May 3, 2004 -- Spanking kids younger than 2 years old greatly increases the chances of problem behavior when they reach school age, a Johns Hopkins University study shows.
The report, by Eric P. Slade, PhD, and Lawrence S. Wissow, MD, appears in the May issue of Pediatrics.
"For white, non-Hispanic children, those spanked at least once during a particular week were twice as likely as children not spanked to need parent-teacher meetings when they reached school age," Slade tells WebMD. Children that were spanked were 40% more likely to be ranked by their parent in the top 10% of behavior problems.
"This is the very high end of behavior problems," he says.
The findings come from a huge number of interviews with mothers collected in a Labor Department-funded study from 1979-1998. Women in this national sample were interviewed every two years. Slade and Wissow's study included data on about 2,000 children followed for four years.
Spanking Common Form of Child Discipline
At the age of 3 to 4 years, 19 out of 20 U.S. kids get spanked at least once a year. But would anyone spank a child younger than 2? Yes. According to a 2001 survey, parents report spanking:
- 11% of kids 6 to 11 months old
36% of kids 12 to 17 months old
59% of kids 18 to 23 months old
If so many parents do it, can it be wrong? Yes, says child discipline expert J. Burton Banks, MD, assistant professor of family medicine at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City.
"Spanking is typically inappropriate at any age, but particularly for children younger than 18 months," Banks tells WebMD. "Kids that young don't understand the implications of their actions or cause and effect. Spanking doesn't change their behavior."
That's the behavioral issue. But Banks says there's an even more important physical issue.
"In younger children there is a greater chance of injury," Banks says. "The more frequently spanking is practiced, the less effective it comes. So the tendency of the parent is to escalate the severity -- often to the point of injuring the child, whether it's intentional or not."
Spanking, Banks says, is the form of punishment most likely to cross the fine line between child discipline and child abuse.
Cultural Context of Child Discipline Important
Interestingly, Slade and Wissow found no link between early spanking and later behavior problems in black and Hispanic children.
"Spanking may have very different consequences for children depending on the family circumstances in which spanking is used," Slade says. "And those circumstances may differ depending upon racial and ethnic background."
In white families, Slade notes, frequent spanking was linked to unfavorable family situations: lower family income, parents who did not complete high school, and mothers with symptoms of depression. This was not the case in black or Hispanic families.
"It's also been found that there are cultural differences in how families spank children that are related to ones' race and ethnicity," Slade says. "African-American and Hispanic families are more likely to punish children physically, whereas white non-Hispanic families more are likely to use verbal reprimands to discipline children. It may just be that the perception of spanking and punishment differs depending on the cultural context."
This difference in family context reflects real differences in the world outside the family, says Arthur L. Whaley, PhD, DrPH, associate director for mental health services research at the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health, University of Texas, Austin.
Whaley says there are two kinds of spanking. One is child-centered spanking: punishment to stop behavior dangerous to the child. The other is adult-centered spanking: punishment because the child is annoying an adult.
"In African-American culture, traditionally when a child is spanked it is a consequence of action on the part of the child," Whaley tells WebMD. "The child is given an explanation almost simultaneously, so the association is clear."
But Whaley notes that black and Hispanic families also have other reasons to use punishment that results in rapid behavior change.
"Outside the home, a child of color may experience graver consequences for actions that may not be as severe for non-Hispanic white youths," he says. "There is clear evidence that when boys will be boys -- when they get caught engaging in mischief -- the consequence for white youths is that they are taken home to their parents and that is the end of it. For black youth, in some cases, they are taken to the police station."
As they get older, Whaley says, children of color come to understand their experience of family discipline in terms of its social context.
"Later behavioral problems are less likely when this connection is made," he says.
Spanking: Good Child Discipline, or Bad?
Spanking in and of itself is not necessarily a bad thing, Slade concludes. But one has to be careful.
"Spanking has the power to change a child's perception of the parent," he says. "Even in young children, spanking may change how children walk away from the experience of discipline. A lot depends on whether it is fair, whether it is consistently applied, and whether children are left with a strong sense of emotional security with their parents."
Spanking out of anger, rather than out of concern for a child, is never a good idea, Banks says.
"All parents resort to spanking on some occasions, and often we are horrified by our own actions," he says. "The important thing is to demonstrate you still have affection for your child. Make them understand that their behavior was incorrect, but this does not make them bad children. If you spank children and then ignore them, it takes away your credibility as a loving parent. But you don't want to spank and then hug, because that confuses them. It is a delicate situation."
Banks says one old lie should be put to rest. Spanking really does hurt the child worse than it hurts the parent. He urges parents to seek alternative forms of child discipline.
"No one is a perfect parent. Even we so-called experts face challenges when disciplining our children," he says. "You have to find what technique works best for you and for your children, but showing your love and affection toward the child is critical for any form of discipline to work. Don't be afraid to make mistakes, but learn from them. Work at improving your techniques and adapting them as your child ages."