How to Use Disciplinary Spanking

How to Use Disciplinary Spanking

In a systematic review of the literature, Larzelere examined child outcomes in families where parents used nonabusive, customary physical punishment.[i]  Among the review’s conclusions were that disciplinary spanking has “consistently beneficial outcomes when it is nonabusive and used primarily to back up milder disciplinary tactics with 2- to 6-year olds by loving parents.”   Also, “most detrimental outcomes in causally relevant studies are due to overly frequent use of physical punishment.”  The following conditions were more characteristic of effective spanking than of counterproductive physical punishment: (p.215)

  1. Use is not overly severe.
  2. Used by a parent under control, not in danger of “losing it” from anger.
  3. Used during ages 2 to 6, not during the teenage years.  Although conclusive evidence is scarce, spanking should be phased out as soon as possible between ages 7 and 12 years.
  4. Used with reasoning, preferably eliciting an intermediate rather than a high level of child distress.
  5. Used privately.
  6. Motivated by concern for the child, not parent-oriented concerns.
  7. Used after a single warning (generalizing from Roberts).[ii]  Roberts showed that a single warning before time-out reduced the necessary time-outs by 74% without sacrificing any effectiveness of the behavioral parent training.
  8. Used flexibly.  If spanking does not work, parents should try other approaches and other tactics rather than increasing the intensity of the spanking.

Guarendi studied the families of outstanding students selected by 50 state winners of the teacher-of-the-year to discover the secrets of highly successful families.[i]  Spanking was among the many aspects of parenting examined and these are his finding concerning its use:

  • 70% of the parents of outstanding students employed some physical punishment with their children.  Some relied upon it often and others rarely used it.  “Spanking was generally considered to be one tool in a parent’s discipline repertoire.”
  • Most began spanking between 18 – 24 months and phased it out by ages 4 – 6 years.
  • Spanking was neither the main method nor a last-ditch intervention.
  • The occasions when spanking was used:
    • When teaching a child to avoid potentially dangerous situations.
    • When punishing for deliberate disobedience.
    • When punishing for disrespectful behavior.
  • Spanking was not used for accidents, childish behavior, or impulsiveness; the parents preferred to employ other consequences for these behaviors.


It is clear that parents should not solely rely upon spanking to accomplish control of their child’s behavior.  Evidence suggests that it can be a useful and necessary part of a successful disciplinary plan.  Like any corrective measure, its application requires a proactive rather than reactive approach to produce an optimal outcome.  Disciplinary spankingis most beneficial and necessary during the ages 2 to 6 years when reasoning alone is often ineffective and even counterproductive in managing behavior.  With cognitive development, a child will more readily respond to reasoning and less assertive corrective methods, and the need for spanking should therefore diminish.

For practical advice on how a parent can use spanking, read Disciplinary Spanking: When and How to Use It

The following guidelines have been compiled from available research data on disciplinary spanking.

Guidelines for Parental Use of Disciplinary Spanking

  1. Spanking should be used selectively for clear, deliberate misbehavior, particularly that which arises from a child’s persistent defiance of a parent’s instruction.  It should be used only when the child receives at least as much encouragement and praise for good behavior as correction for problem behavior.
  2. Milder forms of discipline, such as verbal correction, extinction, logical and natural consequences, and time-out should be used initially, followed by spanking when noncompliance persists.  Spanking has been shown to be an effective method of enforcing time-out with the child who refuses to comply.
  3. Only a parent, or in exceptional situations someone else who has an intimate relationship of authority with the child, should administer disciplinary spanking.
  4. Spanking should not be administered on impulse or when a parent is out of control.  A spanking should always be motivated by love, for the purpose of teaching and correcting, and not for revenge or retaliation.
  5. Spanking is inappropriate before 15 months of age and is usually not necessary until after 18 months.  It should be less necessary after 6 years and rarely, if ever, used after 10 years of age.
  6. After 10 months of age, one slap to the hand of a stubborn crawler or toddler may be necessary to stop serious misbehavior when distraction and removal have failed.  This is particularly the case when the forbidden object is immoveable and dangerous, such as a hot oven door or an electrical outlet.
  7. Spanking should always be a plannedaction (not a reaction) by the parent and should follow a deliberate procedure.
    1. The child should be forewarned of the spanking consequence for designated problem behaviors.
    2. Spanking should always be administered in private (bedroom or restroom) to avoid public humiliation or embarrassment.
    3. One or two spanks are administered to the buttocks.  This is followed by embracing the child and calmly reviewing the offense and the desired behavior in an effort to reestablish a warm relationship.
  8. Spanking should leave only transient redness of the skin and should not cause physical injury.
  9. If properly administered spankings are ineffective, other disciplinary responses should be tried again rather than increasing the intensity of spankings.  Professional help should be obtained when a satisfactory behavioral response cannot be achieved through the process of discipline.

[i]  Larzelere RE. Child outcomes of nonabusive and customary physical punishment by parents: An update literature review. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review. 2000;3:199-221.

[ii]  Roberts MW. The effects of warned versus unwarned time-out procedures on child noncompliance. Child & Family Behavioral Therapy. 1982;4:37-53.

[i]  Guarendi R. Back to the Family. 1990;215-222. New York: Simon & Schuster.

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