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To Spank or Not to Spank: Is It Still A Question?

To Spank or Not to Spank: Is It Still A Question?

Elizabeth Gershoff studies the impact of corporal punishment (and other, more severe forms of physical punishment) on children. I sat down with her to ask her the big questions about spanking.

Liz-Gershoff-picture.jpgIn 2002, Elizabeth Gershoff published the first ever meta-analysis of research on the effects of corporal punishment on children.

Now an associate professor in the School of Human Ecology, Gershoff continues to delve into the impact of spanking (and other, more severe forms of physical punishment) on children. She also looks more broadly at the impacts of poverty, community violence, and neighborhoods on child and youth development over time. I sat down with Gershoff recently to ask her the big questions about spanking.

I’d like to begin with a basic question: Is spanking still a common practice in the U.S.?

Elizabeth Gershoff: Most parents still spank, but they do it a lot less frequently than their parents did. Most parents who do spank do it once a month or less, maybe only a couple of times a year. So the prevalence of spanking is still very high (i.e., most parents do it) but the incidence is not (i.e., they don’t do it very often).

That said, it is still the case that the vast majority of children in the U.S. are spanked by their parents at some point. [pullquote]By the time American children reach middle and high school, eighty-five percent have been physically punished, either with a spanking or something harsher.[/pullquote]By the time American children reach middle and high school, eighty-five percent have been physically punished, either with a spanking or something harsher.

Can you sum up what research has to tell us about the effects of spanking on children?

There’s been a lot of research on spanking, going back all the way to the early 1900s, and almost all of it has showed that spanking is associated with negative outcomes for children. It is associated with more aggressive and anti-social behaviors in children. The more frequently or severely children are spanked or hit, the more likely they are to have symptoms of depression or anxiety, both at the time they’re punished and later. There is evidence to suggest that it erodes the connection between children and their parents, making children less likely to trust their parents. There’s even evidence that it is linked with lower child IQ scores.

Several years ago, I published a research meta-analysis, which statistically summarized the outcomes associated with spanking across 89 studies. I found that the only positive outcome linked with corporal punishment was immediate compliance. The more children were spanked, the more they complied in that moment. Over the long term, however, and when their parents weren’t there, spanking did not increase compliance. Even just two weeks later, it didn’t seem to make a difference.

So spanking isn’t good, even when it’s pretty rare.

Right. It doesn’t increase the likelihood of outcomes parents want, but does increase the chance of ones they don’t.

Is there a relationship between spanking and physical abuse? Are parents who spank more likely to escalate that to something more abusive?

Yes, absolutely. There’s a very strong relationship between whether and how often parents spank their children and whether or not parents at some point physically abuse their children. There have been several studies on this issue, and they nearly all find that a majority of incidents of abuse—sixty, seventy, eighty percent—begin as some form of physical punishment.

Most physical abuse, in other words, isn’t inflicted by sadistic parents who are indiscriminately abusing their children. Rather, most abuse begins with a parent wanting to “teach the child a lesson” but then escalates to the point of injury.

That’s part of the argument for getting people to stop altogether, because if you never hit your child, then you won’t do it when you’re too angry to control yourself. When parents who have abused their children are in parenting classes, that’s what they teach them: "You can never hit your child." Just take that out of your repertoire.

Why are so many people still spanking? Aren’t people getting the message?

A few years ago, there was an article on the CNN website that summarized some of my research findings, and right next to the article was a poll asking readers whether they thought spanking children is bad for them. Eighty-some percent said no. And that was right next to the article summarizing all the research saying that it was bad. I realized at that point that it was going to be harder than I had thought to change people’s beliefs about this, because the research goes against their own experience and their own beliefs so they just don’t believe it.

That said, I think parents’ attitudes are changing, as we get more and more parenting experts who are out there saying we should try other things. Folks like Oprah and Bill Cosby have publicly discouraged people from spanking. There are so many more books and experts out there than even a generation ago. For a long time there was Dr. Spock and that was about it–and even he changed his mind. In the original edition of his book, Dr. Spock said it was okay for parents to spank, but in subsequent editions he changed dramatically and strongly discouraged parents from spanking. I think many American parents are similarly conflicted, but still resort to spanking their children once in a while.

Why do you think it is that spanking seems to have such negative effects?

To really answer that question, you would have to talk to children in depth about being spanked, and you’d have to follow them over a very long period of time, and for a variety of reasons it is hard research to do. So it is a great question, but  one for which we don't have a precise answer.

One hypothesis is that when bad things (like spanking) happen to children it makes them more likely to attribute what we call ”hostile intent” to other people. They begin to think that people in general are out to get them, to harm them. If you go through life expecting that kind of response  then you’re much more likely to aggress, to preemptively protect yourself.

There’s a social learning explanation which suggests that children are, in a sense, imitating their parents. They’re not spanking other people, of course, but they might be learning that if you hit someone else than you can get what you want. So when the parent hits the child and the child complies in order to get the hitting to stop, they’ve just seen that it works. They go on to imitate their parent by using aggression to get what they want.

Another mechanism could be that children feel estranged from parents who hit them. [pullquote]There have been a handful of studies that have really talked to children about what it’s like to be hit, and almost always the children talk about how painful and scary it is.[/pullquote]There have been a handful of studies that have really talked to children about what it’s like to be hit, and almost always the children talk about how painful and scary it is. One result of that might be that children will be less likely to listen to their parents in the future. They may want to spend as little time at home as possible, and so the parents won’t have the opportunities to socialize them well.

An additional problem is that parents who spank often may be doing less of the forms of discipline we know are good at teaching children how to behave. For example, if a parent hits their child rather than taking the time reason and explain things to them, then the child may end up poorly behaved because she doesn’t understand what she’s supposed to be doing.

What do you say to people who say, “My parents spanked me, and I turned out fine?”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told that. People believe their parents loved them and did the right thing, so they don’t want to question that. They don’t want to feel like they’re rejecting their parents, or condemning their parents. What I tell people, in response to that argument, is that we have an evolving sense of what’s good for children. When I was young, my parents’ first few cars didn’t have seatbelts. I was never in a carseat. My brothers and sisters and I bounced around in the back of the station wagon. Parents would be horrified by that now, but do I think less of my parents for doing that? No, because that was the norm then. Now we know children will die if you get in an accident and they don’t have a seatbelt or a carseat to protect them. In the same way, our knowledge about what promotes children’s positive development has grown dramatically over the last few decades, and we now know that there are much better ways of teaching children right from wrong than hitting them. We don’t need to condemn what our parents did in the past in order to recognize that we know more now and can act on that knowledge.

So do you think the practice of spanking will end in the U.S.?

It might take generations, but I think spanking children will become increasingly unacceptable as a means of disciplining children and will effectively end. Maybe states will pass laws that ban spanking, as 29 other countries have done. Those countries have done so because they have recognized that spanking violates children’s rights to protection from physical harm. I think that a combination of recognizing that spanking physically and emotionally harms children, and that spanking is entirely ineffective in promoting appropriate behavior, will lead Americans to reduce and eventually stop spanking their children.

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Comments 15

 
Guest - Jack on Saturday, 23 April 2011 17:24

Statistics can be interpreted in a lot of ways, so I'd have to ask questions about how this research was conducted and analyzed. Negative emotions are just a part of things, and it's usually through experiencing some sort of unpleasant stimuli that we look for something better and start problem solving. I was spanked as a child, and sure, I experience depression, anxiety, etc. But I think those emotions are more attributable to the natural flow of energy in life, having a father commit suicide when I was young, moving around a lot as a child, etc. I think that attributing these psychological factors to spanking doesn't quite grasp how complex the mixture of genetic expression and environmental controls interplay. A spank may be what it takes sometimes to let a child know that disrespecting things can lead to a painful experience, just don't beat your kids because you feel like taking things out on them.

Statistics can be interpreted in a lot of ways, so I'd have to ask questions about how this research was conducted and analyzed. Negative emotions are just a part of things, and it's usually through experiencing some sort of unpleasant stimuli that we look for something better and start problem solving. I was spanked as a child, and sure, I experience depression, anxiety, etc. But I think those emotions are more attributable to the natural flow of energy in life, having a father commit suicide when I was young, moving around a lot as a child, etc. I think that attributing these psychological factors to spanking doesn't quite grasp how complex the mixture of genetic expression and environmental controls interplay. A spank may be what it takes sometimes to let a child know that disrespecting things can lead to a painful experience, just don't beat your kids because you feel like taking things out on them.
Guest - Gayle on Tuesday, 10 May 2011 14:46

As a practicing child psychologist who has been in the field for 30 years and raised two of my own children I have come to believe that using spanking as a disciplinary tool does more damage than good. However, that is not to say that instead of spanking it is a good idea to let children do what they want without any consequences. To many parents spanking is a quick, simple disciplinary tactic that is pretty easy to implement, and seems to have an immediate effect on the child. I would guess that is why it is difficult for parents to let it go. As parents we would probably all benefit from learning alternatives to spanking before being told spanking is not a good idea. If we first are able to practice the alternatives and find how effective they can be it might be easier to let go of corporal punishment.

As a practicing child psychologist who has been in the field for 30 years and raised two of my own children I have come to believe that using spanking as a disciplinary tool does more damage than good. However, that is not to say that instead of spanking it is a good idea to let children do what they want without any consequences. To many parents spanking is a quick, simple disciplinary tactic that is pretty easy to implement, and seems to have an immediate effect on the child. I would guess that is why it is difficult for parents to let it go. As parents we would probably all benefit from learning alternatives to spanking before being told spanking is not a good idea. If we first are able to practice the alternatives and find how effective they can be it might be easier to let go of corporal punishment.
Guest - Jill on Tuesday, 14 June 2011 09:49

I was spanked as a child and I do have issues from it. Spanking is abuse. We do not hit our spouses because that is spousal abuse. Not spanking does NOT mean not disciplining. My job as a parent is to discipline my child. And discipline means to TEACH! You also have to have age appropriate expectations for a child. Right now we use redirection and distraction with my toddler because she does not have the brain development to understand a lot of things. We also model appropriate behavior. Again, we don't hit her because she is not allowed to hit us.

For those seeking other methods of discipline here are some resources: the books Playful Parenting, Raising Our Children Raising Ourselves, 1-2-3 Magic (Effective forms of discipline for children 2-12), Parent Effectiveness Training, How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids Will Talk, Biblical Parenting (if you are religious, of course). Also check out books from Dr. Sears.

Here is a really quick sheet from OSU http://fcs.okstate.edu/parenting/discipline/parents/Discipline_Methods_Parents_Grandparents.pdf

If you would like to stop spanking and need some support, please reach out to either your local Attachment Parenting International Group http://www.attachmentparenting.org/groups/groups.php or find an online support group (Mothering.com, gentlechristianmothers.com and kellymom.com forums are places to start)

You can also search online using these key terms: positive discipline, gentle discipline, grace based parenting, attachment parenting.

I was spanked as a child and I do have issues from it. Spanking is abuse. We do not hit our spouses because that is spousal abuse. Not spanking does NOT mean not disciplining. My job as a parent is to discipline my child. And discipline means to TEACH! You also have to have age appropriate expectations for a child. Right now we use redirection and distraction with my toddler because she does not have the brain development to understand a lot of things. We also model appropriate behavior. Again, we don't hit her because she is not allowed to hit us. For those seeking other methods of discipline here are some resources: the books Playful Parenting, Raising Our Children Raising Ourselves, 1-2-3 Magic (Effective forms of discipline for children 2-12), Parent Effectiveness Training, How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids Will Talk, Biblical Parenting (if you are religious, of course). Also check out books from Dr. Sears. Here is a really quick sheet from OSU http://fcs.okstate.edu/parenting/discipline/parents/Discipline_Methods_Parents_Grandparents.pdf If you would like to stop spanking and need some support, please reach out to either your local Attachment Parenting International Group http://www.attachmentparenting.org/groups/groups.php or find an online support group (Mothering.com, gentlechristianmothers.com and kellymom.com forums are places to start) You can also search online using these key terms: positive discipline, gentle discipline, grace based parenting, attachment parenting.
Guest - Nick on Wednesday, 20 April 2011 06:43

I do not spank my kids, but when I was growing up my moms favorite disciplinary tool was a wooden spoon.

I do not spank my kids, but when I was growing up my moms favorite disciplinary tool was a wooden spoon.
Guest - Terri Killen on Thursday, 07 April 2011 09:55

Funny story.

My 2 year old would not leave a store with me. In an effort to get him to go, I said in a playful voice,"I'm gonna beat you," and headed towards the exit. He was between me and the exit. I could tell he would take the bait, so I kept sing-songing "I'm gonna beat you," as I took tiny steps toward the exit. I looked up and saw that everyone in the store was looking at me, horrified. I then said, "Hurry, or Mommy will win the race to the door." I couldn't believe people thought I would threaten to beat a 2 year old. My voice was very playful and cajoling. My son was smiling the entire time. Yes, times have changed, but it started a while back. This was 28 years ago.

Funny story. My 2 year old would not leave a store with me. In an effort to get him to go, I said in a playful voice,"I'm gonna beat you," and headed towards the exit. He was between me and the exit. I could tell he would take the bait, so I kept sing-songing "I'm gonna beat you," as I took tiny steps toward the exit. I looked up and saw that everyone in the store was looking at me, horrified. I then said, "Hurry, or Mommy will win the race to the door." I couldn't believe people thought I would threaten to beat a 2 year old. My voice was very playful and cajoling. My son was smiling the entire time. Yes, times have changed, but it started a while back. This was 28 years ago.
Guest - Ellie on Tuesday, 10 May 2011 12:08

The statistic reflecting that a majority of parental abuse cases begin with spanking was an irrelevant response to the question asked. Of the parents who spank their children, how many actually become abusive? The statistic that applies is the reverse of what was given and is far less intuitive than abuse beginning with spanking.

The statistic reflecting that a majority of parental abuse cases begin with spanking was an irrelevant response to the question asked. Of the parents who spank their children, how many actually become abusive? The statistic that applies is the reverse of what was given and is far less intuitive than abuse beginning with spanking.
Guest - Norvell Wisdom on Thursday, 07 April 2011 09:13

Where are these "well-adjusted,normal adults" that Shaune Stark thinks have not been harmed by spanking? Who were the bankers and others who brought on the current economic troubles by greed, the racists of my youth and still far too prevalent, the politicians who will not do their jobs in the public interest (federal government shut-down, anyone?), the rioters on many occasions, the large majority according to polls who favor government spending but oppose paying for it, etc. etc.? They are, sadly, normal, but I refuse to agree that they are well-adjusted!

Where are these "well-adjusted,normal adults" that Shaune Stark thinks have not been harmed by spanking? Who were the bankers and others who brought on the current economic troubles by greed, the racists of my youth and still far too prevalent, the politicians who will not do their jobs in the public interest (federal government shut-down, anyone?), the rioters on many occasions, the large majority according to polls who favor government spending but oppose paying for it, etc. etc.? They are, sadly, normal, but I refuse to agree that they are well-adjusted!
Guest - Kathy Gaca on Thursday, 07 April 2011 08:20

I was spanked as a child and it DID do harm. I suffer from depression, insomnia and it took years to feel comfortable in a group of people (I was very much a loner). I tried so very hard not to spank my children. What sickens me now is that many school districts are trying to reinstate corporal punishment! This is outrageous. What can be done about that?

I was spanked as a child and it DID do harm. I suffer from depression, insomnia and it took years to feel comfortable in a group of people (I was very much a loner). I tried so very hard not to spank my children. What sickens me now is that many school districts are trying to reinstate corporal punishment! This is outrageous. What can be done about that?
Guest - Ryan on Monday, 11 April 2011 05:28

This brief synopsis does not explore what the consequences have been for NOT spanking, namely the increase in juvenile apathy towards authority and the ridiculousness that is our state's and nation's criminal justice system. Children need to learn no, and part of that process at my house includes spanking for grievous offenses to reinforce the severity of natural consequences their choices will have as they age. We use a piece of old conveyor belt so as to not punish them with our hands; however, some times that tool is not handy and a quick swat needs to be applied.

This brief synopsis does not explore what the consequences have been for NOT spanking, namely the increase in juvenile apathy towards authority and the ridiculousness that is our state's and nation's criminal justice system. Children need to learn no, and part of that process at my house includes spanking for grievous offenses to reinforce the severity of natural consequences their choices will have as they age. We use a piece of old conveyor belt so as to not punish them with our hands; however, some times that tool is not handy and a quick swat needs to be applied.
Guest - Daniel Oppenheimer on Monday, 18 April 2011 08:42

Link fixed. Thanks for the heads up, Don.

Link fixed. Thanks for the heads up, Don.
Guest - Jill on Tuesday, 14 June 2011 10:36

Just to clarify, the above Biblical Parenting book suggestion was written by Crystal Lutton.

Just to clarify, the above Biblical Parenting book suggestion was written by Crystal Lutton.
Guest - Shaune Stark on Thursday, 07 April 2011 08:32

More limp-wristed liberal clap-trap... Somehow, people have survived being spanked for millenia and still turned out to be well-adjusted, normal adults. I hope my tax money is not being spent paying for this type of "research"!

More limp-wristed liberal clap-trap... Somehow, people have survived being spanked for millenia and still turned out to be well-adjusted, normal adults. I hope my tax money is not being spent paying for this type of "research"!
Guest - david watts on Thursday, 07 April 2011 08:46

Does the professor have children and what are their ages? Does she spank?

Does the professor have children and what are their ages? Does she spank?
Guest - Don on Friday, 15 April 2011 18:09

The link to principles_and_practices-of_effective_discipline.pdf seems to be broken. Yes, people survive spanking, but can't we aim a little higher than survival? I would like to see people thrive rather than merely survive.

The link to principles_and_practices-of_effective_discipline.pdf seems to be broken. Yes, people survive spanking, but can't we aim a little higher than survival? I would like to see people thrive rather than merely survive.
Guest - Wendy on Tuesday, 14 June 2011 02:53

I agree with Gayle. As I read the article, I was hoping to read information on what alternatives to spanking should be.

I agree with Gayle. As I read the article, I was hoping to read information on what alternatives to spanking should be.
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