A longitudinal study published in the journal Child Abuse & Neglect presents compelling evidence that spanking is detrimental to children’s social development. Children who were exposed to spanking had higher externalizing behavior, lower self-control, and lower interpersonal skills compared to children who had never been spanked.
Some parents use spanking as a form of punishment with the goal of correcting or controlling their child’s behavior. But many researchers have theorized that spanking is harmful for children’s development, suggesting that it models aggressive behavior, undermines parent-child attachment, and impairs children’s self-regulation skills. Research evidence has largely supported the harmful effects of spanking, showing that spanking damages children’s social competence and social skills.
“My teaching of ‘sociology of child welfare’ at my current institute led me into this important topic of violence against children,” said study author Jeehye Kang, an assistant professor of sociology and criminal justice at Old Dominion University
“Although I have had a broad research interest in children’s well-being, I had never taken a course or conducted research on the issue of child maltreatment during my training of sociology and demography (although some schools do have some curriculums). So, it was a humbling experience to see how little I knew about this important topic, but now I see I can contribute to preventing violence against children as a researcher and a teacher. It is my passion to do more research on spanking and other forms of violence and translate my knowledge into teaching.”
Kang wanted to expand on current research with a new study that looks closer at causality. Importantly, there are many factors that relate to both parental use of spanking and children’s social competence, such as children’s characteristics and parent’s age, socioeconomic status, and race. To help rule out the effects of these outside factors, Kang used matching to reduce selection bias. She also controlled for the effects of excessive spanking (vs. infrequent spanking).
The study analyzed data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, a nationally representative study of US children who were followed from kindergarten through the elementary school years. The analysis focused on four waves of data when the children were ages 5 to 7.
Dependent measures included ratings of children’s social competence, externalizing behaviors, self-control, and interpersonal skills. Independent measures included lifetime spanking experience as reported by a parent (i.e., if the parent had ever spanked the child) and recent spanking experience (i.e., if the parent had spanked the child in the past week). To exclude cases of excessive spanking, children who had been spanked two or more times in the past week were excluded from the analysis.
A technique called matching was used to make the control and treatment groups (spanked vs. not spanked) as similar as possible on various covariates. Covariates included home environment, cultural background, geographic characteristics, child characteristics (e.g., gender, age), and parental characteristics (e.g., race, employment status).
The results revealed that 61% of the children had been spanked at some point in their lifetime, and 28% had been spanked in the past week. Children who had been spanked in their lifetime had higher externalizing behaviors at ages 6 and 7 and lower self-control and interpersonal skills at age 6. Children who had been spanked in the past week had higher externalizing behaviors, lower interpersonal skills, and lower self-control at ages 6 and 7.
Overall, these findings offer convincing evidence for the link between spanking and children’s development of prosocial skills. And since steps were taken to reduce selection bias and control for excessive spanking, the findings offer evidence of a causal link. While some parents may believe that spanking can help deter anti-social behavior in children, Kang notes that it may be “counterproductive in developing children’s prosocial skills.”
“Although we oppose violence, we believe that spanking is somehow educational for children,” Kang told PsyPost. “Many parents believe that spanking will reduce ‘bad’ behaviors and raise good characters in children. However, my study shows that spanking may hinder children’s development of self-control and interpersonal skills and even increase externalizing behaviors. Notably, this finding was robust with infrequent use of spanking, even once a week. In other words, spanking is doing the opposite of what parents intend to achieve.”
The significant effect for lifetime spanking suggests that parental spanking has a long-term negative impact on children’s social development. The findings further demonstrate that even spanking that is infrequent is associated with unfavorable child outcomes.
“I was surprised that even life-time experience of spanking can be linked to lower self-control and interpersonal skills and more externalizing behaviors a year later,” Kang said. “Although child developmental theories had predicted that would be the case, it was still surprising to see the pattern was confirmed in empirical data.”
Notably, the study was limited since it could not control for every possible cofounder, such as parents’ social support network and community violence. The data also did not include measures of spanking type or severity.
“Due to limitation of the data, I was not able to consider neither the type nor severity of spanking, but only the frequency of spanking,” Kang explained. “Although a recent study suggested that frequent spanking was harmful to children regardless of the severity, it may be important to identify where children are hit (e.g., face, buttocks, extremities), and whether the hitting involved an instrument (e.g., stick, belt, wooden spoon) or other methods of punishment (e.g., washing a child’s mouth out with soap).”
“Another caveat is that my study could have underestimated the impact of spanking because only one parent’s use of spanking was measured. In other words, the actual impact of spanking could be even larger.”
“I personally was hit as a child, and I know my parents had the best intentions,” the researcher added. “I recently had conversation with them about their use of spanking to me and my brother, and they wished they knew better and earlier that they did not have to use it to teach their children a lesson. I think my parents would like younger parents to know what they know now.”
The study, “Spanking and children’s social competence: Evidence from a US kindergarten cohort study”, was authored by Jeehye Kang.