Spanking and Child Development: We Know Enough Elizabeth T. Gershoff

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Spanking and Child Development: We Know Enough
Now to Stop Hitting Our Children
Elizabeth T. Gershoff
University of Texas at Austin
remains a common, if controversial,
childrearing practice in the United States. In this article,
I pair mounting research indicating that spanking is both
ineffective and harmful with professional and human
rights opinions disavowing the practice. I conclude that
spanking is a form of violence against children that should
no longer be a part of American childrearing.
against children
Spanking has been used as a method of correcting children’s
behavior since the beginning of recorded history (Scott, 1996),
and likely was used by prehistoric parents long before it
occurred to anyone to write about it. With spanking’s long tenure in the scope of human history, it is no surprise that the
mounting calls for parents to stop spanking their children have
met with skepticism, if not outright derision, from both conservative family advocates (Dobson, 1996) and some academics
(Baumrind, Larzelere, & Cowan, 2002). In this article, I summarize why we should be concerned about the continued use of
spanking as a form of discipline.
Spanking, which in this article means hitting a child on the
bottom with an open hand, is a common parenting practice
Elizabeth T. Gershoff, Department of Human Development and
Family Sciences, University of Texas at Austin.
The author acknowledges support for the writing of this article
from Grant 5 R24 HD042849 awarded to the Population Research
Center at The University of Texas at Austin by the Eunice Kennedy
Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to
Elizabeth T. Gershoff, Department of Human Development and
Family Sciences, University of Texas at Austin, 108 E. Dean Keeton
St., Stop A2702, Austin, TX 78712-1248; e-mail: [email protected]
© 2013 The Author
Child Development Perspectives © 2013 The Society for Research in Child Development
DOI: 10.1111/cdep.12038
around the world. Half of the children in a 33-country survey by
UNICEF reported having been physically punished by their parents (UNICEF, 2010). The prevalence of spanking in the United
States is even greater, with two thirds of young children being
spanked by their parents (65% of 19- to 35-month-olds; Regalado, Sareen, Inkelas, Wissow, & Halfon, 2004), and most teenagers (85%) reporting that they were slapped or spanked by their
mothers at some point (Bender et al., 2007).
As befits a widespread childrearing practice, a large body of
research has examined the links between spanking and subsequent child behavior. This literature has been reviewed extensively elsewhere (Gershoff, 2002, 2010), so what follows
summarizes what is known about spanking and child development.
Spanking Is Ineffective
Most parents’ main goals in spanking their children are (a) to
punish misbehavior and thereby reduce recurrence of the undesirable behavior and (b) to increase the likelihood of desirable
behavior in the future. Spanking is a form of punishment and as
such can only directly achieve the first goal. Specifically, punishment is the process by which a behavior (e.g., a child running
into the street) elicits a punishing consequence (e.g., a spanking)
that decreases the likelihood of that behavior happening again
(e.g., the child no longer runs into the street; Hineline &
Rosales-Ruiz, 2012). How well does spanking decrease undesirable behaviors? Research on spanking has focused on three
undesirable behaviors—short- and long-term noncompliance,
and children’s aggression.
Short-Term Noncompliance
The most germane test of the effectiveness of a punishment is
whether it gets the child to stop engaging in a misbehavior
immediately. Recent evidence is difficult to obtain for several
Volume 7, Number 3, 2013, Pages 133–137
Elizabeth T. Gershoff
reasons. First, spanking is challenging to observe in the home
because it occurs relatively rarely in most families and because
families may not spank in front of observers. Second, it is difficult to study in the lab because university institutional review
boards prohibit the gratuitous hurting of participants.
In the 1980s, a research team at Idaho State University conducted a series of experiments comparing spanking with giving
time-outs (Roberts & Powers, 1990). The team assigned young
children with behavior problems who had been referred to the
clinic to one of several conditions: Some children who disobeyed
an instruction were put in time-out alone and others were put in
time-out, but spanked if they did not stay in the time-out for the
allotted time. The children were then observed to see whether
they complied with a series of 30 commands from their mothers.
In an initial meta-analysis of these studies, children were more
likely to comply when mothers spanked than when they used
time-outs (Gershoff, 2002). But the findings were based on a
comparison of postintervention rates of compliance, which is
typical for random assignment experiments, and failed to consider the fact that the comparison groups in two of the five studies had substantially different rates of initial compliance at
baseline. When the data were reanalyzed to compare the pre- to
postintervention changes in compliance for spanking with those
for time-outs to take the baseline differences into account,
spanking was not found to be more effective than time-outs at
increasing children’s immediate compliance to mothers’ commands (Gershoff & Grogan-Kaylor, 2013).
Long-Term Noncompliance
Parents discipline to achieve not just short-term compliance but
long-term changes in behavior. Several studies have examined
whether spanking is effective in achieving long-term compliance
or promoting the development of conscience, variously operationalized as obedience to commands, resistance to temptation,
and evidence of conscience or guilt. More spanking is associated with less long-term compliance and evidence of conscience
(Gershoff, 2002; Gershoff & Grogan-Kaylor, 2013), so spanking
has not been found to reduce noncompliance in the long term.
Parents report that one of the misbehaviors most likely to elicit
spanking is when a child acts aggressively (Holden, Coleman, &
Schmidt, 1995). Beyond the irony of parents acting aggressively
to reduce aggression in their children, does spanking reduce
children’s aggression? The answer is, clearly and definitively,
no. In all 27 of the relevant studies, spanking was associated
with more, not less, aggression in children (Gershoff, 2002).
Critics of the spanking literature maintain that this association
is an artifact of a child effect, such that aggressive children elicit harsher parenting generally and more spanking in particular
from their parents (Baumrind et al., 2002). Several longitudinal
studies have directly tested this hypothesis by examining crosslagged associations between spanking and children’s aggression,
comparing the path from spanking to aggression (the extent to
which spanking predicts changes in children’s aggression over
time, controlling for initial levels of spanking) with the path from
children’s aggression to spanking (the extent to which children’s
aggression predicts changes in spanking over the same period).
In one study of more than 3,000 preschoolers, increases in
spanking from ages 1 to 3 predicted increases in children’s
aggression from ages 3 to 5, over and above initial levels and
maternal warmth (Lee, Altschul, & Gershoff, 2013).
A second study across the preschool years with more than
2,500 children found that spanking at ages 1, 2, and 3 predicted
increases in externalizing behaviors 1 year later, but found no
evidence of a child effect (Berlin et al., 2009). Moving to the
elementary school years, a study of a nationally representative
sample of 11,044 children found both the spanking effect and
child effect to be significant over the period from kindergarten to
third grade (Gershoff, Lansford, Sexton, Davis-Kean, & Sameroff,
2012). Finally, in a study of 440 families that followed children
over the transition to adolescence, both the spanking and child
effect paths were significant (Sheehan & Watson, 2008).
In these studies, although children’s aggressive behavior often
elicited more spanking over time, this effect did not entirely
explain the association between spanking and children’s aggression. Rather, spanking predicted increases in children’s aggression over and above initial levels. In none of these longitudinal
studies did spanking predict reductions in children’s aggression
over time; in other words, spanking was not effective at achieving parents’ desired goal of reducing children’s aggression.
Spanking consistently predicted increases in children’s aggression over time, regardless of how aggressive children were when
the spanking occurred.
Why Is Spanking Ineffective?
One main reason spanking is ineffective is that it fails to adhere
to the conditions that behaviorists say must exist for punishment
to be effective, namely, that it be immediate, consistent, and
delivered after every instance of the targeted behavior (Hineline
& Rosales-Ruiz, 2012). It is difficult to imagine that a parent
would be able to meet all these criteria when administering
spanking; indeed, it would likely be both inadvisable and
bordering on abusive if parents spanked children following every
instance of a given misbehavior.
Children learn by more complicated methods than just which
behaviors elicit a punishment; indeed, successful socialization
requires that children internalize reasons for behaving in appropriate and acceptable ways (Grusec & Goodnow, 1994). Spanking alone does not teach children why their behavior was wrong
or what they should do instead (Hoffman, 1983). Rather, it
teaches them that they must behave when the threat of physical
punishment exists, but once the threat is gone, they have no
reason to behave appropriately (Hoffman, 1983).
Moreover, spanking is ineffective because it is different from
other forms of punishment and discipline in that it involves
Child Development Perspectives, Volume 7, Number 3, 2013, Pages 133–137
Spanking and Child Development
hitting, which is of course a form of violence (see further discussion of this issue later). Hitting, by its nature, causes physical
pain, and it can be confusing and frightening for children to be
hit by someone they love and respect, and on whom they are
dependent. Children report fear, anger, and sadness when they
are spanked (Dobbs, Smith, & Taylor, 2006), feelings that interfere with their ability to internalize parents’ disciplinary messages (Grusec & Goodnow, 1994). Children who are spanked
are more likely to attribute hostile intentions to others, attributions that in turn increase the likelihood that they will behave
aggressively in social interactions (Dodge, Pettit, McClaskey, &
Brown, 1986).
Spanking models the use of aggression and violence, teaching
children that it is acceptable and reasonable for the person in
charge to use violence to get what he or she wants and that violence is sometimes a part of loving relationships (Eron, Walder,
& Lefkowitz, 1971). This latter message then perpetuates the
transmission of violence in families across generations. The fact
that parents often spank to punish children’s own aggression is
doubly confusing to children, with spanking becoming a hypocritical “do as I say, not as I do” form of parenting.
Spanking Is Linked With Numerous Adverse Side Effects
In addition to its ineffectiveness at changing children’s behavior,
spanking is linked with a range of unintended and undesirable
outcomes that thus can be thought of as adverse side effects. In
a series of meta-analyses, spanking was associated with
increases in mental health problems in childhood and adulthood, delinquent behavior in childhood and criminal behavior
in adulthood, negative parent–child relationships, and increased
risk that children will be physically abused (Gershoff, 2002).
The link between spanking and physical abuse is the most
disturbing of these unintended effects, but it should not be a
surprising one; both parental acts involve hitting, and purposefully hurting, children. The difference between the two is often
degree (duration, amount of force, object used) rather than
intent, as most documented cases of physical abuse begin with
parents physically punishing their children for a perceived misdeed (Durrant et al., 2006). Reducing parents’ use of spanking
may go a long way toward reducing the number of children who
suffer physical abuse each year.
Negative Outcomes of Spanking Are Similar Across
Some researchers argue that spanking should be more effective
with children in cultures that support spanking, in part because
children should more readily accept the practice (Deater-Deckard
& Dodge, 1997). Studies of this cultural normativeness hypothesis
have primarily used race or ethnicity as a marker of culture. In
several early studies, spanking or harsh physical punishment
indeed was associated with more aggression among White children but not among Black children (e.g., Deater-Deckard, Dodge,
Bates, & Pettit, 1996). However, in studies using longitudinal and
nationally representative data, spanking predicted increases in
children’s problem behavior over time across White, Black,
Latino, and Asian subsamples (e.g., Berlin et al., 2009; Gershoff
et al., 2012), particularly when subsample differences in frequency of spanking were considered (Gershoff et al., 2012). In
one of only a few studies that measured normativeness, more
spanking was consistently associated with more aggression in
children, even when mothers or children perceived that their
communities largely accepted spanking (Gershoff et al., 2010).
The abundance and consistency of studies linking spanking with
undesirable outcomes in children has failed to spur societal
change in attitudes about or use of spanking. Change may need
to come from outside the academic world, and a growing number
of organizations representing professionals who work with children and human rights advocates have voiced concerns about
and disapproval of spanking.
Spanking Is Increasingly Disavowed by Professional
Based in large part on the consistency of the research linking
spanking with undesirable outcomes but also on changes in attitudes about the appropriateness of hitting children in the name
of discipline, several national professional organizations have
called on parents to abandon spanking as a childrearing practice
and for professionals to recommend disciplinary alternatives
to spanking. The most prominent of these organizations are
the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
(AACAP, 2012), the American Humane Association (2009), the
American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP, Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child & Family Health, 1998), the National
Association of Pediatric Nurse Practitioners (NAPNAP, 2011),
and the National Association of Social Workers (2012). The AAP
has taken these recommendations one step further by including
discipline and alternatives to spanking on its list of injuryprevention topics that pediatricians should discuss with parents
during well-child visits (Hagan, Shaw, & Duncan, 2008).
In addition to these official policy statements, several leading
professional organizations for practitioners who work directly
with or on behalf of children endorsed a report commissioned by
Phoenix Children’s Hospital recommending that parents avoid
spanking in favor of nonpunitive discipline (Gershoff, 2008).
The organizations include the AACAP, the AAP, the American
College of Emergency Physicians, the American Medical Association, the National Association for Regulatory Administration,
the National Association of Counsel for Children, the NAPNAP,
and Voices for America’s Children (Phoenix Children’s Hospital,
Religious leaders have begun to speak out against spanking, as
well. Two major denominations in the United States, the United
Child Development Perspectives, Volume 7, Number 3, 2013, Pages 133–137
Elizabeth T. Gershoff
Methodist Church (2008) and the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, USA (2012), passed resolutions encouraging
parents to avoid spanking and use other forms of discipline.
Spanking Violates Children’s Human Rights
Consensus is growing among human rights advocates that spanking, or corporal punishment as it is commonly known in international circles, violates children’s human rights according to at
least seven human rights treaties (Gershoff & Bitensky, 2007).
The United Nations has said unequivocally that “corporal punishment and other cruel or degrading forms of punishment are
forms of violence” (Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2006,
para. 18); that corporal punishment violates Article 19 of the
Convention on the Rights of the Child, which protects children
from “all forms of physical or mental violence” (United Nations,
1989, Article 19, para. 1); and that it should be banned in all
contexts (Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2006).
Other international human rights bodies have called for corporal punishment to be outlawed in their member countries. For
example, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe
has called for the whole of Europe to ban corporal punishment of
children (Europe-Wide Ban on Corporal Punishment of Children,
Recommendation 1666, 2004). Similarly, the Inter-American
Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), part of the Organization
of American States, of which the United States is a member, concluded that corporal punishment violates children’s human rights
according to several treaties and thus should be banned “in all
contexts” (IACHR, Rapporteurship on the Rights of the Child,
Organization of American States, 2009, p. 1, para. 3).
Largely in response to these human rights concerns, 33 countries have banned all corporal punishment of children, including
that by parents (Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children, 2013). Human rights-based arguments have
little influence in the United States until we ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child; the United States is one of only
three countries not to have done so (the others are Somalia and
South Sudan, the latter of which gained independence in 2011).
Yet it is clear that American society is increasingly isolated in
our insistence that parents (and, in 19 states, public school personnel) can spank children as a form of discipline.
We now have enough research to conclude that spanking is
ineffective at best and harmful to children at worst. We also
know that a range of professional and human rights organizations condemn the practice and urge parents to use alternative
forms of discipline. We thus have research-based and humanrights-based reasons for not spanking our children.
But there is a third reason not to spank our children, and that
is a moral one. Although most Americans do not like to call it
so, spanking is hitting and hitting is violence. By using the
euphemistic term spanking, parents feel justified in hitting their
children while not acknowledging that they are, in fact, hitting.
We as a society have agreed that hitting is not an effective or
acceptable way for adults to resolve their differences, so it
should not be a surprise that hitting children, like hitting adults,
causes more problems than it solves. It is time to stop hitting
our children in the name of discipline.
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