Factors of Interest

While more recent findings—considerate of the definition of spanking and considering the frequency and ‘harshness’ of the act—support the negative outcomes previously associated with spanking, it does not mean that there are not groups or factors that may dampen (or accentuate) these effects.  First, the role of race has been prominent in this discussion, with some researchers suggesting that spanking is more common amongst African American parents and thus the negative effects would be less (the normative effect)

[1].  One example of recent research suggesting race differences examined parental discipline techniques used with children ages 6-8 and the subsequent externalizing problems at age 9.  Despite similar rates of externalizing behaviours and similar rates of spanking across European American and African American children, only in European American children was externalizing linked to more frequent reports of spanking.  However, other large scale studies have failed to find a moderating effect of race[2][3][4] and a review of the spanking literature by Dr. Joan Durrant found that, across studies, this cross-cultural argument was weak, with there being considerable consistency in the effects of spanking on both externalizing and other behaviours across cultures[5].  So while certain individual studies may find an effect, it is not a robust effect and may simply be a product of another variable or sampling error.

A second factor related to this idea of the normative effect of spanking behaviour is religion, specifically certain Christian denominations.  With several biblical quotations used to justify the corporal punishment of children (e.g., “He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes”; “The rod and reproof give wisdom: but a child left to himself bringeth his mother to shame”), it is not uncommon to hear of spankings and other forms of corporal punishment amongst those who are conservative in their religious beliefs (for a rather extreme example, see the advice doled out by Michael and Debi Pearl in ‘To Train A Child’).  While there are debates around the use of the bible to justify spanking and other punishments (with religious folks falling on both sides), some have postulated that the use of spanking as a form of love may buffer the negative effects of spanking found in other groups.  One study has examined the effects of spanking by various religions and found that while most children showed the expected pattern of adverse outcomes from spanking, children of mothers who mothers who belonged to conservative Protestant groups in the US did not show these adverse effects[6].  Given the results were only for one specific denomination, it is unclear the mechanism behind this protective factor, but early evidence suggests a possible caveat to spanking outcomes.

A final factor is age which has received less attention than race, but more than religion.  Most studies have examined the effects of spanking in children older than 2, but the fact remains that spanking of younger children occurs and occurs with some consistency[7].  A few exceptions to this rule of age have shown that the effects on younger children are in line with what has been found in older children, and perhaps even more severe.  As previously mentioned, the research using the FFCWS data found that spanking at age 1 was related to externalizing problems at age 3.  In another large research study, over 2500 low-income mother-child dyads (from the Early Head Start program) were examined at ages 1, 2, and 3[3].  The use of low-income only mothers controls for variability in SES, though other controls were included (e.g., maternal depression, education).  These researchers found that spanking at age 1 was predictive of both externalizing problems at age 2 and cognitive deficits at age 3; importantly, previous aggression and cognitive scores did not predict spanking, thus the results were not due to a cycle in which behaviour led to spanking which then predicted behaviour again.  A final study examined spanking in infancy (under 1 year of age) and found spanking at that age to be associated with dysfunctional child stress reactivity, specifically these infants showed higher hormonal stress responses to minor stressors than non-spanked counterparts[8].  This last finding raises concerns over the consequences of very early spanking.  That is, a dysfunctional stress reactivity pattern that develops early in life can affect a host of cognitive and social outcomes later in life.  Indeed, the effects on stress reactivity are hypothesized to be one mechanism to explain the negative cognitive outcomes associated with spanking[3][9].

Historical/Evolutionary Considerations

One of the comments typically brought up in support of spanking is that it is a time-honoured tradition.  That cultures for thousands of years have used physical punishment in child-rearing and we have not only survived but thrived.  And as someone who focuses on historical and cross-cultural contexts with respect to other parenting practices, it would be silly to ignore it herein.  Let me first iterate that my view of history is predominantly focused on smaller tribal communities—after all, the adage “it takes a village to raise a child” includes village and not city for a reason.  Larger communities tend to be more violent and more disconnected, a problem when considering parenting and the support needed to raise the next generation.

So when I consider physical punishment, I started to examine Aboriginal culture in Canada, where I live (after all, they have lived in this country for over 10,000 years in smaller groups and without running into many problems before Europeans came and settled).  I’m no expert and I will be the first to admit that and would welcome any input from those who are Aboriginal and have far more knowledge than I.  However, I have been able to speak with several acquaintances who are actively involved in Aboriginal culture and affairs who assure me that physical punishment is not and was not a part of Aboriginal culture.  That peaceful parenting is indeed a long-standing facet of Aboriginal parenting.  This has been reiterated in visits to museums in the area and listening to various talks by Michael Chandler, a professor emeritus at UBC who specializes in Aboriginal issues.  It has also been confirmed in various scholarly writings[10][11].  In fact, even today, when the Aboriginal culture in Canada has been hurt by years of systematic government infringement and children are disproportionately involved in the Child Welfare System, the reasons are rarely to do with abuse[10]; relative to non-Aboriginal and other minority groups in Canada, physical abuse remains a small fraction of the reasons for child maltreatment (16% for Aboriginal children versus 34% for non-Aboriginal children and 46% for other visible minorities).

I cannot speak for every Aboriginal culture or every smaller tribal culture.  I am sure there are several that include regular physical punishment of children.  However, knowing what I know about the history of Aboriginal culture in Canada, I feel confident that I am not falling short on placing a no-spanking view in a cross-cultural and historical context.  Just as not all small tribal cultures utilize all of the methods that comprise Evolutionary Parenting, not all are expected to be spanking-free, but enough are that I feel the roots of peaceful parenting extend back far enough into history and span various cultures to support the emergence of a societal shift away from corporal punishment.


Thanks to the concerns raised in Dr. Gershoff’s 2002 meta-analysis, much of the recent research on spanking has become better and more specific to the question at hand.  Even with these changes, the research continues to show long-term negative outcomes associated with spanking.  Interestingly, there is some evidence that the conclusion is somewhat nuanced.  Specifically, when very mild and infrequent spanking was examined, no long-term negative outcomes were noted.  Similarly, if the children belonged to families who identified as conservative Protestant (and who were actively involved in that religious community), the negative effects found in other groups did not seem to appear.  A factor previously thought to be important – race – has been shown to have no buffering effect when looked at across multiple studies, and age has proven to be key, with younger children showing potentially some of the most deleterious effects (and starting the cycle of spanking → aggression → more spanking → more aggression).

One thing that is clear is that frequent and harsh spanking are associated with negative outcomes, regardless of group, age, or other factors.  And in turn what becomes deeply concerning is the finding that mild spanking increases the risk for later harsh spanking or other forms of abuse up to seven-fold.  To me, this is paramount because no matter how much one may want to say that mild spanking is not associated with negative outcomes, it is associated with later behaviour that puts a child at risk of later abuse, and it is particularly problematic for younger children.  I believe we have a duty as a society to protect children when it seems clear that harm is coming their way.  For every parent who is able to spank lightly and infrequently without ever having it turn into something more, there are even more parents who cannot do this and for whom one light spanking is a path that leads towards abuse; and though abuse is illegal, it means things have to get that bad before there is any intervention on behalf of the child.  So while taking away parental rights is something I am generally against, when not doing so means that more children are at risk of abuse, I don’t think we can afford to not do anything.

[1] Lansford JE, Alampay L, Bacchini D, Bombi AS, Bornstein MH, Chang L, et al. Corporal punishment of children in nine countries as a function of child gender and parent gender.  International Journal of Pediatrics 2010; Article ID 672780.  DOI: 10.1155/2010/672780.

[2] Mulvaney MK, Mebert, CJ.  Parental corporal punishment predicts behavior problems in early childhood.  Journal of Family Psychology 2007; 21: 389-397.

[3] Berlin LJ, Ispa JM, Fine MA, Malone PS, Brooks-Gunn J, Brady-Smith C, Ayoub C, Bai Y.  Correlates and consequences of spanking and verbal punishment for low-income white, African American, and Mexican American toddlers.  Child Development 2009; 80: 1403-1420.

[4] Gershoff ET, Lansford JE, Sexton HR, Davis-Kean P, Sameroff AJ.  Longitudinal links between spanking and children’s externalizing behaviors in a national sample of White, Black, Hispanic, and Asian American families.  Child Development 2012; 83: 838-843.

[5] Durrant JE.  Physical punishment, culture, and rights: current issues for professionals.  Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics 2008; 29: 55-66.

[6] Ellison CG, Musick MA, Holden GW.  Does conservative Protestanism moderate the association between corporal punishment and child outcomes?  Journal of Marriage and Family 2011; 73: 946-961.

[7] Zolotor AJ, Robinson TW, Runyan DK, Barr RG, Murphy RA.  The emergence of spanking among a representative sample of children under 2 years of age in North Carolina.  Frontiers Psychiatry 2011; 2:36.  doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2011.00036

[8] Baumrind D, Larzelere RE, Cowan PA.  Oridnary physical punishment: is it harmful? Comment on Gershoff.  Psychological Bulletin 2002; 128: 580-589.

[9] Straus MA, Paschall, MJ.  Corporal punishment by mothers and development of children’s cognitive ability: a longitudinal study of two nationally representative age cohorts.  Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma 2009; 18: 459-483.

[10] Blackstock C, Trocmé N.  Community-based child welfare for aboriginal children: supporting resilience through structural change.  Social Policy Journal of New Zealand 2005; 24: 9-22.

[11] Urban WJ, Wagoner JL.  American education: a history.  New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.  1996.