Is Spanking Your Child Bad or Not?

Written by Maureen Ferrin

I remember hearing stories about the wooden spoon hanging from the rear view mirror of our ’87 Chevy Caprice Station Wagon. As the stories go, mom never actually used the spoon for spanking, but it sure worked well as a threat for good behavior. Although my siblings and I weren’t victims to the wooden spoon, or an open palm, I vaguely remember the feeling of wanting to behave well and do as I was told, in order to avoid a spanking from the adults around me.

In 2016, Melinda Moyer of Scientific American posed the question, “are kids being spanked for acting out or acting out because they’re spanked?” The effects of spanking a child have been studied for decades, and yet we still don’t have a definitive answer on whether or not it is ultimately negative or positive for the child. When they are acting out, according to whatever standards they have been raised by, is it more effective to pop them on the bum? Or is it worthwhile to pause the activity and use it as a teaching moment?


The percentage of parents around the world who spank their children, according to a 2014 UNICEF report.

In times of conflict, lashing out and relying on our emotions can be detrimental to what could have been a healthy, open conversation to resolving the conflict at hand. The same may be said for spanking. Is it beneficial to assert our role as “the adult,” physically? Or can it be done by speaking with the child?

Part of the problem is that spanking comes on a spectrum; some thinking of spanking along the lines of child abuse, when for others, spanking is simply a harmless pat, a physical reminder backing up important rules.

Further complicating the issue, what may work for one child may not work for another. Where some children may need the physical reminder of good behavior, other children can be reminded through other means. For example, taking away certain privileges or toys can be just as impactful as a spanking.

Opponents of spanking point to recent research. Perhaps the most comprehensive study on spanking and its effects came from researchers at the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Michigan, who examined 75 studies involving 160,000 children. The studies looked at “the relationship between spanking by parents, and the behavioral, emotional, cognitive and physical outcomes among their kids.” They found that:

Spanking was associated with 13 out of a total 17 negative outcomes they assessed, including increased aggression and behavioral and mental health problems as well as reduced cognitive ability and self-esteem.

They also “found no evidence that spanking is associated with improved child behavior.” These researchers concluded that spanking is linked with the same negative child outcomes as abuse, but to a “slightly lesser degree.”

“Spanking thus does the opposite of what parents usually want it to do,” said Grogan-Kaylor, co-author of the study.

But some may be thinking, “I was spanked as a child, and I seem to be a mentally healthy person.” The study does condemn spanking, but doesn’t claim that it turns kids into debilitated adults. The “magnitude” of the associations is small, to use the authors’ words. The biggest takeaway is that their research doesn’t show positive outcomes of spanking.

Still, there are many proponents of spanking. Focus On the Family says that spanking can be an appropriate form of discipline, if done correctly. There are studies that back this up. Researchers from the University of Nebraska Medical Center, for example, found that spanking used in limited conditions worked better than 10 of 13 alternative disciplinary tactics, like time-out and scolding. Another researcher named Dr. Ray Guarendi studied outstanding children (morality, character, motivation) and found that 70 percent of their parents used some form of physical punishment.

But spanking seems to be trending down. NPR’s Rob Stein wrote that the number of parents spanking children has significantly declined in the last two and a half decades. Does this mean that parents started to believe physical forms of discipline lead to more violent behavior in their children? That wooden spoon hanging from the rear-view mirror may have impacted me just as much as an actual spanking, but am I worse off or more violent because of it? I don’t believe so.
Now that I have my own child, I feel the pains of decision making when it comes to big life choices. Do I make my own baby food? Do I discipline in public or wait until we are home or in the car? Do I homeschool him or let him attend public school? As a parent, you have to be prepared to make tough decisions. Spanking will be one of those decisions. As you come to know your child, and learn about your parenting style, the decision will become clear.

If You Decide Spanking Will Be Part of Your Approach to Discipline, Here Are Some Rules

  • Infants should never be spanked. Younger preschoolers may respond best to this form of discipline, because at this age, reasoning and removing privileges doesn’t make sense to them.
  • Only spank in cases of willful disobedience or defiance. Never spank just because of childishness, or simple irresponsibility.
  • Spanking should never be harsh or impulsive, and shouldn’t cause any physical harm. It should be a conscious, controlled decision.
  • Those with tempers shouldn’t spank.
  • A child should receive a warning before doing something worthy of a spanking.
  • Don’t spank until you’ve established what the child did wrong, with the child. A question like “what did you do wrong?” can be effective.
  • Don’t embarrass your child by spanking in public. Shame is not the goal of effective discipline.
  • Communicate disappointment, not anger.
  • Spanks should sting, nothing more.
  • Spanking should be followed expressions of love and being together.

Source: Focus on the Family

Sources: Scientific American,, Journal of Family Psychology, Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review,

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