Why we shouldn't spank our children

by: Jessica Bumgarner

Corporal Punishment

"Involves the use of force to cause pain, but not injury, for the purpose of (behavioral) correction or control" (Maguire-Jack, K., Gromoske, A. N., & Berger, L. M., 2012).

Approximately 1/3 of U.S. families report spanking children as young as 10-18 mos of age and 70% of families report spanking 2-4 year-old children. Furthermore, more than 1/4 of parents using CP report having used a hard object, such as a brush or belt (Berk, L., E., 2010).

Ongoing Debate

A minority of empirical studies suggest that spanking is an effective means of behavioral control that doesn't result in unintended developmental consequences or lasting damage to children. The preponderance of evidence, however, suggest that it is an ineffective disciplinary strategy that is correlated with poor developmental outcomes (Maguire-Jack, K., Gromoske, A. N., & Berger, L. M., 2012).

Developmental theories

Social learning theory suggest that children who are spanked may become more likely to adopt aggressive behaviors because their parents have modeled aggression to them as an acceptable form of behavior. Furthermore, both psychoanalytic theory and attachment theory posit that spanking may lead to increased internalizing behavior problems for children (Maguire-Jack, K., Gromoske, A. N., & Berger, L. M., 2012).

Study & its findings

Examined associations of spanking with children's externalizing and internalizing behavior problems and cognitive skills over the first 5 years of life using longitudinal data from Fragile Families and Child Well-being Study and cross-lagged path analysis. Simultaneously modeling associations of spanking at age 1, 3, and 5.

The authors found spanking at age 1 was associated with a higher level of spanking and externalizing behavior at age 3, and spanking at age 3 was associated with a higher level of internalizing and externalizing behavior at age 5. The associations between spanking at age 1 and behavioral problems at age 5 operated predominantly through ongoing spanking at age 3. The authors did not find an association between spanking at age 1 and cognitive skills at age 3 or 5 (Maguire-Jack, K., Gromoske, A. N., & Berger, L. M., 2012).

Wide-ranging, undesirable side effects of repeated corporal punishment:

  • Parents often spank in response to children's aggression yet, the punishment itself models aggression!
  • Children develop a chronic sense of being personally threatened, which prompts a focus on their own distress rather than a sympathetic orientation to other's needs.
  • Children who are frequently punished soon learn to avoid the punishing adult, who, as a result, has less opportunity to teach desirable behaviors.
  • By stopping children's misbehavior temporarily, CP gives adults immediate relief. For this reason, the parent is likely to punish with greater frequency over time which can lead to serious abuse. *
  • Adults whose parent's used CP are more accepting of such discipline which can lead to the use of physical punishment transferring to the next generation. "I was spanked and turned out fine so I'll spank."
  • "The more harsh threats, angry physical control and punishment children experience, the more likely they are to develop serious, lasting mental health problems including weak internalization of moral rules; depression, aggression, antisocial behavior, and poor academic performance in childhood and adolescence; and depression, alcohol abuse, criminality, and partner and child abuse in adulthood" (Berk, L., E., 2010).
Does Spanking Hurt or Help Kids?

Using Positive Discipline & alternatives to harsh punishment:

  1. Use transgressions as opportunities to teach,
  2. Reduce opportunities for misbehavior.
  3. Provide reason for rules.
  4. Arrange for children to participate in family routines and duties.
  5. When children are obstinate, try compromising and problem solving.
  6. Encourage mature behavior.

3 ways to increase effectiveness of punishment:

  • Consistency.
  • A warm parent-child relationship.
  • Explanations.

Examples of alternatives to harsh punishment:

-Time out and withdrawal of privileges both of which allows parents to avoid techniques that can easily intensify into violence. Time out also gives an angry/ frustrated parent or child with a "cooling off period".

Operant Conditioning and Social Learning Theory

  • Operant conditioning focuses on the positive behavior rather than the negative and uses reinforcement for good behavior, in the form of approval, affection, and other rewards. Ex. giving a child a sticker or praising them when they use the potty or share with others (Berk, L., E., 2010).

-Once children acquire a moral response i.e. sharing or telling the truth, positive reinforcement increases its frequency.

  • Being a good role model (Social Learning Theory). Children learn through reinforcement and modeling/imitation so be the best model you can be.

-Models are most influential in the early years and at the end of early childhood, children who have had consistent exposure to caring adults have internalized prosocial rules and follow them whether or not a model is present. Thus gaining long lasting effects.


Berk, L. E. (2010). Development through the lifespan (5th ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Maguire-Jack, K., Gromoske, A. N., & Berger, L. M. (2012). Spanking and child development during the first 5 years of life. Child Development, 83(6), 1960-1977. doi: 10.1111/j. 1467-8624.2012.01820.x