A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic Health System

The truth about spanking: 4 things parents should know  

Woman and child ignoring each other.

Children learn from their parents. If spanking happens to them, they could learn that using force is an acceptable way to resolve problems.

Whether generational, cultural or otherwise, Americans have a wide variety of views on the appropriateness and effectiveness of spanking children as a disciplinary action.

How common is spanking?

According to an article by CNN, “Around the world, close to 300 million children aged 2 to 4 receive some type of physical discipline from their parents or caregivers on a regular basis, according to a UNICEF report published in November.”

But the article also goes on to say, “Sixty countries, states and territories have adopted legislation that fully prohibits using corporal punishment against children at home, according to both UNICEF and the Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children.”

Is spanking legal?

The United States is not one of those countries that have prohibited spanking. In fact, according to Social Policy Report, “School corporal punishment is currently legal in 19 states, and over 160,000 children in these states are subject to corporal punishment in schools each year.”

Is spanking effective?

So for many, spanking is a legal and ethical gray area. Is it right? Is it effective? How will it impact my kids down the road? We took these questions to an expert on children’s mental health, Dr. Kelsie-Marie Offenwanger, child and adolescent psychologist for Marshfield Clinic Health System.

“In the short term, spanking might be effective at stopping a behavior in that moment. Children are often afraid of being hit or spanked. But in the long run, it can make children more aggressive. I kind of compare it to taking a pill for your back. That pill might make your back better in the moment, but it does not address the underlying cause,” Offenwanger said.

A report that came out of the American Psychological Association Task Force on Physical Punishment of Children said, “physical punishment is not an appropriate or even a consistently effective method of discipline.”

Elizabeth Gershoff, Ph.D., a researcher on physical punishment at the University of Texas at Austin added “physical punishment doesn’t work to get kids to comply, so parents think they have to keep escalating it. That is why it is so dangerous.”

Sending the wrong message

Offenwanger said spanking kids doesn’t necessarily convey to them that their behavior was wrong. Instead, it tends to convey the message that it is acceptable to resolve anger, frustration or arguments with physicality.

“Spanking is correlated strongly with negative outcomes for children,” Offenwanger said. “Some of those outcomes include higher risk of an emotional disorder like depression or anxiety, increased stress and emotional or psychological effects down the road.”

Children learn by watching the behavior of their role models and parents, so if they see their role models spanking, it may become a pattern for them later in life to use physical force to resolve conflict.

Long story short, spanking does not to appear to be effective in changing or improving a child’s behavior, and it may have negative long-term consequences.

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