The Case Against Spanking

May 12, 2021 • by Marc Airhart

Liz Gershoff thinks that as a society, we should get away from the idea that violence is integral to teaching children.

Portrait of a woman with glasses

Physical punishment, or spanking, is widely practiced in the U.S. and around the world, although it appears to be decreasing. Parents, caregivers and school administrators who use it say the goal is to prevent unwanted behaviors and teach children to make better choices. But does it actually work? And what long term effects does it have on the physical and mental health of people who are punished this way?

In today's special episode, we're teaming up with Ike Evans, producer of the Into the Fold podcast, to jointly interview one of the world's experts on physical punishment, Liz Gershoff. She's a professor in the University of Texas at Austin's Department of Human Development and Family Sciences and the director of the Population Research Center. She's been studying the effects of physical discipline on children for two decades and advocating for an end to the practice.

Show Notes

If you're interested in digging deeper, check out Into the Fold Episode 22: Restorative Discipline in Schools.

Listen to other great episodes of Into the Fold.

Music for today's show was produced by: Podington Bear


The following transcript is condensed and edited for clarity:

First, can you help us with a definition? It's already illegal to abuse children physically. What separates physical punishment like spanking from illegal child abuse?

The answer is really that it's arbitrary. In the United States, typically, physical abuse is an injury lasting more than 24 hours, so something like a cut or broken bone, a bruise, a welt. Things that that leave less-lasting marks, so spanking and slapping, tend to leave a red mark, that probably goes away in a short amount of time. Those don't rise to the level of abuse in our country. Now, other countries have decided that that's a fairly arbitrary distinction, and that any kind of hitting of another person should not be acceptable. So there's now 63 countries where it's entirely illegal to strike a child. But in the United States, we've made this exception to allow hitting of children, both in home and in school.

How did you first get interested in studying the effects of this type of punishment on children?

I got interested in it back when I was in college. I was volunteering at a research project that interviewed parents about discipline. And parents were given the scenario of a child reaching for a hot stove. And they were asked, What would you do if your child did that? And then the parents would say, Yell or grab the child's hand or something. And then the interviewer would say, What would you do if they did it a second time? What if they did it a third time? And what was interesting to me is parents definitely escalated, the more times children were not listening to them, they're more likely to get to physical punishment by that second or third time. But then there's also some parents who just right out of the gate, hit children or hurt them, or even did things like put the child's hand on the hot stove, so they could see how hot it was.

What I don't understand is the first reaction being a violent and hurtful one for children. Why would that be a good way to teach children? It didn't fit with anything else I was learning about how children develop, and how children learn, and how much of what they learn is based on relationships with parents, with friends, with teachers, and that if you have someone hurting another person, that's not going to be a very helpful relationship. And so that made me think, Well, why would that work? Why would that be a good thing? And why do we have centuries of evidence of people doing this to children, and does it really work?

And so that drove me to do my first research, which was a meta analysis to look at all the resources out there and say, Okay, what have all these studies found? And that's the first time where I found that there was no evidence that children are better behaved, the more they're physically punished. And so that has kind of led me down a path of research to really understand, is that true for all children? Is that true across cultures? Is that true over time? Is that true for lots of different outcomes? And so that's led me to all this different research I've done for the last 20 years.

Over the years, you've looked at all sorts of impacts of physically punishing children -- from mental health to anti-social behaviors to cognitive impairment. In all that work, what are some of the most remarkable things you've found?

I think a couple things have been interesting. One has to do with culture, because people have asked me, well in my culture, it's very common to spank children and we believe very strongly that it's important to spank children and so in our culture, it works.

What my colleagues and I found was, it didn't really matter which culture a child was from, even if physical punishment is very common in that culture. So we looked at six different countries, and some countries had higher rates than others. But in all those countries, the more a child was spanked, the more aggressive and anxious they were. In the United States, we did a study with 13,000 children, a nationally representative study. And we looked at four different race and ethnic groups: White, Black, Latinx, and Asian American children. And there were differences in how often parents use physical punishment. But once you took that into account, there was no difference in how spanking predicted behavior, it wasn't good for any of the children. None of the children's behavior got better over time. For all four of those groups, the more children were spanked, the more aggressive they were over time.

Besides aggression, are there are some other major impacts you see?

We see that the more children are physically punished, the more mental health problems they have, more anxiety, more depression. And that makes sense, because you could imagine children who are being hit or threatened with being hit a lot will be anxious and fearful and afraid of their parents. Over time, you'll start to internalize that as an overall anxiety.

The discourse around spanking within the Black community is charged. Have you gotten feedback or even critiques that affected your approach or your lens?

I definitely have gotten a lot of feedback about this kind of research. I take a universal, human rights-oriented approach now. I don't think that people should hurt each other. I don't think anybody should be allowed to hit anybody else. And as a society, we've decided that's true for adults, right? It doesn't matter what color your skin is, a spouse cannot hit their spouse. We just don't allow that. That's illegal, it's assault. And so I apply that same lens to children. I don't see any difference between hitting children based on their religion or their culture or where they live in the country or the color of their skin. All of us hurt when we're hit. It's painful, it's scary. It can be anger inducing.

I totally understand the rationale that many parents give, and when I talk to African American parents, one of the rationales that I often hear is, well, we live in a racist society, we live in a violent neighborhood, we live in a dangerous place. And we want to make sure that our children are listening to us and making good choices. And because they would rather discipline the child themselves than have the police involved. And I completely get that. To me, what's sad about that is that hitting children actually makes it more likely they're going to get involved with the police, because it's making them more aggressive, it's driving them out of the house. And that's a hard conversation to have.

I understand that instinct, to want to protect your children. But we have to, as a society, get away from the idea that violence is integral to teaching children. It's just not. There's no evidence that you have to hit the child to help them learn something. It makes it hard for them to do what parents want, if that same parent is hurting them. And I realize this is hard for people to get their minds around. Most of us were physically punished. I was physically punished as a child. I get it. But we have to let go of this idea that you need to hurt kids to help them. That's just not true.

I'm sure if you asked parents and school administrators why they use physical discipline, they'd say it's to change unwanted behaviors. But your work finds that it actually does the opposite. Aside from the harm it causes, why doesn't physical discipline work?

What physical punishment does is it gets people's attention. But it doesn't on its own teach children. If somebody slapped me right now, it would get my attention, right? There are other ways to get kids' attention. You can say their name, you can raise your voice, you can tap them on the shoulder, you can get in their face, you can sit down with them on the floor, there's many other ways to get kids' attention. It's what happens after that that's crucial. That's when the teaching happens.

As parents, our job is really to help children learn how to make choices. Because life is full of choices. And we want to make sure children are given the skills to make those choices that will be best for them and won't harm other people. And we want them to do that when we're not around. And so if the only time they do it is when we're around, because they're afraid we're going to hit them, that's not very effective discipline, because as soon as we're gone, they'll do whatever they want. They haven't internalized the reasons why it's important to share.

I know this is a fraught topic for people, precisely because spanking is so mainstream. Many of us were spanked, many of us do spank. To me it's kind of remarkable how under-discussed a topic this is for how common it is. Does your research give you any insight into that disconnect?

People don't see spanking as hitting. They'll say, Well I don't hit my child, I spank my child. And so by saying that, they're rationalizing the behavior and compartmentalizing. It's like, Well this is an okay kind of violence because it's spanking, it's not hitting.

We need people to really grapple with what has been done to them as children. I grew up in the '70s. My parents' car did not have seatbelts when I was a kid, and so my siblings and I, we just rolled around in the back of the car. There were no seatbelts, no car seats for the babies. The babies were in laundry baskets in the wheelhouse, you know, crazy times. Now, luckily, we were not in a car accident, none of my siblings and I died. Thank God. Do I want to keep doing that? Because I survived? No, I don't want to do what my parents did. And in fact, my parents, when they became grandparents did not do that either. They also realized, you know what, let's put the grandkids in seat belts in cars. It's because we know better now. So just because our parents did something with us, doesn't mean we should do it with our own children. We can learn.

It's so easy to second-guess parents about what they should do. What can you tell us about how we can incentivize parents to do something different?

I had a son who was very aggressive. When he was three he hit me a lot. I don't know why. This was just his way of getting out his frustration. And so when he did that, I remember distinctly thinking this is exactly when somebody wants to hit their child. I felt the anger, I felt the frustration, I felt like nothing I'm doing is working. I totally get that. And it took a lot of self-control. I thought I need to get out and move away from him so that I'm not going to be hurt anymore. And I need to come up with a different solution. It's definitely hard.

The main incentive for parents is that your children will actually be better behaved if you don't hit them. And that's hard for people who are already hitting to understand, because they think, well, if I don't spank them, then I'm not going to discipline them. We don't want to take away discipline entirely. We don't want children running wild and doing dangerous things. But that's not the solution.

The solution is to do all the other things that we do -- just take the hitting part out -- all the talking, the consequences, having children make reparations. If they've drawn on the wall, they've got to clean it up. If they hurt somebody they've got to apologize and try to make it better. We just keep doing all of that. I know lots of parents of all religions and races who have found ways to discipline without hitting. So it's definitely possible. You have to make a commitment to doing it. The ultimate motivator is really, if you want better behaved children, hitting them is not the answer. You actually are making your job harder by hitting them, because their behavior gets worse over time.

You recently gave a talk at the Texas Science Festival called, "Coming Down from the Ivory Tower: Using Research to Advocate for Children." Can you describe for our listeners some of your journey from pure researcher to advocate, and how comfortable are you wearing that mantle now compared to when you started?

Starting 20 years ago, I knew I was wading into a very controversial area. I was not a parent at the time. But as a social scientist, I came at this from a data driven point of view. I wanted to know, are parents right? Is physical punishment effective? Maybe they're right, let's just look at the research. And so I was able to find these hundreds of studies. There's nothing like it in science, where you just find the same thing over, over, over, I mean, just hundreds of times. And after a while I thought, I can't stay silent about this anymore.

I feel a moral obligation, honestly. If I was a researcher on smoking, and I did 15 years of research and found smoking caused lung cancer, at a certain point, I would feel the obligation to tell people, you've got to change your behavior, it's dangerous, it's hurting you. And so I kind of felt like it wasn't enough to just stay by the side.

And so that's why now I'm involved in these efforts to ban corporal punishment in schools. Because many people around the country just don't even realize this is still happening in schools and that around 100,000 kids every year are getting paddled in schools.

Looking at all the data on the impacts on children must be pretty depressing. What makes you hopeful?

When I see that the trends in parents reporting spanking are going down over the last 20 years, that makes me hopeful. It makes me hopeful that parents are trying other methods and finding that they work better. And so it might take a generation to really complete that process.

Sweden was the first country to pass a ban in 1979. And when they passed it, they were where we are. Half their population thought that spanking was perfectly fine. But then that next generation that was born after the ban, when those kids grew up, they were like, What? No, it's not okay to hit kids. So they grew up under a different way of thinking about parenting. And so that makes me hopeful, it shows that we can change and we can move away from this continued use of hitting children as discipline. So I think we're moving in the right direction.

I'm also inspired by the fact that this bill to ban corporal punishment in schools may have a chance in passing Congress. I think that would just be such a wonderful thing. If that happens, that will make my decade.