Every parent struggles at some point with willful, misbehaving children. Many parents regularly resort to corporal punishment — striking a child with an object or an open hand — to force compliance, to punish, or simply out of anger or frustration.
I grew up in the South, where, according to social survey data, support for corporal punishment ranks highest, and it was everywhere. I was spanked occasionally at home, but what I remember most is being paddled at school. Tennessee is one of 19 states where paddling in schools is both legal and common to this day.
I was a particular mix of smart, verbal, and emotionally immature that my teachers were not equipped to deal with, so instead, they hit me with a piece of wood. They did it dozens of times a year, right up through eighth grade, when I was as tall as the teacher hitting me.
All that paddling didn’t make me behave any better. Quite the opposite. I realized early on that if I was willing to endure a few seconds of pain, I could do whatever I wanted. Since authority was nothing but the capacity to prohibit and punish, insofar as I could avoid getting caught or just tolerate the punishment, I didn’t have to give a damn about the rules.
I have had a somewhat dysfunctional relationship with authority ever since. And from what I saw, all the smacking and paddling didn’t make my classmates any better either. Some became submissive, some acted out, but no one — at least no one I ever knew — viewed it as an occasion for moral betterment.
I would wager that many of the people I grew up with now spank their kids. For my part, I went the other way. The minute I first contemplated having children, I swore that I would never lay a hand on my child in anger, or allow anyone else to do so. My child would never have to obey just because adults are bigger and can force them.
Like all other parents, my wife and I have screwed up a million times, in a million ways, since having kids. (They are 12 and 14 now.) But because we had that bright line in our heads — no violence, none — our kids have never been struck by an adult in anger.
Corporal punishment in the home is still technically legal in all 50 states. But I think spanking — striking a child, by whatever euphemism — should go extinct. We do not countenance violence against spouses, co-workers, or other people’s children. We should not countenance it against our own.
I did a tweet thread about this in December, and the feedback was both voluminous and illuminating. Some people took opposition to spanking as obvious, said I was just virtue-signaling to like-minded Vox readers. Many people told wrenching stories of being struck as children.
But many others defended both the spankings they had received and those they doled out as parents. Polls show that 65 percent of Americans approve of spanking. Celebrities like Kelly Clarkson still publicly defend it.
So at the very least it’s a live question, something many parents and prospective parents are wrestling with in good faith. But I think there’s an extremely strong case that if you are considering it, you should opt against it, and if you are using it, you should stop.
There are two basic arguments. The first is drawn from social science, which shows that spanking does not work to produce better behavior or healthier kids. The second is a moral argument, about violence and what it does and doesn’t teach children.
First, let’s take a look at what researchers have learned when they tried to assess whether spanking teaches kids a useful lesson.
The research is clear: spanking does not work
In 2016, Elizabeth Gershoff, an associate professor of human development and family sciences at the University of Texas Austin, published a meta-analysis that pulled together 50 years’ worth of research on spanking, cumulatively involving more than 160,000 children. The paper, published in the Journal of Family Psychology, focuses specifically on “what most Americans would recognize as spanking and not on potentially abusive behaviors,” she said. It is the most comprehensive research review to date. (Vox’s Brian Resnick had a great interview with Gershoff in 2016.)
The results were clear: Spanking does not produce good behavior. In fact, it is linked to increases in a wide variety of negative outcomes, from antisocial behaviors to mental health problems to (unsurprisingly) spanking or physical abuse. It does not lead to more compliant or well-behaved children. (Susan Pinker wrote up the study for the Wall Street Journal; the comments beneath her piece are instructive.)
Here’s another literature review, from September 2017, arguing that spanking should be officially classified as an adverse childhood experience (and thus included in anti-violence campaigns), because it produces the same kinds of effects as physical abuse. The authors found spanking was linked to “adult mental health problems includ[ing] depressive affect, suicide attempts, moderate to heavy drinking, and street drug use.”
Spanking produces less of these than outright physical abuse, but they are on the same spectrum — “spanking is empirically similar to physical and emotional abuse,” the authors argue.
“Spanking is not as bad as physical abuse,” Gershoff said. “It’s a continuum, but all of the research suggests it’s activating the same kind of problems that physical abuse does.”
Way back in 1991, the American Academy of Pediatrics warned that corporal punishment is linked to “increased aggressive and destructive behavior, increased disruptive classroom behavior, vandalism, poor school achievement, poor attention span, increased drop-out rate, school avoidance and school phobia, low self-esteem, anxiety, somatic complaints, depression, suicide and retaliation against teachers.” (Vox’s Joseph Stromberg pulled together additional research against spanking back in 2014.) And in June, researchers writing in the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics reported that three quarters of pediatricians do not support spanking.
The overwhelming consensus in the research community is that spanking does not work, not for any of the purposes claimed for it. It is associated with the effects one would expect from low-level physical abuse. That’s why it is outlawed everywhere, including the home, in 53 countries.
Nonetheless, science is always about probabilities, and for any probability, there will be plenty of examples on the other side. Many otherwise loving parents, including my own, have spanked their children, and plenty of spanked children, including me, have come out the other side more or less intact. Every parent thinks they know their child best. And many just don’t know what else to do. (Here’s a list of alternatives.)
So let’s put the science aside. To my mind, the most convincing argument against spanking is simply that it is violence, and we ought to avoid violence when we can.
Spanking is violence
There are many kinds and levels of corporal punishment, ranging from infrequent swats on the butt to regular open-handed smacking or striking with belts or paddles, and many contexts in which it might be employed.
In my experience, many people are willing to expend a great deal of intellectual and emotional energy parsing the nuances, separating out “acceptable” parental violence from the unacceptable, aiming for just the right level of force in just the right circumstances. James Dobson’s Focus on the Family has a whole seven-step checklist.
To my mind, it is easier simply to draw a bright line where it is clear: none.
The United Nations Children’s Fund has no problem calling spanking violence. According to UNICEF, “Violent discipline at home is the most common form of violence experienced by children.” (UNICEF reports that, globally, 75 percent of children between the ages of 2 and 4 are subject to corporal punishment.)
What makes spanking violence is not the amount of physical force applied, or the level of physical pain produced. In fact, violence need not be physical at all (as victims of emotional abuse can attest). The essence of violence is a fundamental shift in a relationship.
Violence violates a principle that is found in one form or another (and among other places) at the heart of Kantian morality, Protestant theology, and American democracy: the principle that all human beings, just by virtue of being human, possess a certain basic dignity and are due a basic level of respect and autonomy.
To commit violence is to deny a person what psychologists call their intentionality, their ability to make decisions about their own body. To deny “bodily autonomy” is to shift from caregiving (or friendship, or romantic love) to control. It is to shut down someone else’s ability to make choices; it imprints on the victim’s deepest lizard brain a sense of insecurity and powerlessness.
As the research above shows, a child carries that sense of powerlessness into adulthood as a gnawing anxiety that’s never quite quelled. “They become very cautious in interactions with other people,” Gershoff explains, “and they kind of assume the worst.”