Skip to main content

Is It Ever OK to Spank My Child?

Academics come to semantic blows over challenging the baby boom orthodoxy that physical punishment for children is always a bad idea.

When psychology professor Marjorie Lindner Gunnoe announced some of her research findings about spanking a little over a year ago, The Center for Effective Discipline, an anti-spanking group, attacked both the research and how the media portrayed it.

In her study, Gunnoe used survey data on youth from ages 12 to 18 about whether they had been spanked, and from the responses, she determined that spanking of children from ages 2 to 6 doesn’t put the children at risk for depression, antisocial behavior, violence or sexual activity.

The center’s website said that “parents who believe in spanking and some of the media jumped on the opportunity to say that ‘spare the rod, spoil the child’ is confirmed.” It said that the study was unpublished and that its conclusions remain outside mainstream academia.

No academic journal has published the study, but exactly how far outside the mainstream Gunnoe stands may say more about the mainstream than Gunnoe.

If you accept Gunnoe's nuanced view of spanking — that a few calmly delivered swats to the behind of a 2- to 10-year-old, done without rage or face-slapping or belts or switches, won't damage the child — you can’t justify support for categorical warnings against any physical punishment by parents.

If you accept the center’s view that any spanking is bad given the proof that much spanking is associated with aggression and other harmful effects in children, then Gunnoe is an apologist who muddles the anti-spanking, anti-child abuse message.

But if you talk to and email Gunnoe and her critics, as I did, you might decide that she is a dissident from a humanitarian doctrinal orthodoxy that won’t open to even the slightest deviance from its canon.

Later this month, Gunnoe will present in a Montreal symposium her newest spanking research, but she doesn’t expect the anti-spanking academic establishment to be any more welcoming or open-minded about her work.

"This is the most politicized area in child psychology, and you really have people working from good motivations. But the strong, strong, strong conviction that they are so right from some of us has affected our objectivity."

One thing no one disagrees about is the idea that some child abuse begins or masquerades as diligent parenting.

The basic anti-spanking position holds that parents in general can’t judge when they cross the line between reasonable physical punishment and abuse.

Most often, the following pattern emerges: A child quickly stops hitting friends or throwing rocks soon after a spanking but will likely return to the prohibited behavior; the parent, having watched the spanking initially succeed, applies the punishment again, more severely, then again, escalating toward abuse.

For example, Tennessee police last month charged 33-year-old David Cain of Memphis with child abuse after a grand jury indictment that said he used a belt to “spank” his 7-year-old daughter. She ended up in a local hospital with bruises and swelling on her buttocks, arms and legs.

Elizabeth T. Gershoff, a respected researcher and associate professor at the University of Texas, is a capable opponent of physical punishment. She recommends in a 2008 report that parents avoid it, schools stop using it and governments ban it. Social workers and caregivers should be educated about how physical discipline harms children, she writes.

Pediatricians endorse this anti-spanking approach, more or less. The American Academy of Pediatrics reaffirmed in 2004 an existing policy encouraging parents to use other behavioral controls than spanking.

That message resonates with many baby boomers. Some of them, like their parents, conceive of progressive parenting as spanking-free. Partly due to the influence of pediatricians and scholars such as Benjamin Spock and T. Berry Brazelton, timeouts and other forms of discipline replaced hitting.

Despite its decline, spanking is entwined with the culturally complex issues of respect for authority and the proper rearing of children.

Not every parent sees Dr. Spock as gospel. Devout Christians also may take literally the biblical wisdom, "spare the rod, spoil the child." And the U.S. has been and remains a place where some stressed and volatile dads may threaten to “take off their belt,” and overworked moms admonish wailing grade-schoolers that they will “give you something to cry about.”

Still legal in 20 U.S. states, school paddlings are performed by the tens of thousands each year, although the number is down significantly in the past two decades. Additionally, the federal government is unlikely to ban spanking anytime soon. U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-New York) introduced a bill last session to cut off federal funds to states and school districts that allow paddling. It died in committee.

What may matter more is how far we will go to insert statutes and government between parents and children to clarify and enforce the line between legal physical discipline and child abuse.

Gunnoe isn’t the only exponent of what has been described as the provisional-spanking school of thought. Another key colleague in the limited spanking camp, Robert E. Larzelere, associate professor at Oklahoma State University, also questions the prevailing never-spank wisdom of the child development and psychology communities. Gunnoe considers Larzelere a superior methodologist. Neither is warmly considered by spanking’s opponents.

“I have not had the pleasure of meeting either Gunnoe or Larzelere personally, so I cannot comment on either,” says Deborah Sendek, executive director of the anti-spanking Center for Effective Discipline, in a thoughtful email message. “I do believe that they are professionals who believe in what they advocate. I do not think either one of them would ever condone abuse or maltreatment of any child.”

But, Sendek says, Gunnoe and Larzelere are misguided in their conclusions.

“They are talking about spanking under very controlled environments — not in the heat of the moment or as a lashing out. I understand their philosophy but respectfully beg to differ. If a parent is going to take the time to step back (cool down) from the immediate anger, frustration, disappointment, then there are other more proactive strategies that can be taken.

“Do I become frustrated, angry, upset with my co-workers, my spouse, my pets, my neighbors, etc.? Most definitely, but I do not strike out and hit them — even if it is to teach a lesson.

“Why should that be different for my child?”

A professor of psychology at Calvin College, a small Christian liberal arts school in Grand Rapids, Mich., Gunnoe is alternately outspoken and self-effacing, especially in deferring to Larzelere’s methodological sophistication and to other accomplished researchers in the field. For herself, Gunnoe, who is 45, has a doctorate, several published studies, has made numerous media appearances, and she has three kids — “only one of which has ever been spanked. I’m not here to say spank, spank, spank.”

She also is a dedicated Christian, which exposes her to a special type of criticism.

“And anyone who knows anything about Michigan knows that Grand Rapids is a hotbed of rightist Christian zealots,” wrote blogger “Detroit Mark” on the Daily Kos. “A Christian claiming to be a scientist who endorses beating children? Not important to the story?”

“I teach at a religiously affiliated school and Bob’s a person of faith also,” Gunnoe says of herself and Larzelere. “Nothing equivalent to what I’m saying is in the Bible. I happen to be a person of faith who likes to do good research. Easy to say we’re raving fundamentalists and dismiss work. I think Bob and I are a real threat to [the absolute anti-spanking] position.”

Much spanking research stands on a foundation of shifting sand. An early, descriptive phase of research conducted in laboratory settings in the late 1950s was succeeded by another phase in the late 1980s that looked at the processes that make punishment effective or ineffective. In the words of Ross D. Parke, a faculty member at the University of California, Riverside, punishment is a packaged variable that requires “unwrapping” to “isolate the components that account for its effectiveness while not destroying the interrelated process under study.”

Challenges abound, beginning with the very definition of spanking itself and the limits of isolating causes and effects in the home environment, all the way to the importance of frequency and severity. Much of the recent research has been done in the form of retrospective interviews with parents, kids, or both, but there is still plenty of controversy about what to include and what’s good or bad about that.

Two reviews of spanking studies, one by Larzelere (2000) and the other by Gershoff (2002), found that spanking gets immediate results, works better before adolescence and has some bad effects the more frequently it is carried out.

As Gunnoe explains it, some researchers conceive of physical discipline differently. Some “draw a sharp distinction between ‘customary spanking’ and ‘abuse.’”

Larzelere, for example, in his meta-analysis of 38 studies limited his review to studies of non-abusive corporal punishment and eliminated any studies dominated by the severity of the punishment. His study considered how spanking children under the age of 13 affects the children when they are older but not yet adults.

Gershoff, by comparison, in her meta-analysis of 88 studies said she excluded studies where punishment was deliberately intended to cause injury, but she did include other types of corporal punishment. She included punishments that included hitting with an object, and one of her studies included frequent punching and hitting with a stick or belt. Gershoff’s meta-analysis was aimed at determining how spanking affects later childhood and adult life to see if it is associated with aggression, delinquency, antisocial behavior and abusive behavior toward others.

There were 18 studies that both researchers included, but Larzelere excluded 34 studies considered by Gershoff because of the severity of the punishment or the breadth of the measure of punishment. Gershoff excluded 20 studies considered by Larzelere.

Gunnoe’s journey to social science contrarian began in 1997, when the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine published her first spanking paper in an issue that included a paper by a well-known professor of sociology and spanking opponent, Murray A. Straus.

She wrote, “For most children, claims that spanking teaches aggression seem unfounded,” while he wrote, “When parents use corporal punishment to reduce [antisocial behavior], the long-term effect tends to be the opposite.”

Gunnoe is looking forward to the coming biennial meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development, where her most recent findings will be presented in a symposium.

Framed as a response to what she sees as the anti-spanking doctrine’s influence in changing laws, clinical practices and social-worker training, Gunnoe’s writes in her most recent paper that all the changes have been prompted “by the largely untested supposition that never-spanked youth are better adjusted than spanked youth.”

Using data from the Portraits of American Life Study, which collects information from several thousand individuals, Gunnoe looked at 183 interviews with adolescents who answered questions online or on a paper survey. When comparing never-spanked youth and youth last-spanked from age 2 to 6, the spanked youth were more optimistic about their future. For youth whose physical discipline stopped between the ages of 7 and 11, the spanked youth fared better in three out of four measures.

Gunnoe doesn’t think spanking directly caused the 2- to 6-year-olds in her sample to be more optimistic when they answered questions at ages 12 to 18 for the study. “To the degree that I am comfortable speculating causation, I expect that willingness to spank — if necessary — is part of a very different parenting package than an a priori commitment to never spank.”

Willingess to spank, she explains, communicates that parents are in charge and certain standards will be enforced; the commitment never to spank communicates a false sense of immunity from imposed physical control that even adults abdicate when they routinely violate the rights of others.

Gunnoe’s conditional support of limited spanking as a last resort is hardly a hearty endorsement of physical punishment.

But the anti-spanking establishment comes at the research from one direction only, Gunnoe complains, mostly based on social-learning theory.

"I’m trying to get folks to understand the nuances and complexity of the issue and the gaps in the research,” Gunnoe told me. “Many high-IQ kids from well-adjusted homes can be raised without spanking. As a general rule, social scientists should encourage parents to give non-physical methods a sustained try before turning to [physical discipline].”

If her anti-spanking rivals were not promoting a distorted account of the research, Gunnoe says, she would be promoting an anti-spanking message herself. But for some kids, she adds, “spanking can be a helpful tool in eliciting necessary levels of child compliance, and we should not outlaw it because a minority of parents go too far.”