Social Science Update: Does spanking negatively affect children and families?

The answer to this question has changed over time. In the 1950’s, virtually everyone spanked and set strong rules for their children. In the 1960’s and 70’s, parents were more relaxed and trusted that children needed to learn by trial and error. Later, there was a phase of helicopter parenting that involved no corporal punishment. However, a 2013 Harris poll found that four out of five American parents spank their children. Why is this?

Beginning in 1998, studies were published that consistently showed that spanking does not have much of a positive effect upon behavior. It can harm communication between a parent and child and even lead a child into patterns of anxiety and aggression. Based upon this research, 38 countries have made spanking illegal. Why is America not one of those 38 countries?

A study done by psychologists in Australia, one of the few Western nations where spanking is still legal, explored whether myths keep spanking alive. Some of the myths used in the study included ‘spanking is harmless,’ ‘occasional spanking does no damage,’ and ‘spanking works by building character and teaching responsibility.’ The psychologists found that the participants who believed more strongly in spanking myths also indicated more frequently that they would spank.

But why do informed parents spank their children? A host of studies have shown that children who are spanked often become parents who spank and that children spanked during their pre-verbal years may store those experiences in their still developing brains. During times of stress, these people may react as their parents once reacted with them- instinctively rather than cognitively.