To spank or not to spank? Study says early spankings make for aggressive toddlers

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A new study of 2,500 white, Mexican American and black children from low-income families suggests that early spankings make for aggressive toddlers. According to the study, which is published in the journal Child Development, “Children who are spanked as 1-year-olds are more likely to behave aggressively and perform worse on cognitive tests as toddlers than children who are spared the punishment, new research shows.”

“Age 1 is a key time for establishing the quality of the parenting and the relationship between parent and the child,” said study author Lisa J. Berlin, a research scientist at the Center for Child and Family Policy at Duke University. “Spanking at age 1 reflects a negative dynamic, and increases children’s aggression at age 2.”

“The study also found that mothers who said their children were ‘fussy’ babies were more likely to spank them at ages 1, 2 and 3. But children who were more aggressive at 2 were not more likely to get spanked.

‘The implication or the suggestion in past arguments is that some kids who are more aggressive or difficult to control might elicit more spanking, but that’s not what we found,’ Berlin said.”

The average number of spankings for 1-year-olds in this study was 2.6 per week.

I am by no means a perfect parent (if such a thing even exists) and I’ve definitely felt the urge to spank my kids on occasion. I’ve raised my voice and not always parented the way I planned to but I cannot imagine a situation where I’d ever conceive spanking a 1-year-old – especially more than twice per week on average!

Alma from Always on the Verge


Why are we spanking one year olds? My next question is, why are we spanking one year olds almost 3 times a week? What are they doing that deserves physical punishment?

I wish they would have told us that in the article because I cannot for the life of me understand what a one year old does that requires physical punishment. This goes back to something that I preach a great deal about.

Forcing unrealistic expectations on children.

I have heard reasons as to why people spank their young children and they range from not wanting to eat, not wanting to sit in a carseat for extended periods of time, and not wanting to go to sleep when the parents want them to. All of these common reasons are things that children should not be really expected to do…. but our society has said that they are. What needs to change here? The kids or the expectations?

Alma also notes that this is certainly not the first time a study has showed the negative effects spanking has on a child. CNN posted Spanking Kids Leads to Long-Term Bad Behavior more than 10 years ago.

On the Attachment Parenting Blog API Speaks, Sarah wrote about the one and only time her now 7-year-old son was spanked (back when he was 18 months old and by the hand of her mother-in-law) in her post His Only Spank.

Carina spanked her 3.5 yr old son after he made a colossal mess of her living room (don’t believe me? check this out) and said in the comments:

I have mixed feelings about the spanking (don’t we all?). I have tried a lot of alternate disciplinary tactics. Today was the first day that we did a bare-bum and open hand spanking. The good thing is that I was not angry, it was not a release, it was done calmly. Afterwards I made him sit on my lap and talk about it. I probably wouldn’t have done it, except that he poured out most of the chocolate syrup on the carpet yesterday, after which he lost TV privileges and had a long time out. With the escalation today, I felt like we needed to step up the discipline.

Carina also told me, “It’s rare that we use it [spanking] as a discipline (hate using it when there is any other alternative). We’d tried everything else and nothing else was working. I think I come down on the side of ‘if it’s rare and appropriate.'”

LilSugar wrote Did Your View on Spanking Change Once You Became a Mom? and confesses that her’s did.

I was adamant that I would use spanking as a method of punishment in our home… before I became a mother. When it came time for me to teach my daughter right from wrong, I popped her tush a couple of times and found it completely ineffective. She actually enjoyed the quick tap and giggled her way to more mischief. Eager to try a new plan, I gave her a time out in a not so fun part of the house — the dark guest room. In 60 seconds, I discovered that the new system was more compelling than making physical contact.

A commenter MissSushi said:

I will probably spank, but only for very severe things. Sometimes you need the shock of it as a wake up call. We hardly ever got spanked as kids, but the few times it happened because of severe and usually dangerous transgressions, it really made an impact. I got slapped across the face as a teenager when i was totally going over the line and it shut me up and kept me from doing it ever again. I needed the reality check to realize how god awful I was behaving. None of my siblings and I really ever misbehaved, and anywhere we went people raved over how well behaved we were. My mother used consistency, manual labor, spanking when necessary, removal of privileges and taking away our toys/electronics. Taking our things away worked for us because she didn’t give them back. We weren’t allowed outside, and we weren’t allowed to play with anything. A few weeks of trying her patience out staring at the walls when you aren’t scrubbing the floors and doing laundry for a six-person household was miserable. I will be using a similar method.

Debs from Muddy Bare Feet said:

My opinion on the matter is very clear – children should never be hit because they are people, just like adults, and have the same human rights (or should have) not to get hit anytime they do something “wrong”. On the list [message board she is a part of] I gave the example of an adult who was doing something “wrong” (I do not believe that a child’s behaviour is ever “wrong” but that’s another discussion), or who refused to do what you wanted them to – would you hit them? Of course not, so why is it seen as okay by some people to hit a child? Hitting out of anger, i.e. not in a premeditated way, is loss of control on the part of the parent and not the child’s fault, yet they become the victim of it. Premeditated hitting, counting down, saying, “If you do that again, you’ll get a smack” is just plain cruel to me. I cannot imagine doing that to another human being.

She references some websites and books about “nonviolent parenting,” such as Children are Unbeatable. (Speaking of nonviolent parenting, I found it interesting to learn that in Sweden it is against the law to spank a child.)

Debs then goes on to say:

I hope it doesn’t sound too stupid, but I’m kind of hyper-aware that this is the only chance I’ve got to get it right. This is the only childhood R will ever have, and I keep having a little panic that I’m going to mess it up for him! I’m also very aware that, as we can’t have any more children, this is my one chance to do this parenting thing right. :)

Annie at PhDinParenting notes that one of the 10 things all new parents should know is “Discipline means teach.”

New parents worry that they need to ‘discipline’ their child. But often when they say discipline, they mean spanking or punishing. However, the word discipline means to teach. That is what parents need to do. They need to guide and teach their children. In the same way that we do not expect a first grader to learn calculus, it is important to understand what age appropriate behaviour is and to shape your expectations of your child and your discipline (teaching) according to what a child can reasonably be expected to understand at any given age.

Annie also has a lot of information for parents who want to find other methods of disciplining their child in her Best Anti-Spanking Resources post.

In a post from April, Summer from Wired for Noise raises awareness about SpankOut Day. “SpankOut Day USA was initiated in 1998 to give widespread attention to the need to end corporal punishment of children and to promote non-violent ways of teaching children appropriate behavior.”

Summer is against spanking as a form of punishment.

Despite the cute names people may like to use taking your hand to another human being is hitting. Hitting. Children should not be hit.

I’ve written before my thoughts that spanking does not equal discipline. Some people have the mistaken idea that a parent who does not spank simple lets their kids run wild without correcting or guiding them. This black and white, one way or the other type thought often prevents them from seeing the benefits of choosing not to hit my children, and the dangers of them choosing to hit theirs. I believe in disciplining children, not punishing.”

Commenter Susan of Lil Mom That Could admits that she used to spank, but doesn’t anymore. “Okay I hate to say this but I have proof that spanking does not work. I will admit it I spanked- hold my head in shame. Moreso because I was spanked – a learned trait – I didn’t work. Yes I got the behavior to stop for that minute but never for good. Now I have been giving my son a stern voice and a time-out. This has done more for him and me – he respects me more – we resolve our problems verbally, work out why he was being naughty.”

A few commenters on the Strollerderby post, They Say: Spanking Makes Your Kid Mean, a Bit Dumb, question how scientific this study was and if other variables could have played a role in the aggressiveness of the children.

Another commenter (Manjari) from the Strollerderby post said, “Whether or not the study is sound, I don’t think children should be spanked. I don’t want anyone to hit me, and I think kids should have the same protection from violence that I do.”

What do I think about all of this? (I know you want me to chime in.) My thoughts are that a very occasional spanking is not likely to cause a child any permanent harm (though I still can’t imagine or condone spanking a 1 year old). That doesn’t mean I believe in spanking for my children, because I do not. However, I know that even parents with the very best of intentions sometimes do things they regret. What should a parent do if that happens? I think explaining to the child why he/she (the parent) acted the way they did and apologizing to the child and telling them you love them is a good course of action.

I think that children who are spanked are more likely to grow up into adults that spank because of the argument, “I got spanked and I turned out OK.” But the cycle of spanking – hitting another human being – violence begetting violence – continues. How is that a good thing to teach?

I read a lot today about the argument (in favor of spanking) that kids today are out of control and disrespectful and I think the vast majority of that comes down to how they were raised in the early years. Were they treated with love and respect? Were boundaries firmly established? Were they given consistent and loving care? Resorting to spanking at a later age seems like what parents do when they’ve lost all control. I think, however, that if we are raising our children with empathy from the very beginning, starting with birth, we are less likely to get to the point of no return and have to resort to spanking. I could go on, but that could be another whole post entirely.

Additional resources:
Gentle Christian Mothers
Best Anti-Spanking Resources (it’s worth repeating down here)
From API Speaks, there are several post about how to Practice Positive Discipline
From the American Academy of Pediatrics: What is the best way to discipline my child?
From CNN: Spanking detrimental to children, study says

Cross-posted on BlogHer

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