How Corporal Punishment May Harm Kids

Why experts say spanking kids is ineffective and harmful

Child crying
Spanking is not an effective way to discipline children, and could pose risks for kids. Blend Images - KidStock/Brand X Pictures/Getty Images

To be a parent is to know the maddening frustration of trying to calm a tantruming toddler, deal with the defiance of a verbal preschooler, or manage the sassy backtalk of a school-age child, just to mention a few of the myriad of common behavior problems in kids. But for parents who use spanking or other forms of corporal punishment to get kids in line, there are many reasons to do some research and to examine what child development experts say are the negative effects of physical punishment on kids and on the quality of the parent-child relationship.

What is Corporal Punishment?

Corporal punishment is usually defined as anything involving making kids experience pain as punishment. It is any use of physical force to cause pain or discomfort to correct or punish a child's behavior. It can include spanking, hitting a child with an object, slapping a child with an open hand, or even forcing a child to run extra laps or stand in an uncomfortable position for a long period of time.

Corporal punishment is different from discipline, which involves teaching kids how to make better choices and helping them understand rules and boundaries. While most parents who use corporal punishment view it as a form of discipline and are using it with the intention to teach kids better behavior, researchers say that striking children or causing them other types of pain may actually do the opposite. Studies have found that corporal punishment is not only ineffective in teaching kids in the long run, it may actually lead to a host of other problems such as increased aggression and antisocial behavior.

Some Statistics About Corporal Punishment

  • As many as 83 percent of kids in America have been punished physically by their parents by the 5th grade, according to Liz Gershoff, Ph.D, a developmental psychologist and associate professor at the Department of Human Development and Family Science at the University of Texas at Austin who is a leading expert on the effects of physical punishment on children.
  • As many as 77 percent of men and 65 percent of women said children sometimes need a good spanking, according to the General Social Survey conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.
  • Even babies as young as one year of age are spanked. The study, which was co-authored by Shawna Lee, PhD, assistant professor of social work and Andrew Grogan-Kaylor, PhD, associate professor of social work, both at the University of Michigan, and Lawrence Berger, PhD, of the University of Wisconsin, looked at 2,788 families in urban settings. Researchers asked mothers a series of questions when their babies were about one year old; one of the questions was about whether or not the mother herself, the father/partner, or another caregiver had spanked the child within the past month. As many as 30 percent reported "yes."
    What's particularly troubling about the findings of this study is that research has shown spanking children at earlier ages puts kids at even higher risk for negative outcomes like aggression, says Dr. Lee. "It suggests that there are a lot of parents who don't understand risks and alternatives," says Dr. Lee. "Pediatricians need to work with parents to show them alternative options."

Why Parents Spank

Parents have many reasons for choosing to use corporal punishment. For some, spanking is something their own parents used on them when they were kids, and they in turn are using it on their own children because they believe it's an effective way to teach kids how to behave. For others, corporal punishment is one of other discipline and punishment methods they use (along with, say, time-outs and loss of computer or TV time).

Most parents genuinely want to teach their kids good behavior, and see spanking and other forms of corporal punishment as a useful and effective way to do that. (For more about reasons parents give for choosing to spank their kids, and what experts say about the truths and misunderstandings about spanking, read "Why Parents Spank -- The Facts Behind Reasons for Corporal Punishment.")

But many experts, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, are increasingly seeing solid evidence of the harmful and negative effects of using pain to discipline, and say that corporal punishment is not effective and is potentially harmful.

The Risks of Spanking Children

Spanking children and using other methods of physical punishment, such as having them stand in uncomfortable positions for long periods of time, have been linked to various negative outcomes in kids. According to Dr. Gershoff and the Center for Effective Discipline, which provides educational information about the effects of corporal punishment of children and alternatives to spanking and other physical punishment, corporal punishment has been linked to the following in children:

  • Increased antisocial behavior (such as lying, stealing, cheating, bullying, assaulting a sibling or peers, and lack of remorse for wrongdoing)
  • Increased risk of a parent escalating to child abuse
  • Aggressive behavior in kids (and the more that a child is physically punished, a greater likelihood that she'll hit a friend, sibling, or others close to her)
  • Kids learning that it's okay to use aggression, especially if you're bigger and stronger than the other person
  • Decrease in the quality of the bond and trust between a parent and child

Why Spanking Does Not Work

There are many reasons why corporal punishment is not a good method for teaching kids how to behave better. Perhaps the first and foremost reason is that there is little solid research evidence showing that physical punishment improves kids' behavior in the long term, say Dr. Gershoff. "Spanking doesn't teach kids to behave the way parents want them to," says Dr. Gershoff. "Kids are often compliant immediately bu they are not taught how to behave differently in the long term. It's the opposite of what parents want."

Corporal punishment primarily teaches kids what they should do to avoid pain. It may stop the behavior in the short term, but it does not teach kids why what they did was wrong, and it doesn't help kids understand what they should do differently the next time. Being hit by a parent is "cognitively confusing for a child," says Deborah Sendek, director for the Center for Effective Discipline, a program of Gundersen National Child Protection Training Center, which works to promote effective discipline of children and to end all corporal punishment of children. If a parent is the person a child looks at as someone who is supposed to help and take care of him and that person is deliberately hurting him, it makes sense that that can have a profound and lasting impact on a child. "If a child is confused, and is thinking about his need to keep his body safe and not hurting, the message and learning are getting lost," says Sendek.

For more tips and information, read "Why Spanking Children Does Not Work -- Risks and Negative Effects."