Spanking: How We Have Normalized Hitting Our Kids and Why We Need to Stop

Written by Wren Exley (UCLA ‘21) and Ritika Rastogi

Trigger warning: the blog post below contains mentions of physical violence towards minors.

What is Spanking?

Imagine that you’re a mother with two young children. You’ve just arrived home and you’re starting to cook dinner when you hear your kids screaming in the next room. When you go to investigate you find them fighting over a toy, your oldest child waving it just out of your youngest child’s reach. Your brain is fried from a long day of work and the dinner is burning, so you need to resolve the situation quickly. What do you do? 

Parents often find themselves in stressful situations like this, and are forced to make snap judgements about the best course of action. One disciplinary technique that many parents use is corporal punishment, a method also commonly referred to as “spanking”. For the sake of this article the term “spanking” will be used to describe forms of physical punishment inflicted on children by their parents or guardians, which are meant to cause pain temporarily but not cause lasting injury. That doesn’t mean that spanking does not have a lasting impact on children, as we will discuss later on. 

So just how common is spanking? In 1999, one study found that 35% of parents were using forms of physical punishment on infants, 95% on children ages three to four, over 50% on 12-14 year olds, and 13% on 17 year olds (Straus & Stewart, 1999). Because spanking is such a common parenting practice in the United States, it’s important to understand its effectiveness at correcting undesirable behavior in children and the ways in which it may result in negative outcomes. In this post, I will be arguing against the use of spanking as a parenting technique because of the known adverse long and short-term consequences on children’s well being. 

Negative Impacts of Spanking

Research has shown that there are a number of unfavorable outcomes associated with spanking. In one study, researchers conducted at-home interviews and found a correlation between the frequency of spanking and antisocial behaviors (e.g., cheating, telling lies, mistreating others, disobeying teachers, or feeling unremorseful about causing harm) in children (Straus, 1997). While many of the parents were using spanking to correct misbehavior, this tactic actually ended up increasing the antisocial behaviors their children exhibited. 

Another study looked at kindergarteners’ interactions with their peers over a 12 month period (Strassberg et al., 1994). They found that the children were more likely to engage in aggressive behaviors towards others when their parents used physical forms of discipline at home. These behaviors included angry retaliation, bullying, and attempts to harm others in order to coerce them. The level of aggression appeared to increase as the severity of physical punishment at home increased, with children who experienced treatment categorized by this study as physical violence performing the greatest frequency of aggressive acts.  

Spanking has also been shown to disrupt cognitive abilities. One study found that children ages 2-4 tended to perform poorer on tests of body part recognition, memory for locations, and motor and social development when they were spanked (Straus & Paschall, 2009). Children ages 5-9 who were spanked regularly performed poorer than average on math and reading exams. This demonstrates that spanking has an impact on not only mental health, but also cognition. 

Spanking does not only affect people in early childhood. In 2017, over 8,000 adults from Southern California completed a questionnaire on Aversive Childhood Experiences and a separate survey on mental health (Afifi et al., 2017). The researchers found that adults who reported getting spanked growing up were more likely to develop certain psychiatric disorders, including anxiety and substance abuse or dependence. They were also more likely to have one or more externalizing problems, for example illicit drug use or antisocial behavior (MacMillan et al., 1999). 

Thinking more broadly, people who were spanked often by their parents have similar outcomes to those who suffered physical and emotional abuse. This involves a higher probability of developing the psychiatric disorders mentioned above, as well as a higher risk of suicide (Afifi et al., 2017). Spanking is also more common in households where different forms of abuse are taking place. A survey of North and South Carolina families found that parents who engaged in spanking were almost three times as likely to engage in abusive behaviors such as beating, burning, spanking with an object somewhere other than the backside, or shaking infants 2 years old or younger (Zolotor et al., 2009). These findings lead some researchers to argue that spanking and physical abuse are not separate, but instead exist along the same “continuum of violence towards children” (Afifi et al., 2017). 

Why is spanking so common?

Why is spanking still so common despite the negative outcomes highlighted above? The answer to this question relies on several different factors, some situational and others more widespread. Most parents want to raise their children to be as healthy and happy as possible, but will still end up using methods of disciplining that cause lasting damage. 

Spanking has been found to be more prevalent in low income and single parent households, which means stress may be a major contributor in some circumstances (Giles-Sims et al., 1995). When parents feel they don’t have the time or resources to address a child’s behavior in more productive ways they may use spanking as a quick alternative. Research has found spanking to be more effective for producing short-term compliance than some other forms of discipline, which makes it tempting for parents to default to physical punishment in stressful situations (Gershoff, 2002).

Another major factor that influences parents’ decision to spank is ideology. Spanking has been found to occur more often in strict conservative religious households (Giles-Sims et al., 1995). It was also found to be less common in Catholic families and more common in Protestant ones. This finding may point to a difference in belief systems as a driving factor for parents’ choice to use physical discipline. The opinion that spanking is an acceptable form of punishment may also be passed down from one generation to the next. In one study children’s approval rating of physical punishment was found to correlate with their parents’ approval rating (Simons & Wurtele, 2010). 

Spanking is also often thought of as being rooted in culture. For example, one study found that spanking is more common and therefore more normative within Black American families than it is within White American families (Gershoff & Grogan-Kaylor, 2016). A common belief is that spanking is less harmful, or even beneficial, when it takes place in a setting where it is more common. However, research suggests that there is no significant difference in the emotional outcome for children who are raised in environments where spanking is considered culturally normative. Black children who were spanked in the Gershoff study experienced similar outcomes to their White counterparts, despite spanking being more common within Black families. 

It’s important to acknowledge that socioeconomic status may serve as a confounding variable when talking about the relationship between race and spanking. As was mentioned earlier, lower socioeconomic status is a risk factor for spanking. In 2000, the U.S. Census Bureau found that the median household income for Black and Hispanic American males was significantly lower than the median income for White American males (Orzechowski & Sepielli, 2003). Additionally, they found that poverty rates for Black and Hispanic Americans were much higher than for White Americans. For this reason it’s difficult to disentangle variables of race and socioeconomic status, so the idea that spanking is more common in Black households as a result of cultural difference should be critically evaluated. Moreover, because of potential ties between stress and spanking, research should look at whether Black parents’ experiences of racial discrimination contribute to increases in use of spanking. 

While spanking rates may be higher among certain groups, it is a widespread practice in the United States, found in households of all incomes, cultural backgrounds, and religious affiliations. This suggests that the belief that spanking is an appropriate form of punishment may be more deeply ingrained in U.S. culture itself. A study on International Dating Violence found that across countries there was a linear relationship between approval ratings of corporal punishment and approval of other forms of violence (Straus, 2011). Of the countries included in the study, the United States was one of the nations with the highest approval ratings of corporal punishment and violence.

Where does this high approval rating come from? Some researchers believe that part of it has to do with the language we use to talk about inflicting physical forms of punishment on children (Giles-Sims et al., 1995). “Spanking” is a term that is used to describe varying levels of physical punishment. In some circumstances it can refer to a light slap on the buttox and in others a more serious beating. This creates a false equivalency between different forms of physical punishment, and may allow violence towards children to escalate without adults putting a stop to it. It’s also a word that has legitimized physical punishment and allowed it to be passed down through generations as an appropriate response to misbehavior.

An argument has been made to start using the term “corporal punishment” in place of “spanking” because it doesn’t carry the same connotation. Corporal punishment is commonly associated with teachers’ use of physical discipline. Many seem to agree that it’s wrong for a teacher to inflict pain on students but it’s not wrong for parents to do it to their children. Part of this phenomena may be due to a difference in how the two scenarios are framed and the language we use to talk about them.

While the U.S. has a higher approval rating of corporal punishment compared to some other countries, research suggests that approval is slowly decreasing over time (Straus & Mathur, 1996). Between 1968 to 1994 the approval rating of corporal punishment by people over the age of 18 dropped from 94 to 68 percent. This result demonstrates that a shift in beliefs about parents’ use of corporal punishment is possible. There isn’t a lot of data on how rates of spanking have changed in the past 20 years, but results from a 2014 cross sectional study on U.S. households suggests that less than half of U.S. children today are spanked (Finkelhor et al., 2019). 

Even with the strides that have been made, there is still a lot of work to be done. A drastic number of American children are still being subjected to corporal punishment and will later suffer from associated mental health problems. While it remains controversial, the overwhelming evidence about the negative impacts of corporal punishment provide a strong argument for why we should be aiming to put a stop to the practice entirely. 

Alternatives to Spanking

This brings up the question of which disciplining methods can be used in place of corporal punishment. The authoritative parenting style has been widely accepted in the field of developmental psychology as the best practice for producing independent and well behaved children (Gunnoe, 2013). This parenting style involves being attentive and nurturing, but allowing children to have freedom to explore. It also involves setting clear expectations and following through with predictable consequences when expectations are not met (Efobi & Nwokolo, 2014). 

Some authoritative parents still use corporal punishment, but will do so in a way that lets the child know clearly why they are being punished and what they need to do to avoid punishment in the future. This is different from the authoritarian parenting style, where expectations aren’t made clear, so children often don’t understand why they are being spanked. Spanking in authoritative households typically only happens when the child is between the ages of two to eleven, while in authoritarian households the spanking will often continue through adolescence (Gunnoe, 2013). While there are some authoritative parents who use corporal punishment, it’s important to keep in mind that spanking still causes difficulties in youth’s adjustment regardless of the parenting style of caretakers. 

Authoritative parenting without spanking makes it easier for children to understand how their parents want them to act. If they misbehave they can expect there to be reasonable consequences. An example of an appropriate consequence would be taking away a toy that a child is using recklessly, explaining the rationale for taking it away, and not giving it back until they demonstrate that they can use it appropriately. This strategy may take more time and effort initially, but over time it will most likely produce behavior that is more easy to manage. One study even found that among parenting methods, the authoritative style was least likely to result in bullying behaviors among secondary school children (Efobi & Nwokolo, 2014). Combining this information with what we know about spanking and aggression, we can predict that an authoritative parenting style without physical punishment will result in children with the best cognitive and behavioral outcomes. 

Corporal punishment is a parenting technique that is still used excessively in the United States despite short and long-term ramifications when it comes to children’s behavior, mental health, and cognition. There are a number of reasons why spanking has continued to be used and passed down through generations, but a huge reason is the spread of misinformation. Therefore, it’s important to educate the general public, especially parents and guardians, about the negative impact of spanking on children. Hopefully with enough awareness we can put an end to the practice entirely.  


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