Spanking increases agressive behavior in young children

15 Apr

Spanking. Corporal punishment. Aversives. There is obviously a major controversy about punishment in the autism community (for example, the Judge Rotenberg Center). But what about spanking in general, for the general population? Is it effective in reducing aggression? According to a new paper in the journal Pediatrics, the answer is a clear no. Not only that, but spanking leads to more aggressive behavior.

This is shown in Mothers’ Spanking of 3-Year-Old Children and Subsequent Risk of Children’s Aggressive Behavior, Catherine A. Taylor et al..

Here is the abstract:

Objective The goal was to examine the association between the use of corporal punishment (CP) against 3-year-old children and subsequent aggressive behavior among those children.

Methods Respondents (N = 2461) participated in the Fragile Families and Child Well-being Study (1998–2005), a population-based, birth cohort study of children born in 20 large US cities. Maternal reports of CP, children’s aggressive behaviors at 3 and 5 years of age, and a host of key demographic features and potential confounding factors, including maternal child physical maltreatment, psychological maltreatment, and neglect, intimate partner aggression victimization, stress, depression, substance use, and consideration of abortion, were assessed.

Results Frequent use of CP (ie, mother’s use of spanking more than twice in the previous month) when the child was 3 years of age was associated with increased risk for higher levels of child aggression when the child was 5 years of age (adjusted odds ratio: 1.49 [95% confidence interval: 1.2–1.8]; P < .0001), even with controlling for the child's level of aggression at age 3 and the aforementioned potential confounding factors and key demographic features.

Despite American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations to the contrary, most parents in the United States approve of and have used CP as a form of child discipline. The current findings suggest that even minor forms of CP, such as spanking, increase risk for increased child aggressive behavior. Importantly, these findings cannot be attributed to possible confounding effects of a host of other maternal parenting risk factors.

I decided to not go into detail on the paper. The relevant information for this discussion is there in the abstract: children who are spanked at age 3 are more likely to be more aggressive at age 5. Long term, spanking makes things worse. It doesn’t “teach a child a lesson”.

This isn’t an autism paper, but LeftBrainRightBrain is an autism blog and I’ve been wondering how this might apply to young autistics. Are autistic children (or developmentally disabled children in general) more susceptible to the harmful effects of frequent spanking or aversives? I have to admit, I wonder about the effect of electric shocks on older children and young adults at the Judge Rotenberg Center. Whether it actually makes things worse for some of their students in the long run.

8 Responses to “Spanking increases agressive behavior in young children”

  1. Laurentius Rex April 15, 2010 at 20:23 #

    Okay you can paddle me senseless for daring to suggest this, but I can’t see how that can ever be an ethical study.

  2. Sana April 15, 2010 at 21:12 #

    I’m not convinced this paper proves spanking is ineffective, full stop…
    If your verbal discipline is so poor that you’re reduced to spanking every other week, minimum, it seems highly unlikely that this punishment is being deployed effectively either. Then all you have is poor discipline AND violence.
    Large sections of parenting books go into how to deliver an effective verbal ‘telling off’, with popular methods suggesting reflection period after, the need for an apology, reconciliation and so on. You can buy into what you want of this but clearly there are effective and ineffective ways to verbally discipline a child.

    I’d suggest the same goes for phsyical punishment. In fact I remember seeing as a child how some school friends would be yanked across the lap and whacked with no pause in the child’s tantrum or the mother’s yelling. The study, by its own criteria, seems doomed to focus on families performing just that sort of pointless, negative practice. (Similar could be said of older children being sent to the head master or cautioned by the police. I would have had a heart attack if either had ever happened to me, and the threat was therefore effective, but if it happens everyday then you cease to care).

    In contrast the question has arisen among my friends occasionally, all of whom got the sharp shock of a wooden spoon or hand, but never more than 4 times *in their entire lives*. All of us remember the lingering sense of serious consequences to being very naughty, which curbed our worst instincts more than once.

    That said (don’t bite my head off as a sadist) I don’t think effective is the same as necessary, and I don’t think it remotely impossible to avoid physical punishment altogether.

    • Sullivan April 15, 2010 at 22:50 #


      The question of “effective” vs. “necessary” is a good one. I would word it slightly differently.

      Much depends on one’s definition of “effective”. For example, by some limited definitions, one can state that electric shocks are “effective” in changing behavior, insomuch as behavior will change. This is if one leaves out the question “at what cost?”

  3. Adelaide April 16, 2010 at 03:30 #

    On the subject of effective verbal discipline:

    I have read that it is better to talk less to undesirable behaviour.

    Does this work well alone?

    Or do you have to praise good behaviour too?

  4. PDeverit April 17, 2010 at 05:10 #

    People used to think it was necessary to “spank” adult members of the community, military trainees, and prisoners. In some countries they still do. In our country, it is considered sexual battery if a person over the age of 18 is “spanked”, but only if over the age of 18.

    For one thing, because the buttocks are so close to the sex organs and so multiply linked to sexual nerve centers, striking them can trigger powerful and involuntary sexual stimulus in some people. There are numerous physiological ways in which it can be intentionally or unintentionally sexually abusive, but I won’t list them all here. One can read the testimony, documentation, and educational resources available from the website of Parents and Teachers Against Violence In Education at

    Child buttock-battering vs. DISCIPLINE:

    Child buttock-battering (euphemistically labeled “spanking”,”swatting”,”switching”,”smacking”, “paddling”,or other cute-sounding names) for the purpose of gaining compliance is nothing more than an inherited bad habit.

    Its a good idea for people to take a look at what they are doing, and learn how to DISCIPLINE instead of hit.

    I think the reason why television shows like “Supernanny” and “Dr. Phil” are so popular is because that is precisely what many (not all) people are trying to do.

    There are several reasons why child bottom-slapping isn’t a good idea. Here are some good, quick reads recommended by professionals:

    Plain Talk About Spanking
    by Jordan Riak,

    The Sexual Dangers of Spanking Children
    by Tom Johnson,

    by Lesli Taylor M.D. and Adah Maurer Ph.D.

    Just a handful of those helping to raise awareness of why child bottom-slapping isn’t a good idea:

    American Academy of Pediatrics,
    American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry,
    American Psychological Association,
    Center For Effective Discipline,
    Churches’ Network For Non-Violence,
    Nobel Peace Prize recipient Archbishop Desmond Tutu,
    Parenting In Jesus’ Footsteps,
    Global Initiative To End All Corporal Punishment of Children,
    United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

    In 26 countries, child corporal punishment is prohibited by law (with more in process). In fact, the US was the only UN member that did not ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

  5. daedalus2u April 18, 2010 at 00:31 #

    I see this as a simple manifestation of the cycle of violence. It has been known for a long time that treating people violently makes a fraction of them more violent. I see this as “normal” development (normal as process, not “normal” as outcome). I think it is pretty clear that humans evolved to have sufficient plasticity in behavior that when you grow up in a violent environment, where violence is the norm, that you will conform to that norm and be more violent. If you are living in a war-zone, it makes sense that your physiology would adjust so that you don’t sleep, are hyper vigilant, have a hair-trigger temper and become violent at the drop of a hat, a condition otherwise known as PTSD.

    I think this is perhaps somewhat more dangerous and damaging for people on the spectrum because they don’t have the social skills to read the social cues so as to determine when violence is appropriate, and how much violence is appropriate.

    It is not just being hit by parents or adults that can trigger the cycle of violence, any type of violence can do it. Even witnessing violence can do it. Being bullied or even witnessing bullying will do it too. The long term changes that bullying cause (to both victim and perpetrator) are what make bullying so damaging.

  6. David N. Brown April 18, 2010 at 05:31 #

    There is a fairly obvious problem here with distinguishing “correlation” from “cause”: It would seem perfectly plausible to interpret the relationship instead as one of children predisposed to agressive behavior being spanked more often (though it appears the scientists did make an effort to answer potential concerns on these lines). Those with a more “hereditarian” view could also argue that parents who are more willing to use corporal punishment are more likely to have agressive children.

    All that said, this goes along with my long-standing opinion of supposed associations of autism and agression: “vicious- when poked with a stick.”

  7. Patrick April 20, 2010 at 22:50 #

    I will second Daedalus’ opinion on this, then diverge a bit.

    I was spanked, quite a few times, or sent to the corner as times changed. My parents frustration level in the 1960’s with an unlabelled eccentric child must have been somewhat high.

    I’d also like to point out that for me, the talking about good/bad behaviors would probably have done more good than the spankings. But Dad had problems pointing out logical reasons for ‘good’ behavior versus threats of damnation.

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