June 27, 2002 -- Spanking may work in the short term to get children to change negative behaviors, but the long-term consequences can include increased aggressiveness, antisocial behavior, and delinquency, according to a review of 62 years' worth of corporal punishment studies.
Spanking was linked to one positive outcome and 10 negative ones in the analysis of 88 studies conducted by Columbia University psychologist Elizabeth Gershoff, PhD. The strongest and most immediate consequence was getting children to stop the misbehavior that prompted the physical punishment. But weaker associations were suggested for spanking and such outcomes as a failure to learn right from wrong and subsequent criminal behavior, mental illness, and child or spouse abuse as adults.
"This research shows that spanking carries a risk for all these outcomes," Gershoff tells WebMD. "It doesn't mean that they will happen. But is it worth the risk when there are so many other techniques parents can use that we know are effective, which don't have this problem of long-term negative side effects?"
Gershoff says 27 of the studies she reviewed found that children who are spanked tend to be more physically aggressive to other children. None found spanking to be linked to less aggressive behaviors, but the researcher acknowledges there is no way to tell whether physical punishment causes aggressiveness or whether naturally aggressive kids are just spanked more.
"We would have to go back to infancy to figure out where this ... problem really begins, and nobody has done that research," she says.
The analysis appears in the July issue of Psychological Bulletin, a publication of the American Psychological Association. It was accompanied by a commentary from three other psychologists who wrote that Gershoff's research "does not justify a blanket injunction against mild to moderate corporal punishment."
The commentary argues there is no scientific proof that detrimental outcomes are caused by physical punishment by a parent. And they suggest the analysis does not reflect the impact of normal spanking because more than half of the studies included overly severe forms of corporal punishment, such as slapping in the face or hitting with an object.
Robert E. Larzelere, PhD, who co-wrote the commentary, tells WebMD that the main issue is not whether parents use corporal punishment, but how they use it. Severe physical punishment by out-of-control parents is extremely harmful and can never be justified. But a swat or two on the bottom by a parent who is not overly angry can be useful, he says.
His own research suggests that spanking is most effective in 2- to 6-year-olds when it is used to back up milder disciplinary methods, such as reasoning and time out. After the age of 5 or 6, when reasoning becomes an important part of socialization, spanking should be abandoned, he says.
"Mothers who combined reasoning with negative consequences had the most success in changing negative behaviors," Larzelere says. "Such usage is not only effective in reducing defiance and fighting, but children then cooperate better with the milder discipline methods, rendering further spanking less necessary."
National surveys suggest that 94% of parents acknowledge spanking their children by the age of 3 or 4, and most say they do it because it is more effective than any other means of discipline.
But Gershoff contends that any form of physical punishment sends the mixed message to a child. When loving parents model aggressive behaviors by spanking, she says, they reinforce the idea that physical aggression is the way to get what you want.
"This research also showed that spanking is associated with a poorer relationship between the parent and child," she says. "Children who were spanked felt less attached to their parents and less trusting of them, and the more they were spanked the less close was the relationship."