The Case Against Spanking: It Doesn’t Even Work

A boy with a shocked expression of fear on his face.
Photo: Antenna/Corbis

Corporal punishment is in the news this week, as a New York court decided that a father had not abused his son by spanking him, reversing an earlier ruling, according to the New York Daily News. Quick parenting tip from Science of Us: Just because a court says something is technically okay doesn’t mean you should do it. 

Progressive-parenting types recognize that spanking is maybe not the best way to handle children’s behavioral problems, considering the evidence on the long-term mental health hazards it can have on a child. But damn if it doesn’t do the job in the heat of the moment. Unfortunately, that’s about exactly how long it lasts; according to recent research, spanking does indeed briefly stop an unwanted behavior, but within ten minutes, the kid is right back at it.

So, we may as well sidestep the debate over whether spanking is morally right or wrong, and whether it is or isn’t abuse — because, as it turns out, it doesn’t even do what it’s supposed to do very well. “It stops the behavior for the moment, for right that second, due to startle and shock,” said Alan Kazdin, a Yale professor of child psychiatry and director of the Yale Parenting Center. “But if you track the rate of the behavior you’re trying to get rid of, the rate doesn’t change at all over the weeks, over the days.”

Last month, new research in the Journal of Family Psychology demonstrated the fleeting impact of spanking on children’s misbehavior. The authors asked 33 mothers in Dallas to wear tiny digital-audio recorders for six nights. Fifteen of those moms spanked their children over the course of those evenings, with 41 total incidents. Study author George Holden, a professor of psychology at Southern Methodist University, said that in 73 percent of these cases, the kids acted up again within ten minutes of being spanked. “So that suggests that it’s not a very effective technique,” Holden said.

To be clear, we’re specifically talking about spanking — as in, an open-handed smack on the bum — not hitting or other harsher forms of physical violence. And even advocates of spanking normally advise reserving the punishment for the serious stuff, not minor misbehaviors. But, Holden pointed out, in his (admittedly small) study, he found that parents were spanking children for minor offenses — even though research has shown that spanking does not work better than other forms of correction, like time-outs, depriving a child of privileges, or a good old-fashioned talking-to.

And even a moderate rate of spanking — just once a week — results in some serious consequences for children, harming the child’s mental health and undermining his or her academic performance. “We know that the more corporal punishment there is in the home, the more aggressive the child will be at school,” Kazdin said. What’s more, the stress from corporal punishment could even have a negative impact on a child’s physical health, he said, to the point of weakening the body’s ability to fight inflammation and recover from infection. “Extended stressors in the home, including corporal punishment, can change the immune system and have implications for poorer physical health or earlier death,” he said.

Still, despite mounting evidence on the perils of physical punishment, most Americans aren’t opposed to it. A Harris Interactive poll from last September found that 67 percent of parents admitted to spanking their kids — though that number is down from 80 percent in 1995, the last time Harris used that survey question. Keep in mind that across the globe, 38 countries have introduced bans on corporal punishment in the past 35 years; first Sweden in 1979, and most recently Malta. (Andrew Grogan-Kaylor, an associate professor at the University of Michigan School of Social Work currently studying American attitudes on spanking compared to the rest of the world’s, emailed Science of Us a link to this nifty little interactive he put together, which shows a simple timeline of the introductions of those bans.)

Not only is spanking not the best way to instill good habits in kids, punishment in general isn’t the best idea, Kazdin said. “Punishment doesn’t teach you what to do,” he said. When a punishment is necessary, Kazdin recommends replacing spanking with a time-out. But overall, encouragement and praise for good behavior is a better way to teach children. “The best way to get rid of a behavior — there’s so much research on this — is to develop the opposite behavior in its place,” said Kazdin, who trains moms and dads in this method of discipline. “You don’t try to suppress and eliminate.” 

The Case Against Spanking: It Doesn’t Even Work