Whether you are a parent who has occasionally spanked your child, an adult with recollections of childhood spanking or even an observer who has witnessed spanking in a public place, you likely have personal experience with the spanking of children for misbehavior.
Spanking remains a common parenting practice in the U.S. A nationally representative, long-term study of children beginning in kindergarten found that 80 percent of children had been spanked by the time they reached third grade.
While we all may have our opinions about whether spanking “works” as a method of disciplining children, what does science tell us? And what are the average outcomes for children who are spanked?
Recently, we conducted a “meta-analysis” – a review of existing research on spanking – to answer these questions. We found that spanking significantly increases the risk of detrimental outcomes for children. While this finding does not mean that every child will experience problems as a result of spanking, it does mean that a large body of research has shown it significantly increases the risks for problems.
Is there any evidence that spanking is good for children?
We included data from 75 studies from the U.S. and 12 other countries that were conducted over a period of 50 years, which included over 160,000 children. We looked at the associations between spanking and several different child outcomes.
Spanking was not linked with better child behavior. Instead, we found spanking was linked with worse child behavior. Spanking was associated with 13 of the 17 outcomes we examined, and all showed spanking was linked with detrimental outcomes.
The more children were spanked, the more aggressive and antisocial they were. We also found that children who were spanked were more likely to have mental health problems, problematic relationships with their parents and lower cognitive ability.
Most troubling were our findings that children who were spanked were at significantly increased risk of being physically abused by their parents. In addition, the link between spanking and negative outcomes for children was two-thirds the size of the link between physical abuse and the same negative outcomes.
This could well mean that spanking and physical abuse are not categorically different behaviors but rather are points along a continuum of hitting children.
The findings of our study were incredibly consistent. Nearly all (99 percent) of the statistically significant effect sizes indicated a link between spanking and negative outcomes for children.
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