Ask the Pediatrician | Behavior

Spanking young kids leads to aggression later

It’s always makes me cringe: hearing someone tell a story about being spanked as a child or worse yet being hit with a wooden spoon, cord or belt as a punishment. Growing up in the 60s and 70s, it seems that spanking of one kind or another was much more acceptable. Nowadays people still do it I suspect, but behind closed doors and with less public acknowledgement of it. Corporal punishment isn’t allowed in most schools anymore and when asked, few parents would agree that spanking is the best way to discipline a child.

Over the years studies have been done looking at the effects of spanking on children and none has found a positive effect. Spanking does stop an undesirable behavior in the moment and may generate fear of punishment in children and deter some behaviors at times but study after study has revealed that children who have been spanked are more likely to be aggressive themselves. At young ages, children who are spanked are more likely to hit and bite their peers and a new study reveals this aggressive tendency persists into middle grade school. A comprehensive, longitudinal study published in Pediatrics looked closely a group of children starting at age three through age 9 and after eliminating all other variables including socioeconomic class, parental education, maternal age, ethnicity, marital status, living conditions and family stress, parental spanking was associated with aggressive behavior and diminished expressive language skills at age 9.

Why, then, do parents still continue to spank their young children? It’s a topic that generates passionate responses. Some claim it works and does no harm. To these parents I respond that it works in the moment and stops the behavior and may instill fear in their children, but in the long run it may increase aggressive behavior and you won’t know until it’s too late. I also wonder if, as a parent, you want your children to fear you. Of course you want them to respect you and you want them be motivated to behave well to please you, but those are positive motivations rather than behaving as you want them too out of fear of physical pain. I also remind parents how much larger they are than their young children and how scary it would be to be hit by a big person. Is that a legacy they want?

I think most parents prefer not to spank their children. I think most of the time spanking occurs in a moment of frustration when a parent feels they have tried everything else and nothing has worked. They don’t plan for it, it just happens. The child is shocked, the undesirable behavior stops and the parent decides that perhaps this strategy isn’t so bad after all. Then it gets repeated and used more often and a pattern develops. Not spanking takes a lot more work. Using time outs, positive reinforcement, focused attention and playtime with the child, routines and consistency with household rules is tough. Without all of that structure, children are more likely to act up and demand attention through negative behavior. It’s hard, but I think given the alternative of hitting your kids, it’s worth the effort. Spanking is a short-term solution that can cause long-term problems.

Dr. Molly O'Shea
Dr. Molly O'Shea is a board-certified pediatrician who cares for families in her practice Birmingham Pediatrics + Wellness Center. She will answer your questions on babies, children, adolescents and families and address common concerns.