views updated May 08 2018


Although spanking is a term familiar to most parents, it may be defined differently depending on our personal circumstances. For some, spanking may refer to one or two flat-handed swats on a child's wrist or buttocks, but would not include a beating with a whip or a belt. For others, spanking also includes slaps and pinches to the leg, arm, back, or even the head, as long as no marks are left after a relatively short period of time.

On a broader level, the term corporal punishment is sometimes used instead of spanking. One oft-cited definition of corporal punishment is "the use of physical force with the intention of causing a child to experience pain, but not injury, for the purpose of correction or control of the child's behavior" (Straus 1994, p. 4). Shoving, shaking, grabbing, and even keeping a child in an uncomfortable position for a prolonged period of time probably ought also to be included to form a more complete definition. In this entry, spanking, corporal punishment, and physical discipline will be used interchangeably but will exclude any type of hitting or physical contact that results in injury or marks that last longer than a few hours.

Prevalence of Physical Discipline

Since the late 1940s, when the first national surveys in the United States were published about spanking, it has been consistently found that almost all parents in the United States have occasionally spanked their children. The data have also shown that over 90 percent of children and adults remember being spanked as children. Because so many parents spank their children and the percentage has remained high over the years, most consider spanking to be a cultural norm in the United States. In fact, according to studies in Britain, Canada, China, Israel, Italy, Kenya, Korea, South Africa, and the West Indies, most parents in most countries around the world spank their children at least occasionally.

Many surveys have also gathered data regarding attitudes about spanking and have found that most parents believe that corporal punishment in a nonabusive manner is an acceptable form of discipline. However, toward the end of the twentieth century the number of parents who believe physical discipline is acceptable consistently dropped in many countries. According to Murray A. Straus (2000), in the United States, for example, between the years 1968 and 1998, "the percent agreeing that a 'good hard spanking is sometimes necessary' dropped from near unanimity to 55 percent" (p. 206).

How does one explain the discrepancy between the decrease in the approval of spanking and the continued use of spanking as a form of punishment? One suggestion is that the 30 to 40 percent difference in behavior and attitudes occurs because many parents use corporal punishment as a last resort, when nothing else seems to work. Some parents may reluctantly spank their children because they cannot think of what else to do to show the child the seriousness of his or her misbehavior.

Although spanking is commonplace in many countries, in 1979 Sweden became the first country to outlaw spanking. Since then, at least seven other countries have enacted similar laws to ban corporal punishment (Finland, Denmark, Norway, Austria, Cyprus, Latvia, and Croatia). Several studies have been done in Sweden to attempt to determine the impact of the ban on behavior and attitudes in that country. Some critics of the ban in Sweden point out that Sweden actually showed an increase in the child abuse rate after the law was enacted (e.g., Larzelere and Johnson 1999; Rosellini 1998). Some also suggest that most of the countries that have outlawed spanking are considered permissive in social areas, unlike the United States. As a result, they do not believe the United States should consider a law against corporal punishment.

Those who favor a law like Sweden's point out that surveys in Sweden since 1979 have found dramatic decreases in the use of physical punishment and parental commitment to the use of physical punishment even though breaking this law does not carry any punishment. The surveys indicate that parents no longer believe they need to use physical punishment to achieve compliance in their children. One study (Durrant 2000) in particular, upon examining youth well-being in Sweden since 1979, found that youth have not become more "unruly, undersocialized, or self-destructive following the passage of the 1979 corporal punishment ban" (p. 451).

Although there is nearly universal use of physical discipline by parents, it should be noted that the effects of spanking may vary from one culture to another. Even if one does interpret the data from Sweden as suggesting a positive result from banning spanking in that country, other studies (e.g., Deater-Deckard et al. 1996) have found that the effects of spanking are likely influenced by the parental, familial, and ethnic context in which the family lives. Some studies actually suggest that in certain cultures, especially collectivist cultures that exist in places like China and Africa, parents' failure to spank their children might indicate to the children that their parents do not care enough about them to discipline them. Thus, findings from one group of subjects must not be generalized to everyone.

In addition to information about attitudes towards spanking and frequency of spanking, studies have also consistently found that:

  • Boys are spanked more than girls;
  • Mothers spank more than fathers;
  • Toddlers and preschoolers are spanked most often,
  • Parents from lower income groups spank more often;
  • Parents who have more education are less likely to spank;
  • Religious conservatives are more favorable towards spanking; and
  • Some groups, based on cultural and/or ethnic background are more likely to spank their children.

Although it is helpful to know about these tendencies, one must recognize that they have not been true in every study and are not necessarily indicative of every person who fits in one or more of these groups. In addition, many of the studies have asked questions about harsh physical discipline and not the occasional slap on the buttocks. Most studies have also been retrospective in nature, asking subjects to remember their own childhood or to recall how many times they spanked their children in the past. Due to these limitations on the data, one must be careful not to overgeneralize the findings.

Controversy about the Use of Physical Discipline

Although almost everyone seems to have been spanked while growing up, there continues to be a heated controversy about the efficacy and wisdom of spanking children. Most people, including some child development experts, seem to believe that limited, nonabusive, physical punishment is not harmful to children and is often necessary to teach children respect and obedience. On the other hand, many child development experts and some people are convinced that even moderate amounts of corporal punishment can be harmful to a child and consequently should be avoided at all costs. After decades of discussion in a variety of settings, about the only thing that is certain is that almost everyone seems to hold a strong opinion on whether or not children should be spanked.

In the first half of the twentieth century, most parents in the United States demanded complete obedience on the part of their children and usually followed the adage "spare the rod and spoil the child." As a result, there was little discussion about whether or not it was in the best interest of their children to spank them or use the hickory switch if they misbehaved. Further, corporal punishment was practiced in many public schools in the United States well into the second half of the twentieth century, usually with the blessing of the parents.

However, from mid-century on, experts like Benjamin Spock (1946), Thomas Gordon (1970), T. Berry Brazelton (1969), and others began to speak against the harsh discipline of earlier times and suggested that children were individuals who needed to be treated with rights equal to all other members of the family. Instead of seeing the parent-child relationship as a benevolent dictatorship, they suggested the relationship should be viewed as a democracy. They taught that parents ought to consider their children as friends and treat them as they would their spouse.

These influential opinions, together with several significant social changes in the United States such as increases in violence, child abuse, and divorce, led to a reexamination of the use of physical punishment in schools and in homes during the last quarter of the twentieth century. Some experts have repeatedly claimed that the research on spanking clearly shows that even mild corporal punishment leads to a number of negative outcomes in those who have been spanked. As a result of their efforts, corporal punishment has been banned in virtually all schools, and some states have even considered legislation banning parents from hitting their children in the home. Many other countries around the world seem to be following trends similar to those in the United States. In addition, many other countries have been experiencing some change in views about physical punishment of children.

Since the 1970s, the academic community generally has interpreted the research as saying that corporal punishment in schools or homes is detrimental and should be abolished. Murray A. Straus, author of Beating the Devil Out of Them (2000), and Irwin A. Hyman, author of The Case AgainstSpanking (1997), are two of the key proponents in the movement to abolish spanking in schools and homes in the United States. They believe that corporal punishment is a significant psychological and social problem. Straus claims that there are over eighty different studies dating to the 1950s which link corporal punishment in children to later behavioral problems such as increased violence, aggression, noncompliance, delinquency, antisocial behavior, sexual hang-ups, and depression. He also claims that the research shows that alternative discipline strategies work just as well as corporal punishment and therefore corporal punishment serves no real purpose. Hyman spends much of his time speaking with state legislators and policy-makers as he attempts to persuade people that other types of discipline are as effective as spanking and therefore hitting children is never right.

In examining the causal link between corporal punishment and negative outcomes, Straus recognizes that earlier studies did have a serious limitation—they were correlational in nature and therefore did not show which is the cause and which is the effect. Accordingly, one could argue that children are spanked because of behavior problems or that they have behavior problems because they were spanked. However, Straus believes that five studies done between 1997 and 1999 have overcome the flaws of the previous studies and confirmed the findings of the previous eighty studies: that corporal punishment has long-term negative effects on children. Because these studies were based on large and nationally representative samples of U.S. children and were longitudinal in nature, he believes they allow for causal conclusions regarding the link between physical punishment and the negative behavior of children. All of this evidence leads Straus to conclude that all corporal punishment ought to be considered abuse and ought to be against the law.

In contrast to Straus and Hyman, Diana Baumrind (1994, 1996a) believes that the evidence seems to indicate that mild, nonabusive, physical punishment is not harmful when used occasionally, in a loving relationship, and in conjunction with other methods of discipline, most notably with reasoning. She claims that the critical issue is the relationship between the parent and the child. If the child feels as if he or she is in a loving, trusting relationship with his or her parents, then the child usually understands that discipline, and even spanking, is for the good of the child. When this occurs, Baumrind and others claim, there are no long-term negative effects.

Robert Larzelere, along with some of his colleagues (1998), also suggests that spanking is not all bad. In fact, they found that spanking used in conjunction with reasoning was the most effective type of discipline in some situations. Larzelere, like most experts who believe spanking is not always detrimental, believes certain guidelines must be kept in mind if parents choose to use corporal punishment. First, physical discipline should be limited to a couple of slaps applied by the open hand to the buttocks or legs. Second, it should only be used on children between the ages of two and six when other disciplinary methods may not be as effective. Third, it should only be used to back up less aversive disciplinary techniques and as a supplement to positive parenting. Finally, spanking should not be done while the parent is angry because it could escalate to abuse.

Alternatives to Physical Discipline

Although it is beyond the scope of this entry to discuss disciplinary alternatives in depth, several brief comments are warranted. First, parenting experts recommend that parents create a disciplinary plan in advance so that they have discussed how they will respond in a variety of situations. This might eliminate some of the spanking that occurs impulsively and out of anger. Secondly, parents should consider a variety of alternatives such as

  • Redirecting children to a more suitable activity;
  • Rewarding children who follow the rules;
  • Utilizing time-outs for short periods of time;
  • Helping children to avoid situations and activities that naturally lead to misbehavior;
  • Removing privileges;
  • Allowing for natural consequences to result from negative behavior;
  • Giving additional chores;
  • Grounding older children from certain activities or friends; and
  • Above all, communicating and reasoning with children about problem behavior.


What conclusions, then, can be drawn about corporal punishment? First, most parents in most cultures use corporal punishment at least occasionally. Second, experts do not agree about the efficacy or wisdom of physical punishment. Third, if spanking is used, it should be used sparingly and as one part of a total disciplinary program. Fourth, parents must consider the views of the culture when deciding about disciplinary strategies. Finally, no matter what disciplinary approach is taken, parents and caregivers must realize they do influence children by their own attitudes and behaviors.

See also:Child Abuse: Physical Abuse and Neglect; Child Abuse: Psychological Maltreatment; Childcare; Children's Rights; Conduct Disorder; Conflict: Family Relationships; Conflict: Parent-Child Relationships; Coparenting; Discipline; Juvenile Delinquency; Parenting Education; Parenting Styles


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views updated May 18 2018

spank·ing / ˈspangking/ • adj. 1. (esp. of a horse or its gait) lively; brisk: a spanking trot.2. inf. very good: we had a spanking time. ∎  fine and impressive: a spanking white Rolls Royce | a spanking new conference center. • n. [in sing.] an act of slapping, esp. on the buttocks as a punishment for children: you deserve a good spanking.