Seriously, Don’t Spank Your Kids

A child
A child Photo: Kelvin Murray/Getty Images

Researchers at the University of Texas and the University of Michigan have conducted a meta-analysis of more than 50 years of research into the practice of parents spanking their children. The conclusion: Don’t do it.

The findings are published this month in the Journal of Family Psychology, and they include data from over 160,000 kids — by far the most comprehensive work ever conducted on the practice focusing on children in the United States.

“Our analysis focuses on what most Americans would recognize as spanking and not on potentially abusive behaviors,” says Elizabeth Gershoff, associate professor of human development and family sciences at the University of Texas at Austin, who is one of the authors of the study. Spanking is defined in the paper as “an open-handed hit on the behind or extremities.” This distinction is culturally important because many people, while conceding that “abuse” is bad, still hold that spanking can be acceptable, often because they themselves were spanked. A UNICEF report from 2014 says that as many as 80 percent of parents worldwide spank their children, in spite of the fact that no study has ever shown it to be anything other than detrimental.

The findings are overwhelming: Not only can spanking have negative, long-term effects on children, it also doesn’t lead to compliance. Essentially, it doesn’t work, it hurts kids, and has unintended negative consequences. “The upshot of the study is that spanking increases the likelihood of a wide variety of undesired outcomes for children. Spanking thus does the opposite of what parents usually want it to do,” Andrew Grogan-Kaylor, associate professor at the University of Michigan School of Social Work and co-author of the study, said in a press release from the University of Texas.

The long-term effects of spanking are also overwhelming: The more people were spanked as children, “the more likely they were to exhibit anti-social behavior and to experience mental health problems” in adulthood, they found. They are also more likely to support the practice of spanking their own children, thus creating a generation-to-generation cycle.