I was strolling through the grocery store last week when a sibling argument broke out, prompting a tiny overalls-clad boy (maybe 3 years old?) to grab his older sister’s hair and pull with some ferocious might. I felt her pain. And of course his sister let out a yelp and spewed some tears, as expected.
That’s when their mother yanked the boy’s arm to the side of the aisle — next to the canned tomato sauce — and gave him a quick and firm spank on the behind.
More tears all around.
“You do not hurt your sister, do you understand?” she loudly said into his tear-streaked face. “You keep your hands to yourself.”
She continued down the aisle — one girl whining inside of the cart, a sobbing little boy shuffling behind with one hand on his bottom.
And I had to fight the urge to give his miniature-sized body a hug.
Easy for me to say, I know.
I have no clue what series of events led to that mother being pushed to her breaking point — how much bickering, how much whining, how many hard moments. I get it. We’ve all been there.
But, still, that glaring contradiction was hard to ignore: Hitting him because he’s not supposed to hit?
And you might argue that spanking isn’t really “hitting” — that it’s a normal form of discipline that keeps kids in line — but isn’t it? Hitting is hitting. Violence is violence. And when the person doing the spanking is so much larger and stronger, it’s typically quite aggressive.
Listen — I’m not here to tell you how to parent your kids. (And, given the following statistics on spanking, I’m clearly in the minority with my choice to avoid spanking.) But doesn’t the topic deserve a little open discussion? These small, developing human beings only know what we, as parents, teach them. So what does spanking really teach?
Here are 18 facts about spanking that might surprise you:
The Facts About Spanking 1 of 20
How many parents are actually spanking? At what ages? And what are the possible long-term consequences? Take a peek inside the recent research about spanking kids...
Note: "Spanking" is defined as striking a child with an open hand on the buttocks or extremities in order to modify behavior with physical pain. "Corporal punishment," on the other hand, has a bit broader of a definition. On top of traditional open-handed spanking, corporal punishment can include spanking with objects (like a hairbrush), as well as other aggressive behavior that falls short of actual abuse. Again, neither "spanking" or "corporal punishment" includes serious physical, sexual, or neglectful abuse.
81% of Americans Support Spanking 2 of 20
According to 2013 findings from The Harris Poll, 81% of Americans (78% of American parents) believe it's acceptable to spank a child.
(It might seem like a high figure, but the numbers are actually slightly down from 1995.)
A Generational Issue 3 of 20
The stats show that the youngest generation of parents (the Millennial moms like me) are less likely to think that spanking is "acceptable" than older generations, following a trend of each generation spanking less than the generation before. Even still, The Harris Poll found that more than half of Millennial parents believe spanking is appropriate. That percentage jumps to 82% for Gen X parents.
So the vast majority of kids — despite a parent's generation — are being spanked.
A Regional Issue 4 of 20
A friend of mine who recently moved to Texas is feeling a lot of pressure to spank — even admitting to being judged as a "bad mom" for avoiding any kind of corporal punishment. She constantly feels pressure from neighbors and friends to give her kids a swift spank.
And that makes sense, considering almost 90% of Southern parents admitted to believing spanking is appropriate in The Harris Poll.
How Many Parents Spank? 5 of 20
We know that the vast majority of Americans support spanking, but how many actually spank their kids? A lot, apparently. A recent study from Columbia University published in Pediatrics found that the majority of parents are spanking children at the age of 3 to 5. (The numbers slightly decline after age 5.)
Much of this information originally came from the Harris Poll.
Is Spanking a Cycle? 6 of 20
Another finding from The Harris Poll: Those who were spanked as kids are much more likely to spank with their own kids. Is this because it's an effective form of discipline? Or because it's hard to break the parenting cycle?
Spanking Infants 7 of 20
According to Stefan Molyneux of the Freedomain Radio (who put together a comprehensive video on spanking, citing a slew of resources), 1 in 4 parents begin spanking when their baby is 6 months old. That number jumps to 50% by 12 months.
(P.S.: 6 months?!?)
Spanking Under 18 Months 8 of 20
Even though so many parents are spanking their infants and young toddlers, the American Academy of Pediatrics claims that it's completely useless to spank under the age of 18 months. Spanking does, however, instill that it's okay to hit, considering infants and toddlers absorb our actions as guidelines on how to behave.
Negative Effects on Behavior 9 of 20
According to Dr. Elizabeth Gershoff — Associate Professor of Human Development and Family Services at The University of Texas at Austin — spanking has negative effects on other behaviors beyond what the spanking was trying to correct. Gershoff analyzed 88 studies over 62 years to determine the effects of spanking on 11 child behaviors. Apart from immediate compliance, spanking has negative effects on the other behaviors.
Increased Aggression 10 of 20
Gershoff also insists that spanking creates "a model for using aggression" — a statement that's backed up by plenty of research. According to a study done by Duke University, children spanked as 1-year-olds are more likely to behave aggressively. And according to the AAP, "spanking models aggressive behavior as a solution to conflict and has been associated with increased aggression in preschool and school children."
To be fair, is it really that parents who spank are naturally more aggressive than non-spanking parents? And so they pass on genes associated with aggression and a lack of self control? Still, it's probably best to up their odds — right?
Violent Behavior 11 of 20
A 2010 Pediatrics study with Tulane University, led by Dr. Catherine Taylor, controlled for a host of issues including depression, drug abuse, spousal abuse, and even whether she considered abortion while pregnant. All of these factors aside, spanking was still a "strong predictor of violent behavior."
Taylor surveyed mothers in 20 cities — once when their children were 3 years old, and then again when they were 5. The kids who were spanked more often turned out to "demand immediate satisfaction of their wants and needs, become frustrated easily, have temper tantrums and lash out physically against other people or animals."
Could those kids have been spanked more often because they were predisposed to being more difficult? Most researchers and child psychology experts agree that corporal punishment instills fear rather than true comprehension.
Spanking Might Lower I.Q. by 5 Points 12 of 20
Could spanking actually lower your child's IQ score? According to Sociologist Murray Straus from the University of New Hampshire (a man who has been studying corporal punishment since 1969), the more children were spanked, the lower their IQs. He even tested this theory in other nations, as well. Straus studied 32 countries and found that the average IQ was lower in nations where spanking was common.
During his U.S. research, Straus and his colleague Mallie Paschall found that among 2-to-4-year-old kids, the kids who weren't spanked at the beginning of the study performed a full five points higher on IQ tests than those who had been spanked. Among kids ages 5 to 9 years old, there was a 2.8-point IQ gap. (And according to TIME.com, Straus and Paschall considered parental education, income, and other environmental factors before drawing statistical conclusions.)
Again, the same problem might arise as with the aggression argument: Are kids with lower IQs simply getting spanked more often, due to their lower cognitive functions? Or is spanking the sole cause of the IQ gap?
Why are We Spanking? 13 of 20
According to the Freedomain Radio, the argument that parents use spanking in a calm, controlled, and loving manner is largely bologna — at least when looking at the majority of spanking instances. Typically a parent will spank when they are angry, irritable, tired, or stressed — like when a child is in danger or when a mom's patience fuse snaps.
In a survey published in Pediatrics, 50% of the respondents admitted that they spanked because they "lost it."
Spanking with Objects 14 of 20
The survey in Pediatrics proved that "spanking" has a pretty broad spectrum. And apparently a shocking amount of spanking takes corporal punishment up a notch by using something other than an open hand. According to a 2008 American Journal of Preventive Medicine study, using an object during spanking raises the risk of child abuse by nearly 9 times.
Stefan Molyneux (from Freedomain Radio) also points out that, "When punishment fails, parents tend to increase the intensity of its use rather than change strategies." This, of course, puts kids at increased risk of child abuse, especially as kids get bigger.
Long-Term Consequences 15 of 20
Considering so many parents use more intense means of spanking beyond an open hand on diapered buttocks, this must be said: Researchers in Canada found that up to 7 percent of mental health disorders (depression, anxiety, panic disorders, mood disorders, social phobias, etc.) were associated with physical corporal punishment during childhood, including spanking, shoving, and grabbing.
(It should be noted that the researchers found an association, not a direct causation. And although they controlled for socio-demographic factors, these findings are based on parents who regularly use physical punishment as a discipline tool — not a rare tap on a child's bottom — yet do not engage in more severe physical abuse, sexual abuse, or forms of neglect.)
Another study — this one done by the Murray Straus Family Research Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire — found that corporal punishment can lead to sexual issues later in life.
Spanking: A Gateway to Abuse? 16 of 20
Corporal punishment (again — this term includes more than just an occasional swat) is also a predictor of adult delinquency, violence, and child abuse.
As Stefan Molyneux explains, "It doesn't mean that everyone who is spanked goes on to be a child abuser, but it does mean that almost everyone who is a child abuser was spanked."
Long-Term Benefits 17 of 20
Many researchers are in agreement on this point: Spanking might correct the problem in the immediate moment, but it typically doesn't have long-term benefits. (Beyond teaching that hitting is an acceptable way to express yourself and correct behavior.)
Source: Michael J. MacKenzie via The New York Times
Moms Feel Guilty 18 of 20
One study cited in Corporal Punishment and its Effects on Children's Cognitive and Social Development found that over half of mothers said that spanking was the wrong thing to have done in at least half of the times they spanked their kids.
And isn't "guilt" often an indicator that something you think or feel is instinctually wrong?
When Does the Spanking Stop? 19 of 20
At what age does "spanking" cross the line from discipline to abuse? Because by the age of 11, 18% of kids are still being hit one or more times a week. And that number is even higher for boys, who are predisposed to more spanking than girls.
What Can We Do Instead? 20 of 20
If spanking doesn't have any long-term benefits to outweigh the highly documented risks, why are we still doing it at such staggering rates? What about relying on time-outs and other punishment systems that remove physical force? Like taking away their toys? Their video games? Their TV privileges?
It's rare that the scientific research community comes to such a clear consensus on an issue (especially when there's no profit to be made). Researchers across the board are yelling through their megaphones, "Stop the spanking!," and yet the VAST majority of parents don't listen. Why?
Do you still spank? Have you found successful alternative methods? Share below.
So what would happen if we all stopped spanking our kids? Would the next generation really be more chaotic and unruly? Or will they perhaps be less prone to aggressive outbursts and physical altercations? When there are alternative, non-violent discipline methods to try, what’s the harm in teaching love over anger?