The Science on Why Spanking Kids is Wrong

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A new metanalysis examined the past 50 years of research and found that there is incredibly strong evidence to suggest hitting your kid is bad for them. It’s horrifying that we even need this to be said, but apparently if you say “spanking” instead of “hitting,” about 80% of parents think it’s a totally fine thing to do to your kids. So here we are, carefully performing scientific research that shows that spanking kids makes them more likely to express anti-social behavior, aggression, and mental health disorders.

One of the reasons this is so hotly debated is because everyone has some kind of experience with it. All of us have been kids who were either spanked or not spanked, so the first thing all of us do is compare this result to our own anecdotal knowledge: “Well, I was spanked and I turned out great!”

Well let me tell you, you did not turn out great because you turned out to be a person who values your own anecdotal observation over rigorous science.

I WAS spanked, and I DID turn out great. But maybe if I wasn’t spanked, I would have turned out even greater — I know, it’s so hard to imagine — but maybe I’d have less generalized anxiety or I’d be more pleasant to play board games with, or I wouldn’t cancel so many social engagements at the last minute because I’d rather stay inside and play video games. “I’m sorry I can’t come to your birthday, Amy, but when I was six my parents smacked my ass with a yardstick and now I have slight anti-social tendencies.”

The researchers point out that so many people hit their kids because they don’t realize that spanking is on the same spectrum as other forms of physical abuse, and that absolutely has to change. There is no evidence that physical abuse “works” for correcting behavior, and quite a lot of evidence to suggest that it has the opposite effect, making kids more likely to act out.

So how do we educate the huge number of parents who hit their kids? Well, we could publicize studies like this and offer them resources for learning how to successfully modify their children’s behavior in healthy ways, using reward systems and non-physical negative reinforcement instead of corporal punishment., for instance, has free pamphlets and links to science-based websites to help solve even the most difficult behavioral problems in kids without violence.

So then how do we fix the problem of all the people who show up whenever a study like this comes out, filling comment sections with cries of “I was spanked and I turned out great”? I don’t know. I really don’t know. I feel like I’ve tried everything, but I guess in the end I should just smack them on the ass until they learn to stop comparing robust scientific research to their own personal anecdotes.

Or also education. I’m not sure.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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  1. I’ve struck my daughter twice in her life. Once, at the local playground, she came running up to greet me, as a toddler, grabbed my knees, and bit my penis. I gave her a bear-paw cuff to the side, and a great many mommies launched themselves at me, howling in indignation. I said: “she bit my penis”, and all but one of them immediately said, “oh, well, in that case…..”. The other time was on a twisty stretch of La Sierra Madre in Spain, when she had just learned how to unbuckle herself, and was repeatedly getting out of her car seat and leaning out the window. I warned her that if she did it again she’d get a spankie. She did it again. I pulled over, she got three light thwaps, and then howled for the next twenty minutes. She still mentions it. Sorta fondly. But still, it troubles me. I felt that I had to go through with it, or else my words were empty. But obviously I should have made a different threat. No iCarly for a month, goddamnit!

    So there’s my anecdote. I still approve of bear-cuffing a child who bites your penis.

  2. I was spanked just a couple of times by my unpredictable alcoholic father (never knew if I was going to get spanked or given ice cream money) but just those few times left me in morbid terror of pissing him off and subsequently any authority figure. I would treat light reprimands as having the potential to escalate, all of which is predicted by studies like the one you refer to. Further, even though I abhor violence and live in terror of it I constantly have ideation of expressing violence towards others, including my own children, which I can’t imagine having if I’d never been hit myself.

    I turned out fine, but there’s a whole lot of baggage that research ties directly to being hit as a kid that I’d get to live without if I hadn’t. I can’t even comprehend why someone would knowingly strike their children knowing that this is the inheritance they’ll be passing one. I will never hit my kids and I will never sit silent while someone else does.

    I like to believe that since a few decades ago most parents hit their kids and now most parents don’t that the effect is growing, so that even when there’s no reason to think your arguing is working, it’s at least altering conventional wisdom.

  3. Studies like this seem to focus on spanking as if spanking were some special practice that caused a different kind of harm from other child-rearing practices.

    My own experience (yeah, data point of 1) is that spanking is simply an example of the more general harmful practice of _punishment_. As a small child, my brothers and I were spanked and even whipped with a belt on a regular basis for our childish misdeeds. Yes, it was horrible and yes, it was counterproductive. Sometime around when I was 5 or 6, it stopped. I don’t know exactly why, though my guess is that it had something to do with my older brothers being taken to a psychologist (in the barbaric days of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s) for behavior that no form of punishment seemed to be stopping. But my parents still used punishment (in addition to losing their temper in frightening ways) in an attempt to control us, and my school used (non-corporal) punishment as pretty much the only form of control.

    If their goal was to get me to do what I was supposed to do, it was an utter failure. If their goal was to destroy my ability to manage any kind of stress or failure, to the point that I struggled daily with intense desires to kill myself (and still struggle with them today), it was a roaring success.

    I have raised two children who, to judge by what I’ve seen of other children, are higher-maintenance than average. I never actually rejected punishment or even spanking (I still don’t); I have simply _never_ seen a case where I thought punishment would be of any use. Most misbehavior arose when my children were expected to handle situations that, when I thought about it, I could have predicted they would have trouble with.

    The thing is, punishment keeps cropping up in even the most enlightened of child-rearing advice, only they don’t like to call it “punishment.” Time-outs, for instance, were originally not conceived as punishments, but rather as cooling-off periods for both parent (or caregiver) and child, so they could work out some resolution when they were calmer, but now they are simply seen as ways to control uncooperative children. The same for “natural consequences” — we got that advice all the time, except that the “natural consequences” turned out to always be “if you don’t do what mommy/daddy/teacher likes, they’ll do something you won’t like.” Even when we tried them, they were utter failures.

    The reason, IMHO, that everything gets turned into a punishment is that, rather like torture, it is a way for people who believe they should be in control to _feel_ in control when something has happened to make them feel not in control. IOW, it’s about trying to maintain “power over,” even in situations where, like King Canute commanding the tide, you really should know you aren’t in control.

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