To spank or not to spank? It is a question asked by many parents, especially when faced with an unruly toddler or child, and the line dividing those who support the practice and those who do not is about as wide as a football field. This divide is not limited to countries where the practice proliferates (e.g., the USA), it is seen even in countries where the practice has been outlawed (e.g., New Zealand). For those who are proponents of spanking, the usual defense is that it is a time-honoured practice that is known to produce compliance amongst children. And given the history of corporal punishment in society, can we truly say that it is detrimental to those on the receiving end? On the other hand, parents who oppose the practice cite much research suggesting negative child outcomes associated with spanking as well as a low societal tolerance for physical altercations more generally, especially towards other adults. One would think that with the evidence cited by many countries and health professions against the practice, the issue would be moot. But (yes, there’s a ‘but’), much of the older research cited has flaws and thus leaves the door open for those who support the practice to stake their claim.
The Previous Evidence: What’s Wrong With It?
The most cited work against spanking was done by Elizabeth Gershoff in 2002 when she performed a meta-analysis and review of the literature on spanking. Dr. Gershoff reviewed 88 studies that spanned six decades and concluded that harsh punishment was related negatively to 10 of the 11 child outcomes examined. The most prominent relationship was with childhood aggression, with children who had experienced harsh discipline and physical punishment being far more likely to exhibit aggressive tendencies throughout childhood. The one area which was not found to be negative was compliance, with harsh punishment being positively associated with immediate (but not long-term) compliance. However, as Dr. Gershoff herself stated in the meta-analysis, the studies examined utilized various definitions of spanking and included harsh punishments that might not be deemed to be spanking, clouding the conclusions that could be drawn. Furthermore, much of the previous research was cross-sectional (versus longitudinal) in nature, raising questions about the causality that was assumed by those interpreting the results of her analysis. Other researchers echoed these concerns, highlighting the need for more research and better definitions of spanking in order to make any conclusions about spanking and child outcomes.[It is worth noting though that despite Dr. Gershoff’s shared caveats to the research, her personal views (based on the research) sided with those who are opposed to the practice. Her work continues to look at aspects of spanking and outcomes associated with the practice.]
Most recently, another research review recently published by Joan Durrant and Ron Ensom in the Canadian Medical Association Journal for a call to ban spanking in Canada discusses myriad research on the outcomes of spanking. While some of the concerns of the original Gershoff review hold with some of the research cited herein (e.g., problems to do with spanking versus other forms of physical punishment; causation), many included in this review do not (though unfortunately they aren’t separated out and no meta-analysis was conducted). And once again, overall the research overwhelmingly supports negative outcomes associated with spanking – including mental health problems in adulthood, drug and alcohol use, and aggression. But once again, this doesn’t seem to be enough. So let’s look at some of the larger-scale studies and what they can tell us.
In one of the most recent comprehensive studies on the topic, researchers in the US utilized data from the Fragile Families and Child Well-Being Study (FFCWS), a large scale study examining family outcomes for a birth cohort (N=4200) across 18 medium-to-large cities in the US to examine the effects of spanking and spanking frequency on child outcomes. Data on parenting practices by both mothers and fathers was collected when the child was age 3 and externalizing behaviours and verbal ability were assessed at age 5. Spanking was assessed on a yes/no basis as well as assessing frequency which was divided based on two times per week or more versus two times per week or less. In the full sample, 55.2% of mothers spanked their child at age 3 (11.2% reported a frequency of greater than twice per week whereas 44% reported a frequency of less than twice per week) and 43.2% of fathers reported spanking at age 3 (8% reported a frequency of greater than twice per week whereas 35.2% reported a frequency of less than twice per week). Control variables included family size and structure, SES, parental education, parental work, parenting stress, parenting mental health and emotionality, substance use, parental warmth, child temperament, and earlier child behaviour.
Results for the risk of spanking at age 3 include an effect of race (African American families were more likely than Caucasian or Hispanic families to spank their children) and cumulative risk factor (based on the number of factors known to affect spanking at child age 1; includes, but not limited to, maternal mental health, stress, drug use, economic hardship, and paternal criminality) in which children with a higher cumulative risk factor were more likely to be spanked at age 3. Importantly, normative data also predicted the likelihood to spank with families who live in areas where spanking is more common also being more likely to spank. With respect to outcomes of spanking, when included on their own, spanking of any kind (maternal, paternal, frequent, or less frequent) was predictive of externalizing behaviours at age 5. However, when the kitchen sink was included in the model, only frequent maternal spanking was predictive of externalizing behaviour at age 5. The results were similar for child verbal ability, with frequent maternal spanking predicting lower verbal ability above and beyond all of the controls included in the analyses.
A few limitations of the research are notable. First, spanking still remained parent-defined. Some may have included harsher punishments along with what is traditionally thought to be spanking. This is a problem highlighted by Dr. Gershoff, but is difficult to implement in large-scale studies due to the nature of data collection. Second, many of the control variables included in the models were those that were predictive of spanking at age 3. This is slightly problematic because it becomes impossible to disentangle their effects on spanking and externalizing behaviours. For example, the relationship between maternal stress and externalizing behaviours may be through spanking in that a mother who is stressed is more likely to spank which leads to externalizing behaviours. However, the way regression works is to remove the variance between maternal stress and externalizing behaviours when looking at the effects of spanking, leaving the question of mediation unanswered. These are important questions as it affects which source to work on to improve child outcomes. Finally, maternal spanking at age 1 was not included in the model. While it may not change the results, I would be curious if it predicted some of the earlier externalizing behaviours that are predictive of externalizing behaviours at age 5. Given that there is research that spanking in infancy can have deleterious effects to stress regulation, it seems that early spanking may be a factor that requires more research in the years to come.
Luckily for us, even more recently other researchers utilized this same dataset to examine the question of the role of spanking at age 1 on child behavioural and cognitive outcomes. Spanking at age 1 was predictive of both externalizing problems at age 3 and age 5, though the effects at age 5 were through continued spanking at age 3. This raises an important issue with the previous results which found that the inclusion of externalizing behaviour at age 3 in the model predicting externalizing behaviour at age 5 rendered other forms of spanking outside of frequent, maternal spanking non-significant may be further influenced by even earlier spanking. Critically, as spanking at age 1 predicts externalizing behaviours at age 3 which in turn predict externalizing behaviours at age 5, spanking remains the earliest causal factor and thus we may want to consider both frequent and less-frequent spanking as contributing to later externalizing behaviour as they were significant predictors when externalizing at age 3 was not included in the model.
To address the issue of spanking versus more harsh punishment on externalizing behaviours, Jennifer Lansford and colleagues examined frequency and type of spanking (with a hand or object; and always ensuring it was spanking and not other corporal punishment) and externalizing at ages 6, 7, and 8. Externalizing was rated by both parents and teachers in order to provide more validity (as maternal-report only may be biased by the use of punishment). Spanking frequency was also assessed in the following intervals: never, less than once a month, about once a month, about once a week, and about once a day. Across the three age groups, the largest percentage of children were spanked less than once a month, followed by never, then once a month, once a week, and finally once a day. Being spanked with an object was far less frequent than with a hand and the majority of children (64-66%) were never spanked with an object.
Harsh spanking (defined as either the use of an object while spanking or spanking once a week or more frequently) was concurrently related to externalizing behaviours across all ages while controlling for child gender, SES, family stress, mothers’ marital status, mothers’ age, and the previous years’ child externalizing scores. The results were significant for maternal reports of externalizing behaviours and though the relationships were non-significant, they were in the same direction for the teacher reported externalizing behaviours (and seem to be due to no differences between mild and moderate spanking groups as the harsh spanking group has an externalizing score that is nearly double that of the mild spanking group at each age point). When the data was analyzed to examine the relationships across time, both teacher and maternal reports of externalizing behaviours were predicted by previous moderate and harsh spanking behaviour. Interestingly in the time-lagged analyses, mild spanking (infrequent and only with a hand) was only related to concurrent and prior externalizing behaviours, but not future externalizing behaviour. This provides some support for those who would argue that mild spanking does not carry long-term effects.
However, there’s an issue that was ignored in much of the previous research that has been addressed in the newer studies. Namely, how spanking affects the risk of harsher punishments. Lansford and colleagues found mild spanking one year was a risk factor for harsh spanking the following year; that is, compared to parents who did not spank at all, parents who used mild spanking were 50% more likely to engage in harsh spanking the following year. Data from the FFCWS study looking at 1 year olds also found this; specifically, spanking at age 1 was related to more frequent spanking at age 3 compared to children who were not spanked at all at age 1. A large-scale Canadian study found that children who had been spanked by their parents were seven times more likely to be assaulted (defined as punched or kicked) by their parents. Another study found that infants (< 1 year) who had been spanked were nearly two and half times more likely to suffer abuse related injuries that would require medical attention. Therefore, even though there is a small amount of research that has not found negative effects for mild spanking, it has been found that spanking, no matter how mild, raises the risk that a parent will engage in harsher corporal punishment in the future, a practice for which the negative child outcomes are not in doubt.