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A Look At the Effects and Consequences of Spanking Children

As stated earlier, 90% of American parents spank their children. If you’re among that 90%, we hope the following information will encourage you to try different discipline techniques.

Fact #1: Spanking only worsens a child’s behavior

Advocates of spanking usually view those who speak out against it as weak on discipline. They might paint them as new age hippies who want children to run wild. In actuality, it is spanking itself (not the absence of it) that is likely to lead to unruly and ill-behaved children.

As Lawrence Kutner, Ph.D., writes, “Aside from any philosophical or moral stands on corporal punishment of children, I’m against it for very practical reasons: Research has shown it not only to be ineffective, but often to be counterproductive. …While spanking may seem to be effective in the short term, it quickly loses its power to influence a child’s behavior. Besides, repeated corporal punishment teaches young children that it’s appropriate for strong people to control weaker and smaller people with physical violence. Ask yourself: Is that really the sort of thing you’d like your child to grow up believing?” (1996, p. 107)

Studies show the “recidivism rate” for misbehavior (i.e., the child misbehaves again) is just as high when children are spanked as when other forms of discipline have been used. (Larzelere et al., 1996) The American Pediatric Association also notes that spanking rapidly becomes less effective with repeated use. But it’s not just that spanking doesn’t work over the long run; it’s that it actually makes a child’s behavior worse.

Dr. Murray A. Strauss (2001, p. 4) notes that of the recent studies on spanking, “All show that the long-term effect of CP is counterproductive.” Children who are spanked show higher rates of misbehavior two and four years later when compared to children who are guided with other forms of discipline. (Gunnoe & Mariner, 1997; Straus, Sugarman & Giles-Sims, 1997) At age five, children who are spanked are more likely to be defiant, to demand immediate satisfaction of their wants and needs, become frustrated easily, have temper tantrums and lash out physically against other people or animals. (Park, 5-3-2010) Looking over the dozens of studies conducted on spanking and physical punishment in recent decades, none have found a positive effect from the practice – the most optimistic studies show the effect to be neutral, whereas most are negative. (Straus, 2001)

The more kids are spanked, the more problematic their behavior is,” says Elizabeth Gershoff of the Univ. of Texas, who has studied the subject. (Park, 10-15-2012) So whenever parents spank their kids or rely on physical discipline, they’re not just hurting their child, they’re making things much tougher for themselves.

Fact #2: Spanking makes kids more violent and aggressive

When you spank children, this is the message you send: “When Mommy is upset with you, she’s going to hit you.” Since children are educated more through your actions than your words, how do you suppose that child is going to respond when they are frustrated?

Kids learn from imitation,” says Lauri A. Couture, a parenting coach and author of Instead of Medicating and Punishing. Therefore physical discipline only makes a child “more apt to act out physically in the future.” (Park, 5-3-2010) Because of this, spanking is one of the best ways to create aggressive children, and physical discipline is one of thee strongest predictors of future aggression.

The odds of a child being more aggressive at age 5 increased by 50% if he had been spanked more than twice in the month before the study began,” says Catherine Taylor, who conducted a study on spanking while controlling for a whole host of other issues. The association remained strong even after her team accounted for varying levels of natural aggression in children, suggesting that “it’s not just that children who are more aggressive are more likely to be spanked,” but that spanking itself causes the aggression. (ibid) Other research has found that spanking increases the risk of everything from future criminality to sexual assault and sadomasochism. (See our book: Child Maltreatment – A Cross-Comparison for more information on the effects and consequences of physical discipline)

Fact #3: There are other more effective forms of discipline

Most parents who spank do so because they feel that at times it is the only way to get their kids to listen. Yet even the defenders of spanking reluctantly admit that other forms of discipline are just as effective at earning a child’s compliance in the near term. And these other techniques come without the long-term problems that corporal punishment produces.

Dr. Murray A. Strauss (2001, p.3) notes that although spanking may bring about compliance in the immediate situation, “non-violent control strategies, such as explaining to the child, depriving a privilege, or just walking up to a child and saying ‘no’ or ‘stop’, or putting a child back in a time out chair, work just as well in the immediate situation.” Professor William Damon agrees, writing that “Clarity of communication is far more readily accomplished through calm disciplinary practices such as sending a child to his room, or temporarily removing some of the child’s privileges, than through intemperate acts of corporal punishment. …There are always wiser, safer, and more effective means of discipline such as withholding privileges.” (1995, p. 117)

For more on the effectiveness of spanking in comparison to other forms of discipline, see: Day & Roberts, 1983; Larzelere et al., 1998; Larzelere et al., 1996; La Voie, 1974; Roberts and Powers, 1990. And if you need help learning other discipline techniques and ways of modifying your child’s behavior, refer to the other information provided in this book.

But aren’t there some experts who say spanking is good for children?
Spanking advocates often do the same thing that opponents of global warming do: Pick out a few select experts to quote in support of their position and then ignore the fact that 97% of the scientific community shares a consensus about what is good or bad based on what the data has shown.

The reality is that there’s not much of a debate on whether or not corporal punishment should be used with kids. Most child development specialists are adamantly opposed to it, and the reason they are opposed is not that they’re all a bunch of new age hippies who are plotting to undermine the obedience of America’s children. It’s that research has continually shown the practice to be both harmful and counterproductive to a parent’s goals.

In a recent position statement issued by the American Psychological Association, the 15 members of the task force who examined the issue and rendered the opinion against physical discipline were unanimous in their decision. (Schrock, 2010) The American Academy of Pediatrics has taken up a similar position, saying it does not endorse spanking under any circumstances. We’d be the first organization to tell you that consensus opinions can often be wrong, especially when they’re built atop a foundation of cultural dogma or social prejudices. But in this case, there’s simply no other way to interpret the data, and the expert conclusions happen to be running OPPOSITE to popular public opinion. So it’s safe to say that these viewpoints are not the result of scientists interpreting the data in a way that’s favorable to public opinion.

If you’ve spanked in the past, this does not mean you’re a horrible parent. And if you backslide in the future, that’s okay too. The key is to make a conscientious effort to limit the use of spanking as a form of discipline from this point forward.

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