The Strong Evidence Against Spanking

A review of the available research finds that physical punishment is significantly linked to bad outcomes for kids.

Image Source / Corbis

Around the world, an average of 60 percent of children receive some kind of physical punishment, according to UNICEF. And the most common form is spanking. In the United States, most people still see spanking as acceptable, though FiveThirtyEight reports that the percentage of people who approve of spanking has gone down, from 84 percent in 1986 to about 70 percent in 2012.

“The question of whether parents should spank their children to correct misbehaviors sits at a nexus of arguments from ethical, religious, and human-rights perspectives,” write Elizabeth Gershoff of the University of Texas at Austin, and Andrew Grogan-Kaylor of the University of Michigan, in a new meta-analysis examining the research on spanking and its effects on children.

The researchers raised concerns that previous meta-analyses had defined physical punishment too broadly, including harsher and more abusive behaviors alongside spanking. So for this meta-analysis, they defined spanking as “hitting a child on their buttocks or extremities using an open hand.”

They also worried that spanking was only linked to bad outcomes for kids in studies that weren’t methodologically outstanding. It’s hard to study real-world outcomes like this; there are only a few controlled experimental studies in which some mothers spanked their kids and some didn’t, in a laboratory setting. Those were included in this analysis, along with cross-sectional and longitudinal studies, for a total of 75 studies, 39 of which hadn’t been looked at by any previous meta-analyses. Altogether, these studies included data from 160,927 children.

The researchers looked at the effect sizes from these studies, to see how strong their results were. There were 111 different effect sizes for 75 studies (some of the studies included more than one result). Of those, 108 found that spanking was linked to poor outcomes. Seventy-eight of the negative results were statistically significant. Only nine results indicated that there could be a benefit to spanking, and only one of those was statistically significant.

“Thus, among the 79 statistically significant effect sizes, 99 percent indicated an association between spanking and a detrimental child outcome,” the study reads. Those outcomes were: “low moral internalization, aggression, antisocial behavior, externalizing behavior problems, internalizing behavior problems, mental-health problems, negative parent–child relationships, impaired cognitive ability, low self-esteem, and risk of physical abuse from parents.”

Harsher forms of abuse were excluded from the analysis, so this paper shows that spanking alone puts children at risk for some serious problems. The authors also looked at a subset of studies that compared spanking with physical abuse, and found that both were linked to bad outcomes “that are similar in magnitude and identical in direction,” they wrote.

Given that spanking is still such a common—and controversial—form of punishment, careful examination of the research will be important for parents and policymakers alike. And as the researchers concluded here,“there is no evidence that spanking does any good for children and all evidence points to the risk of it doing harm.”