. What I suggest, from the perspective of a researcher, is that parents revisit their motivations for spanking. If it’s reactive and emotional, we know that there is no lesson learned there for a child—and it could spiral out of control. If it’s purposeful and used as a form of discipline, I would at least say that you consider other methods that can be used that don’t involve physical contact, simply because, unlike spanking, they have all been shown in research studies to be effective in producing positive changes in children’s behavior over time.
Richard Rende is an associate professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown Medical School and Butler Hospital. He deciphers the latest child health and development studies on his blog Red-Hot Parenting.