Should you ‘Spank’ your child?

by | Sep 15, 2020

Clinical psychologist Dr Laura Markham explores the polarising issue of whether or not you should use spanking to punish your child. It’s very clear where she stands.

Were you spanked as a child? If so, you may think it’s a good way to guide a child. Or maybe you don’t want to spank, but you find yourself doing it because you don’t know how else to get through to your child. Interestingly, adults who were not spanked as children don’t spank their kids – it just feels wrong to them. And you know what? They find other ways to get through to their kids and their children turn out fine. In fact, it’s the kids who are spanked who have a harder time regulating their emotions and who get into more trouble.

The proof is in the research
The last thirty years of research give us very clear results. (See the book references at the end.) Kids who are spanked are less emotionally healthy than kids who aren’t. What’s more, kids who are spanked behave worse over time.

So if you were spanked and think you came out alright, it wasn’t because of the spanking.

A 2013 study by Elizabeth Gershoff and her team reviewed the previous two decades of research and confirmed that children who are spanked are more likely to exhibit depression, anxiety, drug use, and aggression as they get older. Children who have suffered more severe corporal punishment have been shown to have less grey matter in their frontal cortex, and to have more hyper-vigilant amygdalae – meaning they are more sensitive to stressful situations and may experience greater levels of anxiety.

The only positive outcome that’s ever been shown from spanking is immediate compliance. That sounds like a good outcome, right? The problem is that corporal punishment is also associated with less long-term compliance. Corporal punishment has repeatedly been linked with nine other negative outcomes, including increased rates of aggression, delinquency, mental health problems, and problems in relationships with their parents.

From being hit to being the hitter
Large, peer-reviewed studies repeatedly show that the more children are hit, the more likely they are to hit others, including peers and siblings. As adults, they are more likely to hit their spouses. The more parents spank children for antisocial behaviour, the more the antisocial behaviour increases. All of the peer-reviewed studies being published continue to confirm these findings.

A major study at Tulane University, published in Pediatrics, controlled for other factors that have been found to contribute to aggressiveness in children, including the mother’s depression, alcohol and drug use, spousal abuse and even whether the mother considered abortion while pregnant with the child. Spanking remained a strong predictor of violent behaviour in the child.

As five-year-olds, the children who had been spanked were more likely than the non-spanked to be defiant, demand immediate satisfaction of their wants and needs, become frustrated easily, have temper tantrums and lash out physically against other people or animals.

Spanking does not equal discipline
Quite simply, spanking produces worse behaviour, not better behaviour. It also begets more violence, because hitting children teaches them that it is acceptable to hit others who are smaller and weaker. “I’m going to hit you because you hit your sister,” is a hypocrisy not lost on children. As every parent knows, kids do what we do, not what we say.

Discipline means “to teach.” If we’re serious about raising good kids, we need to use methods that teach kids to manage themselves. Spanking does not do that. Instead, it teaches kids to be afraid of us, which is no basis for love. It teaches them to be sneaky so they won’t be caught doing something wrong. It teaches kids that they are bad, so they are more likely to behave badly. It teaches kids to use violence when they want to solve a problem. And it keeps them from taking responsibility to improve their own behaviour, because they “externalise the locus of control,” which means they only behave because an authority figure makes them, rather than behaving because they want to. I haven’t seen any research on this, but my anecdotal report is that if you talk to people in prison, you’ll find they were all spanked as children.

The unfortunate thing is that spanking not only doesn’t work, it is totally unnecessary. When children are raised with age-appropriate expectations and limits accompanied by empathy, they tend to behave and cooperate. Those children don’t need much in the way of discipline at all, and they become self-disciplined adults.

So what should you do instead?
The next time you get so angry you want to hit someone, tell your kids you’re taking a timeout and you’ll deal with them later. Then go into the bathroom and calm yourself down. Use the time to get calm, not to justify your anger. When you return, tell your kids that you need to think hard about what they did, but right now you need to make dinner (do the laundry, whatever). Tell them you need them to be little angels, and you will talk when you are all calm later. Then follow through with whatever punishment you have decided is appropriate.
Your discipline and teaching will be so much more effective. They’ll learn a lot better when they aren’t in the flush of fight or flight hormones, and you will be so grateful to see yourself becoming the kind of parent every child deserves.

A truly fantastic book is LR Knost’s Jesus, the Gentle Parent: Gentle Christian Parenting (available as a Kindle edition on Amazon). It outlines recent studies about spanking, from which I am quoting here:
“As five-year-olds, the children who had been spanked were more likely than the non-spanked to be defiant, demand immediate satisfaction of their wants and needs, become frustrated easily, have temper tantrums and lash out physically against other people or animals” 33 (Time, “Physical Punishment Increases Aggression in Children”)
“Physical punishment is also associated with a variety of mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety and use of drugs and alcohol” 34 (Science Daily, Canadian Medical Association Journal, “Long-term Negative Effects of Physical Punishment”)
“IQs of children ages two to four who were not spanked were five points higher four years later than the IQs of those who were spanked” 35 (Science Daily, “Research Shows Children Who Are Spanked Have Lower IQs”)
“Dr Brazy at Duke University and Ludington-Hoe and colleagues at Case Western University showed in two separate studies how prolonged crying in infants causes increased blood pressure in the brain, elevates stress hormones, obstructs blood from draining out of the brain, and decreases oxygenation to the brain. They concluded that caregivers should answer cries swiftly, consistently, and comprehensively.” 36 (Dr William Sears: “Studies on the Effects of Excessive/Prolonged Crying in Infancy”)
“Dr Allan Schore (1996) of the UCLA School of Medicine has demonstrated that the stress hormone cortisol can damage nerve connections in significant areas of the infant’s brain. His research suggests that not only does stress damage connections in these areas of the infant’s brain, but when the areas of the infant’s brain responsible for bonding, emotional control, and attachment are not nurtured in a healthy way, those areas remain undeveloped or underdeveloped” 37 (Cambridge Journal, “Studies on the Effects of Prolonged Crying in Infancy”)