There was an old woman who lived in a shoe.
She had so many children, she didn't know what to do;
She gave them some broth without any bread;
Then whipped them all soundly and put them to bed.
This nursery rhyme was written in 1794 so the idea of whipping kids is that outdated!
But actually did you know that a worrying 76% of fathers and 65% of mothers in the USA (1) , and 69% of parents in Australia (2) think that spanking is sometimes or often a good idea?
Worldwide 60% of children aged 2-14 experience “corporal punishment” from parents or other caregivers (3).
These out-dated ideas are not only archaic, but they’re not based in fact.
What scientific research tells us is that spanking is not good for your child’s development – it DOES hurt them in the short AND long term. Children who are regularly spanked do worse on all levels: school performance, making friends, health outcomes, and happiness.
(Now if your child once got a smack, let’s not panic! What I’m talking about is regular physical punishment.)
And the saddest irony is that, whilst spanking might get immediate compliance from your kid, over the long-term a spanked child actually becomes less-co-operative and more difficult (just wait until the teenage years!).
So if you’ve ever had to deal with the in-laws, your parents or even your partner telling you your child needs a “good, hard spanking”, I want to empower you with the facts so you can tell them they are WRONG!
Here’s Why Spanking Is Not Good For Your Child (And Doesn’t Work Anyway) – According to The Science
1. Children who are regularly spanked do worse academically, socially and in terms of their own mental health.
The most comprehensive study of the literature on spanking - a 2016 analysis of studies covering over 160,000 children over 50 years by Elizabeth Gershoff and Andrew Grogan-Taylor - found that there were 13 types of bad outcomes for children who were regularly spanked (4). (Spanking is defined as “smacked on the backside with an open hand”).
These negative outcomes resulting from regular spanking include:
Damage to the parent-child relationship – the children are less secure and close to the spanking parent.
Impaired cognitive ability – the more children are spanked, the lower they score on achievement tests in school.
Mental health problems – spanked children were more likely to suffer anxiety and depression.
Low moral internalisation – a spanked child doesn’t choose to do the right thing because they have been taught kindness, rather they only do the right thing when they are forced to.
Antisocial and even criminal behaviour from the child as they grow up – they get into trouble more, even with the law.
Low self-esteem - see #4 below; and
Aggression - see #2 below (4)
These negative outcomes are directly related to how much a child is spanked – the more often a child is spanked the worse these effects are. Likewise, the more aggressive or violent the spanking is, the greater the negative impacts on the child.
There is growing recognition of the problems with spanking – in fact, 52 countries have made spanking illegal starting with Sweden in 1979 (3).
Unfortunately, in Australia, the USA and the UK it is still legal for parents to smack, spank or hit their children (though it’s been illegal for teachers or child care workers to do so since the 1980s)(3).
2. Children who are regularly spanked are more likely to be aggressive as they grow up
Ironically, parents often spank their child if he or she is being aggressive, such as hitting another child.
But parents’ desire to stop their child being aggressive is not helped by using spanking. Numerous studies have shown that the more often a child is spanked, the more they will learn to be aggressive themselves (5).
And children who were aggressive to begin with become more aggressive if their parents use spanking to try to curb their aggression (5).
This is not surprising since spanking models the use of aggression, teaches children that it’s acceptable to use violence to get what you want and that “violence is sometimes a part of loving relationships” (5). This is why spanking and violence is often transmitted through families across generations.
3. Spanking does not achieve the good behaviour you want, even in the very short term.
While a smack will often scare a child into immediately complying with your command, it tends to only be momentary. Spanking does not permanently change your child’s behaviour. In fact, one study found that 73 per cent of children went back to the misbehaviour within 10 minutes of being spanked! (6)
And over the long term spanking is even less effective. Gershoff and Grogan-Taylor’s analysis found that children who are spanked are “just as likely to defy their parents when they spank as comply with them” (4). So the statistics show that spanking does not result in your child suddenly becoming an obedient child.
Spanking is less effective than positive discipline in teaching kids the behaviours you want to see. And it’s even less useful in teaching them how to be good or kind out in the world when you’re not there!
This is because:
1. Children need to internalise what is good behaviour so they can do it on their own initiative, and not require a threat to do it. To internalise good behaviour they need positive reinforcement like love from their parents, friendship from kids or approval from other adults.
2. To learn complex behavioural norms (like kindness, politeness etc.) kids need to be taught and coached by parents. People learn best when they are not under stress – spanking is too stressful to be a good learning experience.
4. Spanking leads to children (and adults) having low self-esteem
When receiving love is conditional upon being quiet, compliant, and not making mistakes, a child learns that large parts of them are not loveable. So the parts that spill the milk, the parts that cry when they’re over-tired, the parts that are scared or just don’t want to do what Mummy or Daddy tells them to – are all unloveable when they are met with spanking, anger or punishment.
The child who learns that parts of them are bad and disliked by the most important people in their life on who they are 100% dependent – their parents – grows up to feel not-good-enough.
So it’s not surprising that the 2016 meta-analysis also found that spanking leads to low self-esteem (4).
To add to this, spanking or punishment is often used when a child is expressing big emotions (crying, shouting etc.). This teaches them that their emotions are not welcome and so they tend to repress their big feelings. The result is unprocessed emotions and bottled up anger and hurt, which tends to persist into adult life.
5. But “I was spanked, and I turned out fine”, they tell you
Many people who advocate spanking children argue that they, themselves, were spanked and it did them no harm. Yes, there are many of us – myself included! – who were spanked (it was very much the norm back then). And we turned out OK.
What the research finds is that spanking does not do any GOOD for a child. So we turned out fine in spite of the spanking we received (7). If our parents countered the spanking with lots of calm, loving parenting and good modelling then, on balance, we are likely to turn out okay.
But, actually, many of us are carrying the impacts of how we were parented without being aware of it. That feeling of never quite achieving enough, never quite succeeding or never really being loveable – that’s most likely the result of how we were parented. We learnt at a very young age - when our parents got angry and lost it - that parts of us weren’t loveable, and we still carry that today.
So there you have it – what the extensive academic literature tells us about spanking – that it’s ineffective, immoral and creates more problems than it solves.
Please share this article widely so we can help parents choose more loving methods of discipline!
And should you wish to share an original academic article with someone, this summary of the largest meta-analysis on spanking by Elizabeth Gershoff is excellent.
Coming soon, I’ll have an article for you on why harsh punishment is bad for children (and doesn’t work either), the real reasons that parents resort to harsh punishment (and spanking), and what can be done instead.
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