A new study reignites the debate over whether children should be spanked. Here’s some thoughts from experts and parents on the issue.
Missouri mother Meredith Liberman remembers well the spankings she got as a child.
“My parents took a hard-line biblical approach to raising kids,” Liberman told Healthline. “I remember hearing, ‘Spare the rod, spoil the child,’ quite often. Spanking was a constant form of discipline in our house, the most frequently used. My siblings and I would be lined up for a lecture before receiving our punishments. Bare butt, with a variety of tools. There were wooden spoons that broke over our bottoms and ping-pong paddles. Once we even had to cut our own branch off a tree. To this day, the sound of a belt snapping sends me into a panic.”
For Liberman, spanking her own children was never an option. In fact, she ended relationships with potential partners who weren’t willing to budge on their own pro-spanking stances.
Today, she and her husband are on the same page.
“Spanking and physical force are not in our parenting vocabulary, specifically because of how those things shaped us in ways we think are negative,” Liberman says.
Over the years, spanking has been the topic of quite a few research studies.
The latest research, published in The Journal of Pediatrics, concludes that children who have been spanked have an increased risk of becoming perpetrators of domestic violence in adulthood. This increase was found even when controlling for other factors, such as socioeconomic status and other types of abuse in the home.
It’s because of this wealth of data that most major health organizations recommend against spanking. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) takes this stance: “The American Academy of Pediatrics strongly opposes striking a child for any reason. Spanking is never recommended.”
In January 2017, France became the 52nd country to ban spanking.
Last April, NPR reported that in the United States, 15 states still expressly permit corporal punishment in schools, while seven additional states had no rules against corporal punishment.
And an ABC poll released last November found that U.S. parents approved of spanking by a 2-to-1 margin. Half of the parents polled said they spank their children.
If you want to get a group of parents into a heated discussion, there are a handful of topics sure to produce the desired effect.
But it’s possible none are quite as contentious as the topic of spanking.
Those who are against it point to the research showing the negative consequences of spanking.
Those who are for it often point to their own childhoods, saying, “See, I turned out just fine.”
Such is the case with Stephanie Thompson of New Jersey.
She told Healthline she was spanked as a child, and her children are spanked today. But the spanking she describes is quite different from what Liberman experienced.
“Spanking was normally a last resort in my household growing up, but I can remember being spanked a handful of times. It was always after other things had failed to put an end to whatever behavior it was I shouldn’t have been engaging in. I was spanked with both an open hand and a switch,” Thompson recalled.
Today, she says, “Each of my three children have been spanked probably two to five times over their lifetimes. Spanking has always been a very last resort for us, and only for the most serious of offenses. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, they don’t repeat the offense.”
So is there a difference between the type of spanking these two mothers described?
And could it be there are potentially times when spanking is, in fact, an appropriate disciplinary tactic without long-term consequences?
It’s not that simple, according to Monica Jackman, an occupational therapist in Florida specializing in pediatrics and mental health.
“We still have a generation of parents who have been spanked,” she told Healthline. “So for them, it’s familiar. But even if you look at our culture in general, we don’t discipline people who have broken the law with physical violence. So why do we do so with our children? Most of the time, when a parent is spanking, they are angry or frustrated — even if they are trying not to be. So it sends a mixed message, because the parent is hitting when they are angry or frustrated, but the child would then get into trouble for doing the same.”
“Even beyond that,” she explained, “physical violence typically results in fear. Which may stop a child from repeating the behavior. They’re afraid, so they avoid engaging in whatever challenging behavior it was that produced that fear. But you aren’t actually teaching the child anything. Even if you add a conversation after the spanking, as an adult, you’re modeling physical violence as a means to an end to get a child to change their behavior. We need to think about the message that sends kids: Hitting can be used to get someone else to do what you want.”
Instead, she says, “Parents need to teach their kids to have better emotional control. And they teach that by modeling it themselves.”
Dr. Michael Yogman, a pediatrician and member of the AAP, agrees.
“The origin of the word ‘discipline’ comes from learning,” he told Healthline. “And kids aren’t learning when they are being hit. So if the goal of discipline is learning, then we’ve got to find better ways — and we’ve got to help parents find better ways.”
“Part of this is cultural,” he went on. “Parents definitely say, ‘Well, this is what I was brought up with, and I’m fine.’ So as pediatricians, how do we deal with the issue of culture in spite of the evidence?”
The answer to that question may come from finding out why parents are so quick to dismiss the research.
For Thompson, the problem is that science isn’t perfect and no research study can account for everything.
Before her interview with Healthline, Thompson requested a full copy of the most recent research.
“I like science, even when I disagree,” she said. “And I’d like to read the full study before I comment.”
Once she did, she came back with a list of areas where the research fell short.
“On the surface, it seems as if they’ve accounted for all these different factors,” Thompson said. “But there’s still so much they missed. For instance, the study itself was completed only in Texas. Having grown up in Texas myself, I’m well aware that corporal punishment is probably more the norm there than in other places. So is it possible that corporal punishment in schools is more likely to lead to physical abuse, as opposed to occasional spanking in the home? The study also only used self-reporting from the children and young adults who were spanked. It didn’t corroborate any of those statements with parents and significant others.”
She had similar issues with other studies that produced negative spanking outcomes.
“Is there a difference between spanking in extremely religious homes?” she asked. “Or what about homes where spanking is used only very rarely, as opposed to homes where it is a much more common event? I think psychology is still a growing field, and we need more data points to make such sweeping claims and hypotheses.”
For Thompson, and likely for many other parents who spank like her, her own personal experiences carry more weight than the research she’s read.
Which brings us back to spanking really being a cultural thing in the United States.
Of course, not every child of spanking has a positive association to that experience. Liberman said, “When I was in that situation, I didn’t feel loved or supported. I felt shamed and less than. Anytime we did something that we shouldn’t have or made a mistake, the response was that we were physically hurt.”
After looking over the recent research and the link to future domestic violence, she added, “It makes sense to me. I’ve lived it. I’ve watched my siblings live it. About half of us are in healthy and balanced relationships today. But the other half are in relationships that are either emotionally or physically abusive. For them, it isn’t just the one relationship. It’s cyclical.”
“It may seem like a bit of a stretch to some parents,” Yogman pointed out, “but the issue of violence and power in regards to spanking is actually quite real. And given the recent #MeToo movement, it’s important to talk about the fact that children who were spanked tend to believe that violence is a way to exert and gain power.”
So what are the alternatives for parents who want to shift their child’s behavior without potentially contributing to long-term negative consequences?
“We need to be willing to look at the root of problem behaviors before just jumping into discipline,” Jackman, who routinely helps parents address problem behaviors at Little Lotus Therapy, told Healthline. “A lot of times, there is a skill deficit contributing to the problem behavior, which means no reward or punishment is going to work until that skill deficit is resolved. It might be a problem with self-awareness, self-regulation, social awareness, or a host of other things.”
Jackman continued, “For a lot of kids who don’t have skill deficits in these areas, improving behavior can be as simple as stopping them, walking through the issue, encouraging time-ins, and then helping them to better problem solve in the future. But for kids with executive function issues or self-regulation problems, they may need more intensive social and emotional interventions. And that’s where an occupational therapist or behavioral therapist may be able to help.”
Some of this, she says, might be what parents need to learn as well. “Parents spank because they are stressed out and experiencing compassion fatigue. At the end of the day, they are just too tired to deal with their child’s problem behavior, and they just want it to stop. That’s normal. Compassion fatigue is a very real thing. But that’s where I think contemplative practices, mindfulness, medication, and better stress management interventions can help.”
For now, the evidence against spanking is far more robust than anything that might be found in favor of spanking.
But culturally, Americans continue to believe spanking is a viable option.
Changing those attitudes isn’t likely going to happen overnight. And if you read the comments on any spanking discussion online, you’ll see plenty of parents swearing it’s the method that works best for them and their children.
Which means we may have to wait another generation to see how, and if, those attitudes change.