“The difference between spanking and abuse is kind of a grey zone."
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We’ve all been misbehaving little monsters at some point in our past. Our parents may have chosen different forms of disciplining us at times, but the sting of a spanking, whupping, or a good smack is something many of us also remember in response to acting out of line. Surveys show that two-thirds of American parents have spanked their children as a disciplinary tactic, although its effectiveness and outcomes have long been the subject of debate.
Most psychologists and physicians now agree that spanking kids might actually hurt—in more than just the physical sense. Children who are spanked are likely to become even more rebellious, according to research studies. They may develop more distant parent-child relationships. They may also confuse the boundaries between love and physical aggression as they become adults, says Jeff Temple, a psychiatry professor at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston.
In a study published in The Journal of Pediatrics on Tuesday, Temple’s group found people who got spanked as kids were 1.3 times more likely to become aggressive towards future dating partners. “Not everyone who is spanked will go on to perpetrate violence,” Temple says. “But I think that it does prime them a little bit more to see violence as a means to resolve conflict.”
In fact, research has consistently shown that adults who were spanked as kids are more likely to develop a range of mental health problems, from anxiety and depression to alcohol and drug abuse. The chronic stress from childhood punishments may even hurt their physical health as adults, putting them at higher risk for heart disease, arthritis, and obesity.
“Spanking appears to be empirically similar to physical abuse,” says Tracie Afifi, a psychiatric epidemiologist at University of Manitoba in Canada, who recently led a large study confirming the lasting effects of spanking. “The difference between spanking and abuse is kind of like a grey zone. That’s why it’s so worrisome,” she says.
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It hasn’t helped that corporal punishment is legal in Canada and the United States. Fifty-three countries have explicitly prohibited the practice, but spanking is deeply entrenched in our history and our culture. For many, it’s the norm as taught by their parents and grandparents. And in some US states, public school teachers are allowed to hit students to correct or punish their behavior too.
But that doesn’t mean that parents who spanked their children or who still support spanking are bad parents, Afifi says. Most are just busy and stressed, harsh one day and lenient the next. “They probably thought they were doing the best thing they could to discipline their kids.”
So what if I was spanked as a kid? I turned out okay, you may be thinking. And you probably are okay. “Most people who are spanked are not going to have negative effects,” Temple says. You’re more likely to experience problems if you were spanked as a kid than if you weren’t, but it’s not like your future is definitely going to be irrevocably damaged.
If you do feel like there have been lingering effects in your life, however, it’s good to identify them and talk about them with a professional rather than minimizing the effects of spanking, Temple says. “Once you’re at that stage, realizing that it did suck, and that you do have negative effects, you can start to manage those effects.”
Yet some remain unconvinced of the harms of spanking. A small group of physicians and researchers continue to argue that spanking is beneficial, or—at the very least—that its effects in adulthood are overblown. That’s because the best scientists can do is retroactively compare what happens to kids who are punished with those who are not. And kids who incite spankings may be more difficult or delinquent to begin with. “Research shows that people who stay overnight in hospitals, on average, have worse physical health than the rest of us when they get out. But that doesn’t mean the hospital made them worse,” says Robert Larzelere, a psychologist at Oklahoma State University.
Parents' reasons for spanking can also make a difference, Larzelere says. “As with all disciplinary tactics, it depends on how parents use [spanking], when they use it, and how severe or frequent it is.”
But no matter why parents choose to spank, an overwhelming amount of evidence indicates that it may be an ineffective technique. “There’s never a point at which spanking becomes a positive thing,” says Elizabeth Gershoff, a developmental psychologist at The University of Texas at Austin. Spanking doesn’t even make children compliant in the short term, she says.
Instead of spanking, the American Academy of Pediatrics encourages parents to teach kids why a behavior may be out of line, and to use non-physical types of discipline, such as “time-outs” or taking children’s privileges away for a period of time.
“There really isn’t any argument for spanking. The data is so clear on this,” Gershoff says. When Gershoff and other scientists surveyed more than 12,000 school aged-children last month, they used a statistical method to account for differences that might affect people’s experiences, such as parental income, education level, marital status, food insecurity, religiosity, race, ethnicity and immigrant status. Even when all these other factors were irrelevant, the researchers still found that spanking is what led to behavioral and mental health problems later on.
“I think it’s time we consciously decided not to continue to do this with the next generation of children,” Gershoff says. “It’s just wrong to hit other people, particularly the smallest people in our society who depend on us.”
If you’ve escaped into adulthood unscathed by the effects of a parent’s open hand to your bottom, you’re simply very lucky, she says. Your parents may have smoked around you too, or they might not have made you wear a seatbelt, but we know better now.
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