Why Are We Still Spanking Our Kids?

Although it is counterintuitive, violence in America today is most likely to occur within the home (Rennison, 2003). Might the origin of violence be within the home as well, specifically the use of physical punishment on children?  Public opinion condoning physical punishment in America has been declining in recent years (Gershoff, 2008); however, more than 65% of parents report using corporal punishment on their children (Socolar, Savage & Evans, 2007).  In this blog post we discuss legal, attitudinal and motivational factors that explain why we use physical punishment with children, specifically: (1) the United States, unlike most other countries, does not legislate against it, (2) attitudes condoning corporal punishment remain strong, particularly in some U.S. regions and cultures, (3) situational precipitating factors, impulsive appraisal, and cognitive scripts for aggressive punishment can interact to result in a spanking episode. We also describe the harmful psychological effects of physical punishment and the potential next steps needed to stop this common form of violence.


“Wife-beating,” which was considered the husband’s duty to keep the wife in line, became illegal in the US in the 1870’s (Knox, 2010). A parent “disciplining” a child by spanking, pinching, slapping, whipping or otherwise physically hurting her/him is legal in the U.S. today. State laws differ in the types of physical punishment that constitute abuse, and many include vague language about what is prohibited, such as “excessive”, “unreasonable” and “inappropriate” physical punishment (Gershoff, 2008).  

Recognizing spanking as a form of violence and human rights abuse, all but two member nations of the United Nations ratified a 2006 agreement to take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social, and educational measures against corporal and mental violence (Becker, 2013). Somalia and the United States were the two member nations that did not enact this ratification. However, Somalia expressed a commitment to do so in 2013 (Becker, 2013). The U.S. remains mute on this issue.

Condoning Attitudes

Endorsement of corporal punishment of children is an attitude that predicts its use (Gershoff, 2008). In the mind of the caregiver, the belief that it is in the best interests of the child justifies harming the child for the sake of learning and safety. Therefore, physical punishment is a form of justified aggression, which can increase its use through perceived social approval (Crabb, 1989). Beliefs that condone the use of corporal punishment are part of a constellation of aggressive attitudes that predict aggressive behavior. The Velicer Attitudes Toward Violence Scale (Anderson, Benjamin, Wood, & Bonacci, 2006; Velicer, Huckel, & Hansen, 1989), which contains subscales that measure acceptance of violence in: (a) corporal punishment, (b) war, (c) intimate relationships and (d) in the penal system, has been found to predict aggression both in and outside of the laboratory (Anderson & Anderson, 2008).

Justified suffering of a person (child) to teach her/him rules of conduct in order to maintain social order, termed “repressive suffering construal” (Sullivan, Landau, Kay, & Rothschild, 2012), has been found to be particularly evident when people are primed to or tend to think collectively. Sullivan et al. 2012 found that parents who were asked to think about how similar they are to members of their family (a collectivistic prime) were more likely to endorse repressive suffering construal and the use of corporal punishment in schools. 

Conservative Protestantism has been linked with greater endorsement and use of corporal punishment, especially by the father (who is expected to be the head of the household). Petts and Kysar-Moon (2012) found that 82% of families in which both parents were conservative Protestants had used corporal punishment in the previous month, compared to 72% of those with only one conservative Protestant parent and 60% of families with non-conservative Protestant parents.

Situational and Perceptual Factors that Cause Us to Spank

Perceived provocation or attack is a powerful situational cause of aggression, particularly if we believe that the behavior conveys disrespect. This is especially true in in cultures of honor such as the Southern U.S. (Cohen, Nisbett, Bowdle, & Schwartz, 1997). Parents in the South have reported more corporal punishment use than those in the North (Straus & Mathur, 1996). It may be that when parents (particularly those from the South) perceive defiance and disrespect by children, they view this behavior as intentional disrespect. Parents who are not aware, or forget in the moment, that young children’s brains have not yet developed the capability to take another’s perspective and to control their impulses are not likely to enact intentional disrespect.

Another perceptual process that may affect initiation of the use of corporal punishment is “dehumanized perception”. Harris and Fiske (2011) found social neuroscience evidence that the portions of the brain associated with taking the perspectives of others is not engaged for dehumanized target individuals, which makes it easier for us to inflict harm on those targets. Therefore, adults who view children (even while in a moment of anger) as less than human, may experience impaired brain functioning that facilitates aggression against children in their care.

Through social learning processes, parents who were physically punished as children may develop cognitive scripts for discipline that they enact when they believe appropriate. When a caregiver or teacher hits a child while angry and/or physiologically aroused, the adult can hit with higher intensity than intended. Consistent with the General Aggression Model (Anderson & Bushman, 2002), parent attitudinal factors, such as belief in the effectiveness of spanking, and situational factors, such as child misbehavior that is interpreted as intentional disrespect, can interact to increase in hostile cognitions, anger and/or arousal. Cognitive scripts associated with physical punishment can then be primed and a parent can hit the child impulsively or in a planned fashion. If the spanking results in a loud noise by the child, the parent may feel further disrespected or antagonized and may spank harder or verbally threaten the child to be quiet. The child may become compliant out of fear or continue to “provoke” the parent by making noise or being “noncompliant”, potentially further escalating the physical punishment and creating a vicious cycle. The irony is that although common wisdom tell us that “sparing the rod spoils the child,” the opposite is true.     

Detrimental Effects of Physical Punishment

Gershoff (2002) conducted a comprehensive meta-analysis of 88 studies of samples from around the world that operationalized physical punishment in diverse ways. She found that physical punishment was associated with less obedience, empathy, and self-esteem; and more aggression, anxiety, depression, and alcohol and drug abuse. These negative outcomes are often true not only in the short term but the long term as well (Knox, 2010).  Children who view physical punishment as rejection by their parents, particularly their mothers, experience more negative outcomes (Lansford, 2010) than those who do not.  Additionally, adolescents who perceive that physical punishment is threatening and who experience stress as a result of it are more likely to have negative mental health outcomes than those adolescents who do not view it as threatening.  This may be because the latter expect to be physically punished and perceive it as the norm.  However, both groups of adolescents experience more mental health problems than do children who are not physically punished (Mulvaney & Mebert, 2010).

Do We Wants Our Kids to Fear or Respect Us?

In sum, parents and caregivers need to be informed that they do not have to interfere with the bond they formed with their children by spanking their kids to get them to listen to and respect them. In fact, physical punishment causes our kids to fear us, which makes them less likely to come to us in difficult situations, such as when they are offered drugs or sex as teenagers. So how do we teach them to stay safe and be respectful? Set clear limits and enforce consequences for their actions. Model nonaggressive responses to conflict that maintain the child’s self-respect. Educational outreach needs to occur, perhaps by prenatal health care providers and pediatricians. Lastly, national legislation that brings the U.S. in step with the rest of the world that prohibits using physical force on children is also direly needed.



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