The old adage may say “spare the rod and spoil the child,” but a new study finds that spanking as a means of discipline has negative effects on children. The research, published in the April issue of the Journal of Family Psychology, showed that the more children are spanked, the more likely they are to defy their parents and experience anti-social behavior, aggression, mental health issues and cognitive difficulties.
“Our analysis focuses on what most Americans would recognize as spanking [an open-handed hit on the behind or extremities] and not on potentially abusive behaviors,” Elizabeth Gershoff, PhD, an associate professor of human development and family sciences at the University of Texas at Austin, said in an April 25 news release.
“We found that spanking was associated with unintended detrimental outcomes and was not associated with more immediate or long-term compliance, which are parents’ intended outcomes when they discipline their children,” Gershoff said.
For the study, Gershoff and co-author Andrew Grogan-Kaylor, PhD, an associate professor at the University of Michigan School of Social Work, reviewed 111 studies done over the course of five decades. The studies involved 160,027 children who were assessed on the basis of 17 possible effects of spanking. The researchers found that spanking was associated with 13 of the 17 effects, “all in the direction of detrimental outcomes.”
“The upshot of the study is that spanking increases the likelihood of a wide variety of undesired outcomes for children,” Grogan-Kaylor said in the news release. “Spanking thus does the opposite of what parents usually want it to do.”
The two researchers also looked at long-term effects among adults and found that the more they were spanked as a child, the more likely they were to exhibit anti-social behaviors and experience mental health problems. In addition, they found adults who were spanked as a child were more inclined to spank their own children, highlighting how attitudes towards physical punishment pass from generation to generation.
The co-authors’ analysis of the wide range of studies showed that spanking was associated with detrimental outcomes consistently and across all types of studies. In fact, their research revealed that spanking and physical child abuse were associated with the same negative behaviors.
“We as a society think of spanking and physical abuse as distinct behaviors,” Gershoff said. “Yet our research shows that spanking is linked with the same negative child outcomes as abuse, just to a slightly lesser degree.”
Gershoff noted that their study results were consistent with a recently released Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that called for “public engagement and education campaigns and legislative approaches to reduce corporal punishment,” including spanking, as a means of reducing physical child abuse. “We hope that our study can help educate parents about the potential harms of spanking and prompt them to try positive and non-punitive forms of discipline.”