Does spanking control a child’s bad behavior?

As all of us know, there is a long, long tradition in our culture of disciplining or punishing children using physical means. “Spare the rod and spoil the child,” as the old saying goes.  That explicit wording, by the way, does not come from the Bible, as most people think. Rather, it comes from a seventeenth century satirical poem by Samuel Butler. Still, The belief that punishment requires some element of discomfort, even pain, to be effective is an old one in our culture, one with deep historical and Biblical roots.

For example:

“Foolishness is bound in the heart of a child; but the rod of correction shall drive it far from him.” (Proverbs 22:15)

“He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes.” (Proverbs 13:24)

Neither of these examples talk about beating children, but the implication is pretty clear. Corporal punishment — beating with a switch — was also standard in classrooms, as any reader of nineteenth century literature will know. Severe corporal punishment disappeared from public schools a century ago, although a rap on the knuckles with a ruler was still common when I was in primary school in the 1950s and my friends who went to parochial school sometimes got a bit more than that. But over the last few decades this has gone away, so much so that it is now frowned upon, or even forbidden, for teachers to touch students in any way.

Pediatricians have also been telling parents for many years that spanking, for example, is not a good way to discipline children. The American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines on disciplining children, says this:

Spanking may relieve a parent’s frustration for the moment and extinguish the undesirable behavior for a brief time. But it is the least effective way to dis­cipline. It is harmful emotionally to both parent and child. Not only can it re­sult in physical harm, but it teaches children that violence is an acceptable way to discipline or express anger. While stopping the behavior temporarily, it does not teach alternative behavior. It also interferes with the development of trust, a sense of security, and effective communication. (Spanking often be­comes the method of communication.) It also may cause emotional pain and resentment.

Some parents, though, believe physical punishment, judiciously administered of course, is an important parenting tool. They often point to how they were raised as justification for this approach. A key question in this is the long-term effects on the child of corporal punishment. Everyone agrees that clearly abusive measures are wrong — illegal, too. But what about less severe measures, such as spanking? What are the long-term effects, if any, of that practice? A recent study in Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, gives us some information.

The title of the paper is “Physical punishment and mental disorders: results from a nationally representative US sample.” The authors used survey results of 34,653 adults over twenty years of age to look for any association between physical punishment and future mental disorders. Definitions are important in studies like this, of course, because physical punishment runs a gamut from grabbing all the way to frank child abuse. The surveyed adults were asked how often, as a child, they were “slapped or hit by your parents or any adult living in your house”? They removed from the sample respondents who described  hitting or spanking that left bruises or those who had clearly been abused in other ways; the idea was to study what our grandparents’ generation would have thought to be “ordinary” forms of physical punishment. So what were the results? To quote the authors:

Harsh physical punishment [even] in the absence of child maltreatment is associated with mood disorders, anxiety disorders, substance abuse/dependence, and personality disorders in a general population sample.

Leaving aside the moral dimensions of the issue, my practical take is that harsh physical punishment (which includes spanking) doesn’t work well in controlling a child’s bad behavior and not infrequently causes future harm. So why do it?

Christopher Johnson is a pediatric intensive care physician and author of Your Critically Ill Child: Life and Death Choices Parents Must Face, How to Talk to Your Child’s Doctor: A Handbook for Parents, and How Your Child Heals: An Inside Look At Common Childhood Ailments.  He blogs at his self-titled site, Christopher Johnson, MD.

Comments are moderated before they are published. Please read the comment policy.

  • Maia Szalavitz

    Both paddling and spanking are still legal in public schools in the South and in residential facilities for children in many states called emotional growth boarding schools, wilderness programs and boot camps that do not fall under federal regulations.

    • Nancy M.

      It may be on-the-books legal, but it doesn’t mean it’s done. The non-rural school systems I’ve worked with aren’t stupid enough to want the inevitable lawsuit that comes with school personnel-inflicted spanking.

      Also, let’s not tie certain behaviors to the “South” like they are alone in this. It’s also legal in Colorado, Arizona, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Missouri, Wyoming, and other states I would not consider as “The South” (as of 2010). Mostly states with large rural populations.

  • Jane Infidel

    I have no clue if this is correct, but someone online once said that the Biblical “rod” quotes refer to the rod a shepherd uses to guide sheep. It’s not talking about beating your kids. It’s encouraging parents to be a shepherd and to guide their children. I like that interpretation better.

    • Christopher Johnson

      I’ve heard that as well. I agree it’s a friendlier interpretation.

  • technoreaper

    Hahahahahahahahaaha, I know, when I was a child, I had corporal punishment, and it did serve to control children very well. Without punishment that people fear, improper behavior cannot be corrected. Please, stop trying to convince us that your new-age beliefs are fact, because they aren’t. These things were carried out for years for good reason. Anyone with managerial skills knows better. This is why the West is falling behind, because we are not disciplining people properly anymore.

    • Christopher Johnson

      Your comment carries a lot of baggage, most of which has nothing to do with my post.

      • technoreaper

        Did you seriously just use the term, “baggage”? Thanks for proving my point.

    • JannyPi

      New age? How about last century, as the author referred to it? You hit your employees?

      I perfected the withering look with a strict tone of voice and didn’t need to strike my kids to show my displeasure at their antics–last century.
      I hear, too often, “If it was good enough for me, then it’s good enough for my kids!”. I call BS on that because we’re supposed to EVOLVE.

      • technoreaper

        Ah, the myth of evolution and progress. I’m sorry, all that matters is what works. I went to schools overseas where we still had corporal punishment, and I spent time in American schools. The schools overseas had control of their students. American schools are a fiasco. Don’t kid yourself, there is a reason we are falling behind to Asia. Get real.

        • JannyPi

          My kids are very smart, happy, healthy, and educated. They have lots of friends and good jobs. They are kind to animals and those less fortunate. They make me very proud.
          I doubt your parents have ever felt this way. I especially pity your kids.

          • technoreaper

            You have a narcissist’s view of yourself. LIfe is probably not as perfect as you think it is.

  • Payne Hertz

    Excellent article. I was raised with brutal physical discipline and it did little to control my behavior. Indeed, i was otherwise well-behaved until the “discipline” compelled me to rebel. I saw the same in the military, where punishments for trivial offenses were extremely strict, but where soldiers would flout the rules and rebel against the system every chance they got. We had absolutely no loyalty for our officers or concern for their agenda or that of the US military…it was beaten out of us.

    I would contrast this with my own experiences with children. Since I am disabled and work at home, I often get babysitting duty for friends who go on vacation. I have dealt with all kinds of kids including many whose parents or previous babysitters described as “spoiled” and unruly. In every case I have never had a problem with any of these kids because I always treat them with respect and treat them as equals the same way I would an adult friend. I don’t punish them or yell at them or browbeat them. Instead I try to explain my reasoning and try to elicit their collaboration. They are free to tell me no, “talk back” or disagree with me just as adults are, but amazingly I find they are always very cooperative with everything I ask, even more so than adults.

    Respect and the Golden Rule are far more effective at convincing kids to get with the program than punishments are.

    I don’t know where this idea came about that kids are little slaves that are supposed to obey every command given them by adults. No adult would tolerate this crap yet we expect kids to endure it, or risk being punished. My nephew once accused me of being “anti-discipline.” I consider it the greatest compliment I have ever received.

  • Michael Allen

    Spanking may extinguish the undesireable behavior for a brief time. Exactly! The value is in shock factor which may refocus a child on appropriate behavior. It is then the parents duty to take action that leads to the child understanding their error so that the situation is not repeated. By making sure the child understands you’re correcting their behavior out of love and caring, you strengthen trust and respect. Negative action must be met with consequence and guidance. Any child with psychological issues may correlate to spankings but it may also correlate to a home where other issues persist.

  • MissMeg

    I fear that the less parents use appropriate spanking for the purpose of training children (not vindictive punishment), the more parents will resort to inappropriate medicating of children.

Most Popular