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Evidence Against the Use of Disciplinary Spanking

Evidence Against the Use of Disciplinary Spanking

The design of a research study is critical to the results it will yield.  If researchers desire accurate, objective results, then all aspects of the design must be considered.  Let’s take an in-depth look at this principle.

Bad Design Yields Poor Results

The research methods used in studies claiming to show adverse outcomes of disciplinary spanking would be shamefully disregarded if used to evaluate a particular medical treatment. It is well known that evaluations of medical treatments must carefully specify the indications and contraindications for the treatment, the appropriate medication dosage, and distinguish causal effects from correlations. The evidence against disciplinary spanking comes from research that ignores these factors as noted below.

  • Ordinary spanking is grouped other forms of corporal punishment including abusive acts, such as punching, face slapping, kicking, and beating.  In Gershoff’s widely publicized 2002 meta-analysis which claims spanking is harmful, a broad definition of corporal punishment is used and therefore 65% of her cited studies include overly harsh forms of physical punishment.[i]
  • Research is not limited to the spanking of young children; rather, the focus is upon corporal punishment with adolescents.  An example is Straus’s survey-based studies which are often promoted as evidence for a link between spanking during “childhood” and poor adult outcomes, such as alcohol abuse, marital violence, depression, and suicidal thinking.[ii]  These conclusions are built entirely upon situations of “physical punishment during the teen years”, not during childhood, with teens experiencing up to thirty or more hitting events in a year.  These correlates of teenage corporal punishment reveal nothing about the effect of ordinary spanking with preschoolers.
  • Study findings are correlational and do not show clear causation.  Baumrind, et.al, in a critical review of Gershoff’s meta-analysis, noted that her results are only correlational, finding disciplinary spanking “guilty by association.”[iii]   Gershoff acknowledged that “the links between corporal punishment and detrimental outcomes in young children may be artifactual.”  Ferguson’s 2013 meta-analysis revealed that any link between spanking and negative outcomes is insignificant.[iv]  For instance, physical punishment and physical abuse had a consistently positive association, because all physical abuse was defined as occurrences of physical punishment.  Association does not prove causation.
  • The effects of disciplinary spanking are typically not compared against the effects of alternative disciplinary responses, such as time-out, grounding, or privilege removal.  Using the same studies and method of analysis in Gershoff’s meta-analysis, Baumrind found more links to detrimental outcomes for alternative disciplinary tactics than for physical punishment.[iii]
  • Studies rely upon surveys of parents as the reporters of both their children’s behavior and their own discipline practices.  This is problematic since parents’ desire to justify their disciplinary actions may bias their reporting of resulting child behavior.  Likewise, surveys of adults’ recall of being spanked as a child may be biased toward recalling the harsher practices of corporal punishment experienced in later childhood years.
  • Studies fail to prescribe the methodology and application of spanking and, instead, evaluate the effects of the varying personal practices of its use.  In the earliest studies examining the effectiveness of time-out, parents were first trained in the proper use of the discipline response by instruction and role-playing.[v]  Proper and consistent application of a technique, such as spanking, should ideally be verified in order to generate accurate conclusions about its effectiveness.
  • Longitudinal research often relies upon the measure of frequency of spanking without controlling for the frequency of a child’s misbehavior or for a child’s behavioral temperament.  Just as a child’s difficult temperament will elicit more frequent corrective responses early in life, it also increases the probability of a poorer outcome later in life.  In other words, frequent misbehavior or a difficult temperament tends to predict subsequent child behavior problems, regardless of the disciplinary measure employed.  Larzelere, Kuhn and Johnson, in their paper examining this “intervention selection bias,” note “the detrimental outcomes of ordinary physical punishment tend to disappear with more adequate statistical controls for the initial child misbehavior.”[vi]  This is a critical design flaw.
  • Important variables within the disciplinary process are largely ignored, such as parental nurturance, parental use of other measures (reasoning, consequences, timeout) in conjunction with spanking, and the parent-child relationship.  When comparing parents who are equivalent on positive parental involvement[vii] or on the use of reasoning[viii], the associations of spanking with negative child behaviors disappear.
  • Much of the anti-spanking literature consists of opinion-driven editorials, reviews, and commentaries.  Lyons, Anderson and Larson conducted a systematic review of articles published between 1984 and 1993 that addressed corporal punishment.[ix]  They found that 83% of the 132 articles were editorials or commentaries devoid of empirical data.  All but one of the few empirical studies was flawed by the inclusion of severe physical abuse with disciplinary spanking.  The one remaining study specific for disciplinary spanking revealed no detrimental effects on the child.
Click here to Read More about the arguments against spanking


[i]  Baumrind, D, Larzelere, RE, & Cowan, PA. Ordinary physical punishment: Is it harmful? Comment on Gershoff (2002). Psychological Bulletin. 2002;128(4):580-589.

[ii]  Straus M. Should the use of corporal punishment by parents be considered child abuse? in Mason M & Gambrill E (eds). Debating Children’s Lives. 1994; pp 197-203. California: SAGE Publications

[iii]  Baumrind, D, Larzelere, RE, & Cowan, PA. Ordinary physical punishment: Is it harmful? Comment on Gershoff (2002). Psychological Bulletin. 2002;128(4):580-589.

[iv]  Ferguson, CJ.  Spanking, corporal punishment and negative long-term outcomes: A meta-analytic review of longitudinal studies. Clinical Psychology Review. 2013. 33:196–208.

[v]  Newby, R F, Fischer, M, & Roman, MA. Parent training for families of children with ADHD. School Psychology Review. 1991;20:252-265.

[vi]  Larzelere RE, Kuhn BR, Johnson, B. The intervention selection bias: an underrecognized confound in intervention research. Psychological Bulletin. 2004;130:2:289-303.

[vii]  Simons RL, Johnson C, & Conger RD. Harsh corporal punishment versus quality of parental involvement as an explanation of adolescent maladjustment. J Marriage and Family. 1994; 56:591-607.

[viii]  Larzelere RE & Merenda JA. The effectiveness of parental discipline for toddler misbehavior at different levels of child distress. Family Relations. 1994;43:480-488.

[ix]  Lyons J, Anderson R, Larson D. The use and effects of physical punishment in the home: A systematic review. Presentation to the Section on Bioethics of the American Academy of Pediatrics at the annual meeting, November 2, 1993.

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