For decades, spanking has created controversy among parents, pediatricians, and researchers. Since the 1970s, researchers have repeatedly cautioned that spanking has little if any benefit to children. Despite the dire warnings from professionals, parents continue to spank their children.
Although spanking’s popularity has dropped over the past 30 years, it remains a common practice. Because childhood experiences can impact a child well into adulthood, parents and professionals are concerned about the possible consequences of spanking.
What is spanking? In everyday conversation, “spanking” (or whipping, whuppin’, popping, or smacking) is used to name a variety of behaviors. However, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), spanking is “striking a child with an open hand on the buttocks or extremities with the intention of modifying behavior without causing physical injury.” Other sorts of physical punishment, such as using a thin tree branch (“switch”) or belt is not considered spanking but fall within the broader category of corporal punishment. Significantly, neither spanking nor corporal punishment is generally considered child abuse by academics.
Who spanks? Spanking is both popular and unpopular. Internationally, there is a movement to end corporal punishment. This movement has been spurred along by the efforts of the United Nations and its agencies. One UN campaign aims to end all forms of physical punishment. To date, the UN reports that 53 countries have joined the campaign and adopted bans on all corporal punishment.
In America, it is legal for a parent to spank a child in the home in all fifty states and the District of Columbia. Americans take advantage of the nation’s liberal spanking laws which may differ state to state in the severity of spanking allowed. Surveys indicate that 65 percent of Americans believe spanking is appropriate; half of all parents reported that they had spanked their children.
Though spanking appears to have broad popularity, there are many factors that influence its true popularity. According to University of Chicago surveys, geography, religion, politics, and race can influence which children are likely to be spanked. Spanking is most popular in the South and least popular in the Northeast. It is more popular with Christians than non-Christians. Republicans are more likely to spank than Democrats. African-Americans are more likely to spank than whites.
Why do experts reject spanking? While spanking remains popular with parents, experts do not agree that spanking is acceptable. The AAP has declared that it “strongly opposes striking a child for any reason. Spanking is never recommended; infants may be physically harmed by a parent who strikes the child.” In a guidance document, the AAP explained its reasons for issuing the blanket prohibition. First, it noted that spanking is generally less effective than other disciplinary tactics. Also, spanking’s limited effectiveness decreases with use. As such, parents must spank more often and with more force to maintain any effects. Moreover, a parent that spanks models aggressive behavior, causing a child to become aggressive in response. The American Psychological Association concurs.
Nearly all researchers have concluded that spanking is more harmful than helpful. Dr. Elizabeth Gershoff, professor of Human Development and Family Sciences at the University of Texas, has conducted several of the largest analyses, as well as reviews on prior studies to look for trends. Her most recent review found that spanking is harmful in nearly all circumstances. She noted that thirteen of seventeen prior studies concluded that spanking led to “more aggression, more antisocial behavior, more externalizing problems [e.g., misbehavior], more mental health problems, and more negative relationships with parents, . . . lower moral internalization [e.g., depression, anxiety], lower cognitive ability, and lower self-esteem.” She further noted that the negative outcomes persisted even when mere spankings, as opposed to outright abuse, were examined. Even scholars that debated the validity of Dr. Gershoff’s prior studies agree that “spanking and CP [corporal punishment] do appear to be significantly associated with small increases in negative outcomes.”
Research indicates that the effects of spanking can be long-lasting. One study found that a child’s odds of displaying aggressive behavior at age 5 was higher the more that child had been spanked at age 3. Other studies have found that children who are spanked are more likely to be in abusive relationships in adulthood.
While parents of all races spank, in the Black community spanking is a particularly emotionally charged issue for African-Americans. Of all race/ethnic groups, African-Americans are most likely to spank their children. Do they children suffer? The research on this topic is thought-provoking.
Culturally, although all parents spank, African-American parents believe they have reasons to spank that go beyond controlling a child in the moment. African-American parents reason that if a spanking now can prevent police encounters later, or behavior that puts their child at risk, despite studies to the contrary, it may be well worth the risk.
Compounding the problem is the fact that culture can impact the negative effects of spanking. Studies by researchers from the University of Michigan, Duke University, and Boston College have found that the negative outcomes that come from spanking may be reduced for Black children. This may be because spanking is viewed positively by the community, causing children to feel less ostracized or ashamed when it occurs. Nevertheless, as the Duke study noted, the fact that the implications for Black children might be less does not mean they are far from non-existent.
There is another side to the issue. Many African-Americans are beginning to view corporal punishment as a relic from the days of slavery that should be abandoned. Dr. Stacey Patton, a professor of journalism at Morgan State University and author of “Spare the Kids: Why Whupping Children Won’t Save Black America,” has written extensively about the harm that spanking causes to African-American children. In an essay, she wrote that spanking was not something that the Africans brought with them to the Americas, but rather, something that grew out of the “tremendous pressure” enslaved parents faced when any infraction could be punished by in the cruelest and vicious ways. Dr. Patton further explained, “The use of corporal punishment in black communities today is a byproduct of centuries of slavery, the racial terrorism of the Jim Crow era, and exposure to racism that continues to chip away at the vitality of black life. Black parents have been encouraged to be part of the dehumanization process of their black children since before America’s founding.”
What’s a Parent to do? While nearly all studies have found that spanking has negative effects, race might mitigate some of those effects. With inconsistent results, parents may find it difficult to draw conclusions from the studies.
While the influence of race is not clear, the one factor that research shows might cancel out some of the negative effects of spanking is emotional support. The University of Michigan study noted above found that when children in homes with high levels of emotional support (e.g., hugging, caressing, and displaying a positive attitude toward the child) were spanked, there was almost no negative effect.
However, the problem is that research also shows that when parents spank, it is rarely from a place of emotional support. While experts caution that a parent choosing to spank should not do so in anger, parents frequently lash out in anger. It is possible that even in an emotionally supportive environment, the damage done spanking while frustrated could undermine the parent-child bond. In the end, each parent must make an informed decision about the best way to discipline his or her children. However, the parent must remain aware that spanking, if done improperly, can undercut the goal of raising children that are healthy, happy, and whole.