June 14, 2016 in Parenting

What Do Five Decades of Research Have to Say About Spanking?

By Dr. Gina Zuccolo

Spanking, defined as an open-handed hit on an individual’s behind or limbs, is sometimes a form a discipline used by parents in attempts to correct a child’s behavior or increase the child’s compliance to rules. A recent analysis of 50 years of research on spanking has shown that spanking actually has the opposite impact on children than what parents hope or intend. 

Researchers at the University of Texas Austin and the University of Michigan reviewed five decades of research involving over 160,000 children and focused on the outcomes and effects of spanking alone (potentially abusive behaviors were not examined). The researchers found that spanking was associated with an increase in children’s aggression, mental health difficulties, antisocial behaviors, and changes in brain development and these difficulties increased as the amount of spanking rose. Similarly, spanking was significantly linked with 13 out of 17 detrimental outcomes examined by the researchers. Spanking was not associated with immediate or long-term compliance in children’s behavior. 

According to research, as many as 80 percent of parents worldwide spank their children, despite no clear evidence that spanking has any positive impact on children. In general, society views spanking and physical abuse as different types of behaviors. However, physical abuse and spanking share the same detrimental outcomes, with spanking showing only a slightly lesser degree of severity. 

So why does spanking continue despite lack of evidence that it helps change behavior and compliance? The analysis of the 50 years worth of research showed that adults who were spanked as children exhibit long-term effects. The more spanking an adult experienced as a child, the more likely they were to exhibit antisocial behavior and mental health difficulties. Likewise, adults spanked as children were more likely to support physical punishment of their own children. This finding supports the notion that attitudes towards physical punishment can be passed along through generations. 

With research clearly linking spanking with negative and detrimental outcomes for children and adults, what can be done to spread awareness? Education for parents on the immediate and long-term consequences of spanking on children is paramount. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have called for legislative initiatives to reduce corporal punishment and increase education of the impact of spanking and knowledge of positive forms of discipline. These techniques can include loss and gain of privileges, time-outs, increasing healthy communication and verbalization of thoughts and feelings, and praising and encouraging positive behaviors. Despite how difficult it can be to navigate the parenting process, there are always resources and professional help available to increase positive and healthy parent-child relationships. If in need, reaching out for parenting skills and/or therapy is a great way to gain support and work through any difficulties.