The Controversial Case for Spanking a Child

Another anti-spanking article is making the rounds on Facebook, and people are again lining up to decry the abominable act of spanking a child.

Like similar articles before it, this article goes out of its way to sensationalize the issue. Even in the picture right under the headline, we see what appears to be the biggest burliest mother on the planet with soulless eyes, spanking a completely naked infant. The infant is of course horrified, in agony, and donning a flaming-red backside.

Researching the spanking issue is a frustrating act because you tend to come across two extreme responses. On one end of the spectrum you get the mommy blogs and secondary sources that very loosely tie in with the research that claim any form of corporal punishment constitutes abuse and is never okay. On the other end of the spectrum, you get the religious right, and often the willfully ignorant parents who make the case that because they were spanked and turned out okay, the practice of spanking must be a good thing.

On the surface, this is an easy issue. After all, how could anyone justify a grown adult hitting a defenseless child? It just sounds wrong. But in this blog post, I will try to add nuance to this complex issue.

I believe spankings, with the proper guidelines in place, can be a useful parenting tool and one that does not put children at an increased risk of developing future emotional problems, but it must be done appropriately. Here are my 8 rules for spanking: (1) Never spank a child in anger; (2) A spanking should happen in private (public humiliation should not be part of the punishment); (3) Spanking should never be done with an instrument (e.g. belt, coat hanger, paddle, etc.); (4) A spanking should never cause bruising or injury; (5) Spanking should be rare and not the go to punishment; (6) No one should spank a child other than a parent or legal guardian; (7) The child should know the reason for the spanking; and (8) Following the spanking, the parent and child should discuss what happened and why.

In my house, spankings are very rare. I have four kids. My 14-month old daughter has obviously never been spanked, but my three sons (7, 5, and almost 3) have all had swats. Again, this is rare, with each child receiving maybe one spanking a year. And when a spanking does happen, it’s because I want my child to know immediately that what he did cannot happen again. For example, I spanked my 5-year old once for pulling away from me, running into the street, and almost getting hit by a car. I wanted the message to be swift, powerful, and effective. I didn’t think it would be as effective to wait until we were home 30 minutes later to give him a timeout.

Perhaps a more controversial view is that I believe it’s good for kids to have a healthy fear of their parents. Children shouldn’t fear abuse, but they should fear consequences to their actions. As a personal example, my father is, and has always been, a very gentle and loving man; but I remember having the fear of his spankings when I was a kid. Even though his spankings were rare (happening less than once a year) and always delivered with an open hand, I knew a spanking was on the list of possible punishments. That alone was a very effective deterrent to my less-than virtuous behavior. I certainly do not regard my father as a child abuser. I know that he did not enjoy spanking his children, and I do not believe that he taught me to use violence and aggression to solve my problems.

But how can I disregard the mountain of research and empirical data that rails against spanking in favor of some anecdotal information from my own childhood (the nadir of scientific evidence)?

The anti-spanking literature is not all it’s cracked up to be. Part of the reason for this is that when researchers investigate spanking, they don’t ask whether or not some types of spanking can be effective in specific situations, but rather they treat it as an all or none issue (i.e. is spanking good or bad). This overly-simplistic approach appeals to those for whom spanking is an emotionally-charged issue, but it avoids answering the more useful question of whether there exists a manner in which spankings can be administered to assist with child-rearing and that does no long-term emotional damage to the child.

A second reason the research falls short is because it’s difficult to study spanking due to it occurring at home and not in a laboratory. For this reason, it is impossible to control for important factors such as: Was the spanking done in anger; did it cause bruising and/or was it abusive; was an instrument used; did it violate any of the eight rules outlined above; etc.? It’s also difficult to study spanking because researchers do not know when spankings will occur. It’s obviously not ethical to tell a parent to hit a child at a specific time for the sake of research. Because of the major challenges surrounding the issue of data collection, the validity of spanking studies are suspect.

Furthermore, some of the most often-cited spanking articles from the past have huge flaws in the research design. For example, many of the spanking studies are correlational, and confounding variables are often not controlled for (e.g. income level, education, family makeup, etc.).

Despite the clear limitations in the data and research design, there are many faulty conclusions drawn from the spanking research. For example, one popular talking point is that spanking is bad because it teaches children that violence is an effective way to solve problems. Another popular opinion is that spanking makes children fearful, which is not conducive to moral learning. And another problematic belief drawn from the research is that spanking confuses children about whether the parent is a source of comfort or a source of pain. These conclusions are interesting and worthy of discussion, but they are not borne out by the data.

The recent article cited above tries to deliver a death blow to spanking by citing the negative effects of spanking. But the article acknowledges that, “The size of the negative effects are small… and there’s no proof that spanking specifically caused these [negative] behaviors later in life.” So at best, the research is inconclusive; and although some of the results may be statistically significant, the effect size is so small that it has virtually no impact in a real-world sort of way. Even if we were to believe and accept the implications of these results, my guess would be that much of the data used to make these conclusions came from households that violated one or more of my spanking rules (outlined above).

The author further undermines her research by describing the ethical challenges in studying spanking and the limitations of the research: “Researchers can’t conduct spanking experiments where they randomly assign children to be hit. And it’s also possible that “bad” children are just spanked more, and are also generally more aggressive and anti-social throughout their lives.”

Again, the results from these studies are certainly worthy of our attention, and they should not be dismissed. That being said, the wild conclusions drawn from these studies are not based in science and not supported by the data. For example, I take issue with the popular talking point repeated in this article by developmental psychologist Elizabeth Gershoff. She states that when you hit a child, it “makes it clear to the child that you can hit somebody if you have power,” and that “Children learn you can hit to get what you want…so those kids, not surprisingly…are using aggression to do what they want.” Let’s give kids a little more credit. If a child receives a swat on the backside for misbehaving, I don’t think children extrapolate that to mean that it’s okay to punch kids on the playground. Kids understand that different types of relationships exist, and when so-called experts claim that kids can’t make this distinction, it makes me think the researchers have spent too much time in a laboratory and not enough time with actual kids.

And how far do we want to take this theory proposed by Dr. Gershoff? If we believe spanking will encourage children to use violence to solve problems, why is the argument not extrapolated to other punishments? For example, if we teach a child that bad behavior can result in the loss of privileges (e.g. reduced access to video games, TV, cell phones, etc.), are we to believe that the child will think it’s appropriate to take electronics from his peers at school to get what he wants?

I also take issue with the premise that parents spank their kids because it brings them a sense of satisfaction (another claim made by Dr. Gershoff). There is simply no empirical evidence to substantiate this claim.

Dr. Gershoff states that, “I don’t think we learn to be good people who care about others by being hit.” I don’t think so either, but that’s not why parents spank their children. Spanking is usually done in an effort to stop a specific behavior. If the goal is to help children be good people, it is of course better to talk to them. But spanking a child and talking to a child can both occur.

As a psychologist, I see clients every day who are the products of physically-abusive homes. Domestic violence and physical abuse are of course strong predictors of mental health issues later in life, and a large percentage of my clientele come to therapy because of unresolved issues surrounding this violence in their early life. But in my 10 years of delivering clinical care, I have never had a person come to my office with the complaint that they were spanked as a child. Virtually every person I know who was spanked (without the presence of abuse) disregard this as a normal part of childhood that had little to no impact on their lives.

So I have a lot of problems with how these anti-spanking articles are spun. They create a false choice where you can either be a violent monster who enjoys abusing children, or you can be a good parent who teaches his/her child morality with calm dialogue. This is of course a false choice. The obvious response is that parents can choose to spank appropriately AND teach life lessons with healthy dialogue.

All of us want to do what’s best for our children, and I believe that if spanking is done according to the eight rules I outlined above, it can result in positive outcomes for children and their respective families. I’m not saying parents have to spank their children, or even that they should. However, I believe spanking can be an effective and beneficial tool if used appropriately. Despite what some experts claim, the research has a long way to go to discredit that idea.

– Nathan


3 Responses to “The Controversial Case for Spanking a Child”

  1. I wasn’t spanked often, but when I was I got it naked with a belt. That hurt a lot, but it taught me to behave. I will spank my kids the same way when they are old enough to rebel.

    • Julia – Spanking a naked child with a belt clearly violates the rules I set out above. I believe this constitutes abuse, and I would never advocate for this type of behavior.

  2. I would only disagree on one point- I believe that it is perfectly appropriate to use a light paddle or a light switch rather than the hand. While the spanking should not be abusive, there should be a sting that is felt. To do so with the hand requires too much thrust. A light switch requires just a flick of the wrist.

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