Support for spanking to correct a child’s bad behavior has slowly and slightly decreased over the past six years. Still, nearly half of American adults at least somewhat agree that “it is sometimes necessary to discipline a child with a good, hard spanking.”
That finding from the 2021 American Family Survey comes against the backdrop of pleas from organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics for parents to stop using a form of discipline deemed ineffective and harmful and a robust body of international research that backs those claims.
Support for spanking has declined slightly from a high of 54% in 2015 to this year’s 47% who either somewhat or strongly agree with the practice, according to the American Family Survey, which showed 35% disagree to some extent. Another 18.5% neither agree nor disagree in the nationally representative poll of 3,000 adults, conducted in late June and early July by YouGov for the Deseret News and Brigham Young University’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy.
“I think it’s slowly getting through. We’re seeing national data that support for use of physical punishment and actual use of it are going down slowly, over time. But still, over half of children are physically punished each year. So the message is not getting out quick enough,” said Elizabeth T. Gershoff, professor and director of the Population Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin, who has co-authored numerous spanking and corporal punishment studies.
The word “discipline” means “to teach,” said Gershoff. “We know children learn best in environments where they feel safe, and where they trust the people that are trying to teach them. Those are the strategies that we should be using to discipline children. There’s no evidence that scaring a child and making them feel pain is going to help them learn.”
Who supports spanking?
The American Family Survey found men were considerably more likely than women to agree that spanking may be needed, 52% to 42%.
Age impacted people’s perspective, too. Among young adults 18-29, just over a third agreed spanking is sometimes necessary, while more than half of those 45 and older agreed. Only in the younger group did more people disagree than agree that a good hard spanking could be needed. Agreement was higher among those with children who aren’t at home than among those with children at home or who don’t have children, possibly confirming the idea that age influences people’s views.
Black people are more likely to agree a good hard spanking may be needed (52%) than Hispanics (48%) and whites (46%). More educated adults disagree more than do less-educated adults. Likewise, those with household incomes above $80,000 are less apt to agree than those earning less. Support for spanking is highest in the South and lowest in the West, but living in urban, rural or suburban areas doesn’t make much difference.
Agreement that spanking may be needed is much higher among those who attend religious services weekly, at more than 6 in 10, than among those who attend seldom or never, at more than 4 in 10.
Nearly 62% of liberals don’t believe spanking is needed, while nearly 68% of conservatives agree to some extent that it may be. In the middle, 47% of moderates agree.
The American Family Survey is far from the only poll showing many parents believe spanking works. The 2018 General Social Survey found 66% of adults agree that a good hard spanking is sometimes needed.
But a 2021 study in The Lancet said attitudes worldwide are changing, with physical punishment “increasingly viewed as a form of violence that harms children.” Researchers from England, Canada, Ireland and the United States tracked findings from 69 long-term studies and found a lot of negatives, including that physical punishment predicts future behavior problems and greater risk of an association with child protective services. The authors said spanking was not associated with positive outcomes over time and the more physical punishment a child experienced, the worse the outcomes.
“We looked at studies all over the world, we looked at dozens of studies, and there’s just no evidence that spanking children benefits them in the long term,” said Gershoff, who was part of the research team. “It doesn’t help them learn any better at home or at school, doesn’t help them behave any better, doesn’t help them be better people.
“Spanking can actually impair their development. So children tend to be more aggressive, more defiant, less likely to share with other children, they do less well in school. So it’s all the things that parents want to avoid. That’s what they’re actually increasing the chance of by using physical punishment,” she said.
A review of 75 studies conducted over a half-century that was published in the Journal of Family Psychology linked spanking to aggression, anxiety and depression.
Studies of the outcomes caused by spanking are remarkably similar worldwide.
A 2019 international study of spanking published in the journal Child Abuse & Neglect looked at spanking practices and the impact on child well-being in 62 countries, using data from more than 215,000 children. The researchers said 43% of the children were in households where spanking had been used in the past month. In 95% of the countries, the socio-emotional impacts among 3- and 4-year olds were negative and in 5% no effect was found.
“Spanking was not associated with higher socio-emotional development in any country,” the study said.
Harm and help
Experts say families may not get the result they aim for when they spank — and could be surprised at the damage it does. That’s one reason why the American Academy of Pediatrics has taken a strong stance against spanking in its guidelines to pediatricians: “Experiencing corporal punishment makes it more, not less, likely that children will be defiant and aggressive in the future. There’s no benefit to spanking.”
“It has been found that spanking does not ‘conquer’ self-regulation among children,” said Sanam Hafeez, a New York neuropsychologist, who noted children typically revert to their former behavior after a spanking. “When parents are at their wit's end, a spanking can be almost a reflex action. Taking that action is harmful to a child’s long-term positive development.”
Hafeez said spanking can lead to shame, noting that research shows when children experience repeated physical or corporal punishment, “this is likely to lead to increased aggressive behaviors, poor interactions in school and a greater chance of developing cognitive issues and mental health disorders down the road.”
Parents have better remedies than spanking, Hafeez said. If a child scribbles on the floor with crayon, for example, having to clean it up teaches that inappropriate behavior has consequences — and respect for belongings and for the home itself.
Hafeez said parents should be sure to praise children when they are behaving well, to encourage future positive behavior. “As a parent, you want your child to develop a sense of internal pride which will make them less likely to act out.”
Alternatives to spanking include taking away privileges like video games or an iPad. “Twenty-four hours is an eternity to a child, so that is typically enough time to get the point across in a meaningful way,” Hafeez said.
“Teach your children how to problem solve and find ways to manage the elements that create bad behavior. Spanking is a consequence, but it does nothing to solve the underlying issue,” she told the Deseret News.
Gershoff said spanking does get a child’s attention, but “there are many other ways” to do that. She said parents spend years telling children to use their words instead of hitting others, but often fail to model that.
“We don’t use hitting at work when we’re frustrated with somebody, we don’t use it in any other situation. But for some reason, we decided it’s OK to use physical violence when we’re unhappy with children — hitting the human beings who have the biggest chance of getting injured,” she said.
Gershoff thinks if parents consider the long-term goal of growing a child into a healthy, responsible, empathic adult, and remember that parental acts affect them into the future, it’s easier to overcome the short-term “I need to make her stop doing that” feeling which can seem overwhelming in the moment.
“When children do something that we don’t like, it’s an opportunity for us to teach them and talk with them about why was that behavior not OK. ... Our goal is to try to help them develop into responsible adults who make good decisions, because it’s the right thing to do, not because they’re afraid someone’s going to hit them,” said Gershoff.
Gershoff said children who are spanked are more apt to be aggressive in part because they’ve seen their parents be aggressive to them. They’re more likely to develop mental health problems, in part because the experience of being hit, especially over and over, is very stressful. And the body has a stress response that can over time turn into mental or physical health issues. Experts believe spanking can rewire the brain.
Parents who spank frequently point out that they were spanked and they turned out just fine. That could be cognitive dissonance at work, which is when you go through something difficult and later kind of justify it, said Gershoff.
Could you have been better? she asks. And did you turn out OK not because spanking helped, but because your parents talked to you, expressed their love for you, helped you with your homework and came to your soccer games and took you to church and all the other things parents do?
“Maybe you turn out OK because they did all those other things. Not because of spanking, but in spite of spanking,” Gershoff said.