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Why Punishment is Needed
Why Spanking is Needed
But the "Experts" Say...
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But the "Experts" Say...

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Some "experts" claim that spanking has no instructional value, teaches children aggression, is abusive, or harms children's emotional and psychological well-being . However, these are myths.

Myth: Spanking has no instructional value.
Reality: Some claim that spanking does not teach children how to behave. This is false. Suppose you spank your child for running into the street. Spanking is a punishment, and punishments stop behaviors. By spanking your child, you stop him from running into the street. So you have taught your child how to behave: you have taught him not to run into the street. But what if you spank your child for talking back. The critics would say, you teach your child not to talk back, but you have not taught her how she is supposed to talk to you. But you teach her how she is supposed to talk to you when you scold her before the spanking. Before spanking, you make sure your child understands what she did wrong and how you expect her to behave in the future. In this way, spanking does have instructional value. The critics might then ask why not just tell your child how she is to talk to you and skip the spanking. Unfortunately, telling children what to do is not always enough. Children often do not change their behavior unless the behavior has negative consequences--and spanking is a powerful negative consequence.

Myth: Spanking teaches children to be aggressive.
Reality: Some argue that if parents spank their child, the child will learn that hitting is OK, so the child will go out and hit other children. But this is absurd. I've never heard a child justify hitting another child by saying that it's OK because mom and dad hit me. What spanking teaches is that parents may swat their child on the bottom when the child misbehaves. It does not teach a child hitting another child is OK. Nor does it teach that hitting for a reason other than punishment is OK. Most children will see this. A child who is old enough to be spanked understand there are differences between him and mom and dad. Mom and dad can drive a car but he can't. Mom and Dad go to work but he goes to school. So he understands that mom and dad can do things liking spanking that he can't do. Moreover, parents can explicitly tell the child that their spanking him is different form his hitting another child.

Myth: Spanking is abusive.
Reality: Spanking is not abusive. First, abusive parents often don't love their children. They abuse their children because they regret having them, the children remind them of someone else, and so on. But for most parents, spanking is done out of love and care for the child. Second, abusive parents lash out at their children in anger, not caring if they injure the child or not. But parents that spank do not want to injure their children. Spankings are given to correct the child's behavior. Yes, spankings hurt, but they are done so as to cause no lasting damage. That is why spankings are given on the bottom, for the posterior does not contain any vital organs. Do some parents spank too hard and cause welts and bruises? Yes, and they have gone too far. They have crossed the line between punishment and abuse. But this merely shows that some parents misuse spanking, not that spanking is abusive. Properly done, spanking causes no lasting physical damage.

Myth: Studies prove that spanking harms children's emotional and psychological well-being.
Reality: Some researchers have reported correlations between receiving corporal punishment and behavioral and emotional problems later in life. However, these studies have several flaws. First, most are correlational. Correlational studies can tell us only that two things are related, but such studies do not tell us how the two things are related. Suppose we see there is a correlation between spanking and delinquency. A correlation only means that spanking and delinquency are related--it does not tell us how they are related. Correlational studies can not tell us what we really want to know: what causes what. It might be that children are delinquent because they were spanked. But it might also be that they were spanked because they were delinquent? A correlational study can not tell us which of these two possibilities is true. Therefore, such studies do not prove that spanking causes delinquency, anti-social behavior, depression or anything else because correlation studies can not prove what causes what.

Second, many of these studies looked at corporal punishment, not just at spanking. And some studies had a very “inclusive” definition of corporal punishment. They defined corporal punishment not only as hitting on the bottom but also slapping in the face, hitting on the head, boxing the ears, and shaking, among other things. Some of the forms of corporal punishment included in these studies could be considered abusive such as hitting on the head or boxing the ears. So even if we could conclude from these studies that corporal punishment causes emotional and behavior problems, and we can’t because the studies are correlational, but if we could, would it mean that all forms of corporal punishment cause emotional and behavioral problems or only the more severe, abusive forms like hitting on the head or boxing the ears? Larzelere1 found that when abusive forms of punishment were excluded from the definition of corporal punishment, researchers were more likely to find a beneficial outcome to using corporal punishment rather than a negative outcome. So abuse, not spanking, harms children’s emotional and psychological well-being.

Also children in some of these studies were spanked several times per week.2 I suggest that the parents in these studies did not know how to use spanking nor did they know how to raise children. Any parent that needs to spank several times per week has poor parenting skills. So if children in these studies have problems is it because the parents spanked them or because the parents spanked too often or because the parents had poor parenting skills overall? These studies can't tell us.

We know that many children are spanked and turn out fine; they are not aggressive, delinquent, depressed or anti-social. Why? Simons3 found that what leads to aggression, delinquency, and poor psychological well-being is low parental involvement such as parents not loving or trusting their children, not knowing where their children go or who they are with, and not being consistent in discipline. Being spanked did not lead to aggression, delinquency, and poor psychological well-being. Parents that love their children and are involved in their lives may use spanking, but they will never use spanking in a way that harms their children.

For a follow-up, see my answer to "Can spanking a child cause them to develop mental illness? in Reader Questions.

 1Larzelere, R. E. (1996). A review of the outcomes of parental use of nonabusive or customary physical punishment. Pediatrics, 98(4), 824-828.
2See for example, Giles-Sims, J. et al. (1995). Child, maternal, and family characteristics associated with spanking. Family Relations,44, 170-176.
3Simons, R. L. et al . (1994). Harsh corporal punishment versus quality of parental involvement as an explanation of adolescent maladjustment. Journal of marriage and the family, 56, 591-607.

This material is copyrighted by Paul J Preston, 2004-2018. All rights reserved.