Spanking: Yes, No, or Maybe?


As your baby gets older and starts expressing more opinions of their own, it is natural to begin thinking about discipline and how it will look in your family. If your parents spanked you growing up, spanking—that is hitting your open hand on a child’s bottom—might be something you are considering. Parents through the ages have spanked children, but research from the past few decades suggests that it is not an effective disciplinary tactic and that it could even do physical and emotional damage. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that you never spank an infant, who could be physically harmed by a physical blow from an adult. Read on for a discussion of exactly what researchers and physicians know about spanking and to learn about effective, nonviolent alternatives.

What the research says about spanking 

In a 2016 study published in the Journal of Family Psychology, University of Texas professor Elizabeth Gershoff and University of Michigan professor Andrew Grogan-Kaylor looked at many studies of parent-child relations and discipline. They did not find any evidence that spanking kids makes them behave better. This study aligns with previous work that shows that spanking does not decrease undesirable behavior better than another disciplinary technique, the time out, either immediately or over the long term.

Following decades of research, scientists who study human behavior now think that spanking does not work because it does not follow guidelines for an effective punishment: that it is immediate and occurs consistently after all instances of an undesirable behavior. Spanking also does not help children learn why a given behavior is incorrect, and instead teaches them to behave under threat of punishment, but not necessarily at other times.

Also, an adult, whom a child loves and cares for, doing act of violence (hitting) to them can be confusing and frightening for that child, which makes spanking as a disciplinary technique less effective. These mixed messages are amplified when a child is spanked for hurting another being—a younger sibling or the family dog, for instance—and there is evidence that meeting your child’s aggression with aggression of your own might encourage them to be more aggressive in the future. In light of these findings, a variety of professional groups representing physicians, nurses, and mental health professionals have advised against spanking your child.

Alternatives to spanking

So once you have decided not use spanking in your family, what are your options? One thing that can help is to be proactive: make boundaries and expectations clear from the beginning of your baby’s life. If you don’t want your two-year-old to pull the cat’s tail, teach her from the minute she is able to reach the cat that you will not let her do so. Gently block her hand from grabbing, redirect her attention to a toy that she is allowed to pull on, move her away from the cat, and be consistent. Praise when she gets it right can also go a long way toward encouraging desirable behavior. Young babies just want to explore their world, which includes finding out more about what your reactions to their behavior will be. The more you remain calm while enforcing consistent boundaries, the better their behavior will be.

But sometimes it is really hard to remain calm in the face of challenging behavior from your little one. Here are three alternatives to spanking, when your kid’s behavior feels like too much to handle:

  • Timeouts and time ins: removing your child from the situation in which they are misbehaving in order to take a break and sit somewhere dull for a few minutes with you nearby—known as a timeout—can be very effective for some children. Other children benefit from taking a time in, where you take a break with your kid and offer them the chance to connect with you. These tactics are most effective starting around two years old.
  • Natural consequences are another way to enforce boundaries. For example, if your child sweeps all their food off their high chair tray onto the floor, then lunchtime might be over. Or if your toddler refuses a sweatshirt on a slightly chilly day, he might get a bit cold.
  • Parent break: if you feel yourself so frustrated that you might lash out physically, put your baby or toddler in a safe place, such as a playpen or crib, and then call a support person or take some deep breaths. It won’t hurt your child to be by herself in a completely safe place for a few minutes, even if she cries.

Finding the mode of discipline that is effective for your family can be a challenge, but one that comes with rewards. If you feel like you need support to parent your child, you can always talk to your pediatrician or a mental health professional. For more tips, see this blog on The Pulse.

Abby Olena
Dr. Abby Olena has a PhD in Biological Sciences from Vanderbilt University. She lives with her husband and children in North Carolina, where she writes about science and parenting, produces a conversational podcast, and teaches prenatal yoga.

Leave a Reply