Whether to spank your child or not is one of the oldest debates among parents. Many live by the age-old wisdom that to “spare the rod” is to “spoil the child,” while others believe it’s wrong to resort to violence to punish a child when so many alternatives exist.
It also begs the question: If it's wrong to hit your spouse or pet, why is it acceptable to hit a defenseless child?
The 2021 American Family Study found that support for spanking has declined in the U.S. over the past few years. In 2015, 54% either somewhat or strongly agreed with the practice, but that number dropped to 47% in 2021. Thirty-five percent of respondents disagree with the practice and 18% neither agree nor disagree.
A new research study from the Parent and Family Research Alliance in Australia led by Professor Sophie Havighurst and Professor Daryl Higgins from Australian Catholic University makes a strong case that people should stop using corporal punishment to discipline their kids. The study “Corporal punishment of children in Australia: The evidence-based case for legislative reform” analyzed countless studies on the topic and found spanking ineffective and harmful.
The study was published to urge lawmakers to make corporal punishment in Australia illegal. Sixty-five states across the world have made corporal punishment illegal, protecting 14% of the world’s children.
The study defined corporal punishment of children as using physical force to cause pain, but not injury, to correct or control a child’s behavior.
The most startling meta-analysis published in the study found that "only 1 out of 111 statistically significant effect sizes was associated with a link between 'spanking' and a positive child outcome," while 110 were found to be associated with adverse outcomes.
The one positive outcome was in a 1972 study of children of the U.S. military living in West Germany that found those spanked showed less amphetamine and opiate use as adults.
However, the remaining 110 significant results found that spanking had adverse effects, including: “reducing trust and connection with those they are closest to, lower self-esteem, more internalizing and externalizing behavior problems including aggression, mental health difficulties, and increased risk for later substance abuse, antisocial behavior, and violence.”
A meta-analysis found that when children are spanked, they are less likely to internalize the moral implications of the behaviors that led them to be disciplined. It also found that non-physical discipline was more effective at teaching “alternative behaviors,” “developing a child’s conscience,” and advancing their “emotional development.”
Another meta-analysis cited in the story found that corporal punishment in childhood was associated with mental health problems, low self-esteem and antisocial behavior.
In the end, the studies show that corporal punishment is counter-productive when it comes to raising healthy, happy children. But it will take much more than a study to get people to reconsider their views of corporal punishment because they are deeply rooted in many cultural traditions.
Looking for some non-physical alternatives to discipline your child? Here’s a great place to start from WebMD.