Spanking Your Kids Likely Does More Harm Than Good—Here Are 7 Things To Try Instead

Photo: Stocksy/ Amanda Worrall

Spanking may be on the decline in America, but it's far from obsolete. JAMA Pediatrics reports that 15 percent fewer parents spanked their kids in 2017 than they did in 1993, but many moms, dads, and caregivers continue to believe that children should be spanked. (I was! Were you?!?) If you're someone who believes in spanking your kids, you're likely not alone. But a new analysis of over 69 studies on the subject makes a compelling argument for putting this corporal punishment behind you. 

The review, published this past June in the journal Lancetdraws strong conclusions around a concept that has long been somewhat murky. Researchers found that spanking did not improve the behavior of those being spanked overall. Instead, it exacerbated bad behavior, leading to increased aggression, antisocial behavior, and disruptive behavior. And the more children received spankings, the more they acted out. In other words, spanking had the opposite of its intended effect.

When most parents talk about effective disciplinary measures, "they mean things that improve children's behavior over time," says Joan Durrant, PhD, a child clinical psychologist and one of the review's co-authors. "But what we see with physical punishment, and spanking specifically, [are] increases in the behaviors we don't want. If parents think it's improving behavior, that's just not the case."

In the past, such conclusions have been called into question due, explains Dr. Durrant. Some experts have argued that frequently spanked children were more poorly behaved than those who weren't. Given this assumption, experts believed spanking didn't cause behavioral issues; rather, the behavioral issues caused the spanking. But this recent analysis suggests that children with existing behavioral issues became more aggressive when spanked, and children who weren't aggressive became more so when they were spanked regularly, too.

Experts In This Article
  • Helen Egger, Helen Egger, MD is a pediatric doctor, early childhood mental health expert, digital health expert, and prolific scientist. She is the founder of Little Otter, a children's mental health practice.
  • Joan Durrant, PhD, Joan Durrant, PhD is a child clinical psychologist and a professor in the Department of Community Health Sciences at the University of Manitoba.

"When somebody hits us, it doesn't make things better," says Dr. Durrant. "It makes us angry and resentful, and it makes us want to go and punch somebody else. It erodes the relationship, and it causes fear and anxiety. And so that's what we see in children, too, because they are also human beings who respond the same way to aggression." Every time you hit a child, says Dr. Durrant, you've lost an opportunity to show them how to solve a problem. Eventually, the child is left with a narrower repertoire of conflict resolution strategies.

Not all children who endure spanking will act out in turn; however, Dr. Durrant notes that there's a chance some children internalize the experience and start to believe they deserve the physical punishments they're dealt. "That can feed into anxiety, depression, difficulties trusting other people, self-esteem issues, drug use, and alcohol use," she says. Even if the spankings don't happen often, or they're not that hard, Dr. Durrant labels them as "traumatic." 

As if the mental and physical outcomes weren't enough, the analysis notes that most verifiable child abuse cases occur when a parent is punishing a child, Dr. Durrant says. The research suggests that spanked children were also more likely to experience higher incidences of interaction with Child Protective Services (CPS). This doesn't mean the parents set out to injure their children, Dr. Durrant says. "When you're frustrated, you hit with more force than you intended. It can escalate really quickly. And I think that's probably one of the most important findings in the literature on physical punishment—there's not a cool, calm, collected parent who hits their child because if they were cool, calm, and collected, why would they do that? And hitting anybody in that situation—when you're angry or frustrated—is a very high-stakes behavior."

If you're reading this and thinking, I got spanked, and I turned out fine, we understand the sentiment. Not everyone who is spanked will experience all of these negative outcomes, but the research overwhelmingly suggests that the risks are pretty serious (and there aren't any rewards). "Since there are no demonstrated benefits of spanking, only increased risk of negative outcomes, the logical conclusion is to stop spanking," Dr. Durrant says. "And teach children in ways that do promote positive outcomes, like social skills, emotion regulation, and strong relationships."

To that end, Dr. Durrant and Helen Egger, MD, child psychiatrist and founder of Little Otter, a children's mental health practice, offer alternatives to spanking that are effective and protective of your child's well-being:

1. Redefine your relationship to discipline

Often, parents spank children because they're afraid that if they don't, the child will be spoiled, run wild, or even end up in jail, says Dr. Durrant. But spanking, as noted above, actually makes those negative outcomes more likely.

Instead, Dr. Durrant suggests trying to figure out what motivated your child's mistake and addressing that directly. For example, let's say your child is in trouble for running through the house. Instead of spanking them, Dr. Durrant suggests investigating why they were running. You might find that the child had energy to burn after being stuck inside all day. As a result, you might reiterate the rule (e.g., "don't run in the house"), explain again why it's in place (e.g., running in the house is dangerous), and then take the child to the park so they can burn off steam. "Children don't do things we consider bad to be bad," she says. "They want to do well, and they want our approval, and they want to be in a relationship with us. So we need to sit down and communicate with them."

Relying on reproaches—especially those which take the form of physical aggression—can make a child feel bad about themselves, and it doesn't teach them any skills or help them to do better next time.

2. Catch your children being good

Another way of teaching your child how to behave is to reinforce the good rather than punishing the bad. Dr. Egger recommends rewarding them when you've caught them doing something right, as this will encourage them to repeat those behaviors in the future. "There's ample evidence that what we call 'catching children being good' and praising them when they are doing good things works [to modify and improve their behavior]," she says. 

3. Use 'do' phrases instead of 'don't'

Because positive reinforcement is effective, Dr. Egger also recommends framing proposed behavioral adjustments from a 'do' perspective. So, for example, you might replace "stop running" with "use your walking feet" or "don't do that" with "make a good choice," she says.

4. Practice your ABC's

When you assign consequences to negative behavior, Dr. Egger says to think of the ABCs: What came before the incident (Antecedents)? What actually happened (Behavior)? What are the results going to be (Consequences)? "It is important to understand the antecedent because then we can begin to predict when the behavior occurs and change the child’s environment to prevent the behavior," says Dr. Egger.

For example, if you know your child gets upset when you tell them to turn off the iPad, plan ahead. Be clear with them about how much time they get with the iPad, set a timer for that amount of time, give them a warning with that time is almost up (this is called priming, Dr. Egger explains), and then do something enjoyable or distracting when the time is up.

5. Ignore the small stuff

Children want attention from their caregivers, says Dr. Egger, even if it's negative. So if you can, try to ignore small infractions, tantrums, etc., so that your child doesn't learn that engaging in those behaviors can garner attention. Obviously, some behaviors cannot be ignored, but when your child is doing something relatively harmless, your best bet may be to pretend it's not happening.

"When possible, ignore children’s behaviors, but do not ignore...the child’s feelings," says Dr. Egger. "If your child is having a tantrum because you took away a toy that they were throwing, you should acknowledge his feeling angry (there are no right or wrong feelings) in a matter-of-fact way and then move on. You might say, 'I am going to water the plants. When you are ready, I would like to do that together.' Or pick up a book to read to the child."

6. Notice your own bad behavior

On that note, if you're constantly reacting to your child's behavior with your own emotional meltdowns, they won't necessarily register your reaction as a bad thing, Dr. Egger says. Parenting is, after all, about mentorship. "It's about being the person you hope your child will grow into being," Dr. Durrant says. "That's where they learn powerful lessons—by watching us. So, we need to be the people that we want our children to be."

Parents need to recognize their own triggers, she says, so they can anticipate when they may feel compelled to spank and be prepared with alternative coping mechanisms. And, believe it or not, it can be beneficial to simply resolve never to spank your child, she adds. "If you believe, 'I will never hit my child, I will find something better,' then you can stop that urge," she says.

7. Keep learning new parenting tools

Effective child-rearing is not necessarily intuitive, so it's important, as Dr. Durrant mentioned earlier, to educate yourself on what works and what doesn't. Dr. Egger notes that the American Academy of Pediatrics has a policy statement against physically punishing children and offers alternative strategies. Little Otter's website offers a plethora of resources, too. Your pediatrician can also be a good resource, as can online parenting support groups, a child psychologist, or other mental health professionals.

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