Researchers at the University of Texas and the University of Michigan reviewed fifty years of studies representing the findings across more than 160,000 children. What they found was that the more children are spanked, the more likely they are to show aggressive and anti-social behavior and to manifest mental health and cognitive difficulties. These researchers concluded that spanking harms children in ways not unlike the harm from physical abuse.1
Defined as hitting a child on the bottom with an open hand, spanking sets the wrong example of how to handle anger, teaching kids that when they're angry or don't like what's happening, it's okay to hit. Parents understand this intuitively and yet many continue to spank. In a 2013 Harris Interactive Poll,2 81% of respondents said that spanking is sometimes appropriate, a welcome decline from 87% when a similar poll was undertaken in 1995. The strongest support for spanking comes from parents who themselves were spanked as youngsters, a group representing almost 90% of the general population. Of this group, 73% have spanked their own kids. It's not uncommon to hear spankers say, "I was spanked and I turned out okay."
Despite its bad press in recent decades, spanking continues, perhaps because its ill effects don't show up immediately. When receiving a spanking, children become upset and typically cry, a measure of distress parents hope will "teach" youngsters to behave differently in the future. But the elders aren't thinking about the long-term consequences, those ill effects described in the research that aren't immediately apparent.
In particular, psychologists argue that spankings chip away at a child's trust in parents, promoting the view that "Mom and Dad can be dangerous when they're unhappy with something I've done." In time, this can lead to youngsters' reluctance to approach parents when they're in trouble or something's gone wrong, or to tell the truth when they've been cornered.
Many parents admit to spanking at moments when they didn't know what else to do. There are alternatives, approaches that spare the rod without spoiling the child. It's a question of educating ourselves about smart child management through reading, workshops or with the guidance of family counselors. (See: Fifty Years of Dreikurs, April/May 2014).
- Gershoff, E.T. and Grogan-Kaylor, A. "Spanking and child outcomes: Old controversies and new meta-analyses." Journal of Family Psychology, Vol 30(4), Jun 2016, 453-469.