What About Spanking?
Prepared by Ronald L. Pitzer, Family Sociologist, University of Minnesota.
Reviewed November 2008 by Kathleen Olson, Extension Education - Family Relations

Should parents spank or not? Some parents think spanking is the right thing to do when their children misbehave. Others believe any form of spanking is wrong and harmful. There are many teaching, nurturing, and disciplining tools available to parents that are more effective and less harmful than spanking and other forms of physical punishment.

Why Parents Spank

  • Spanking is easy to do and requires little thought on the part of parents.

  • It seems to work. The child may stop misbehaving. But it is important to realize two things: 1) Spanking does not stop misbehavior any better than do other firm tactics; 2) Children often repeat the behavior for which they were spanked. It usually takes several repetitions of any disciplinary technique (including spanking) before the lesson is learned and the behavior is changed.

  • It sends a clear message of disapproval. Children know immediately their parents are upset with their behavior. But an angry, concerned, or upset parental expression or tone of voice is also obvious to a child.

What's Wrong with Spanking

  • Spanking is humiliating and demeaning to both parent and child, often lowering self-esteem and morale. Children with low self-esteem are more likely to repeat the misbehavior, which leads to more spanking. Things get worse instead of better.

  • Spanking sets a violent example, teaching children that hitting is the way to solve problems. Research consistently shows that children who are spanked are more likely to use physical force against siblings and peers, and later against their own spouse and children.

  • Spanking can lead to battering and child abuse. It is estimated that 85-90 percent of child abuse cases were attempts to discipline by the use of physical punishment that got out of control. Spanking in the heat of anger, when a parent has more strength and less control, can lead to serious injury. Spanking after the anger has cooled may be less likely to lead to physical damage, but also is less effective in correcting behavior, since the punishment is so far removed from the offense.

  • Children who are spanked may come to resent or fear their parents. Research studies have found that 40-50 percent of people, when asked how they felt when spanked, reported they “hated parent.” These emotions keep them from wanting to change their behavior and from learning how to do so. Also, each episode of physical punishment chips away at the bond of affection between parent and child.

  • Children who are spanked may refrain from repeating the misbehavior, but they obey out of fear. Instead of learning to differentiate between right and wrong, they only learn to differentiate between what they get spanked for and don't get spanked for. They rarely learn self-discipline. Research has shown that children who are regularly or often spanked are less compliant with parental wishes when out of the presence of the punisher than are children who are not spanked (but are disciplined for their actions).

  • Spanking hinders development of empathy, remorse, compassion, and conscience— because children spanked as a disciplinary technique focus on their own pain rather than considering the effect of their behavior on others.

  • Spanking, especially when frequent and/or severe, is associated with a number of psychological and behavioral outcomes in later life— low self-esteem, anger, fear, depression, alienation, alcoholism, emotional instability and unresponsiveness, dependence, and abusiveness, among others.

Parents can avoid spanking if they know more effective ways to discipline their children. Some parents are so angry and frightened that they cannot think about anything and simply lash out. They need help with their own problems so they can use better ways of raising their children. Other parents spank because they do not know about other choices or tools for handling misbehavior and teaching their children. Spanking may be the only tool in their “discipline tool box.”

Parents often spank children when they are tired and frustrated; when they are “at the end of their rope.” They can't think of anything else to do. There are always better choices than spanking.


Eisenberg, Arlene, Heidi Murkoff, and Sandee Hathaway. What to Expect: The Toddler Years. Workman Publishing Co. 1994.

Smith, Charles A., Ph.D. Responsive Discipline: Effective Tools for Parents. Kansas State University Cooperative Extension Service. 1993.

Straus, Murray A.. Beating the Devil Out of Them: Corporal Punishment in American Families. Lexington Books. 1994.

Adapted with permission from Positive Parenting II: A Video-Based Parent Education Curriculum (University of Minnesota Extension Service, 1997). This product is no longer available.

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