What Exactly is Spanking?

Spanking is a common term that describes the hitting of a child with an open hand, usually on the buttocks, although it can also refer to over similar hits, such as a slap on the face. Spanking children usually comes in the context of discipline, as a way to teach kids how to behave (or how not to).

The more general term is corporal punishment, and it can refer to any method of physically punishing children, from feeding hot-sauce to a child who cursed to really violent ways of discipline that I rather not name.

It is important to remember that when we discuss the issue of spankingchildren , we are talking about something that parents do in order to discipline their child. The word “discipline” comes from the Latin word disciplina which refers to learning and teaching. Why is it important? Because we need to remember the parents who spank their children usually have good intentions and do not do so out of violent, sadistic intentions.

Do Parents Still Use Spanking?

To tell you the truth, as I started to work on this post, I didn’t expect to find that spanking children is so prevalent as it is. According to a survey reported by UNICEF only three years ago, 60% of children aged 2-4 were physically punished by their parents. And in a poll conducted in the US in 2014, 75% of the participants reported that they had been physically punished as children and 39% said that they had inflicted corporal punishment on a child.

And check out this interesting study from 2014, published in The Journal of Family Psychology: 33 mothers agreed to wear audio-recording devices for six evenings. When the data was analyzed, it showed that the kids were frequently spanked.

George Holden

And it’s surprising to see that the public views on spanking are rather accepting. For this post, I have talked with George W. Holden, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Psychology in Southern Methodist University, who specializes in research on corporal punishment (and incidentally, the man with the best Twitter handle of all time).

According to Dr. Holden, data from 2014 have shown that 76% of men and 65% of women agreed with the statement “It is sometimes necessary to give a child a ‘good, hard spanking’.”  And for children aged 2-5? Roughly 80% of parents will report they sometimes spank.

And I gotta tell you, that as a clinical psychologist, I was pretty amazed to learn that among my professional peers, 30% said that they would rarely or sometimes suggest that parents spank their child. That statistic is from a study published 19 years ago, and I want to believe that this number would be much lower today, but I really don’t know.

Is Spanking Children Even Legal?

Ok, we have seen that spanking is rather prevalent, even today. But is it actually legal?

I live in a country that has an explicit law prohibiting the use of corporal punishment, but to my amazement, I found that only 54 nations in the world have similar laws. Take a look at this map, showing only the countries that prohibit spanking and corporal punishment:

From Brilliant Maps

As you can see, the United States is not in here. Also the United Kingdom, Africa and most of Asia and the Middle East (Which is where I live, in the small state in the middle east that DO have laws against spanking).

As of the time of writing this, physically punishing children by their parents is completely legal in all the 50 states of the United States. This blew my mind.

And it is also legal to hit children in public schools in 19 states (oh, and it’s legal in private schools in 48 states). This is according to data from the Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children.

So, yes, if you live in the USA or one of the many other countries who permit spanking children, it is legal for you to hit your child as an effort to educate him or her.

But should you? The short answer is a loud NO. But if you want to understand more about why parents spank and what are the risks, read on.

Why Do Parents Spank Their Children?

One of the main reasons parent do tend to spank children is that it seems to be effective. A child does something “bad”, he gets a smack and stops. And that way he’ll learn, right?

Many parents believe that this kind of discipline is effective because children remember the pain and will want to avoid it, thus changing their behavior accordingly.

But it’s actually wrong. Remember the study with the audio-recorders? Well, it also showed that the children returned to the same behaviors merely 10 minutes after getting hit.

Elizabeth Gershoff

Spanking “does not teach children to behave”, told me Prof. Elizabeth Gershoff, another prominent researcher in the field, working in the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences of The University of Texas at Austin.  “There is absolutely no evidence that it is effective at teaching children how to behave appropriately”, she adds.

Actually, I think it is safe to say that there is one thing that spanking does teach children, and that is how to be more aggressive. A study from 2013 have shown that being spanked more than twice in the prior month at age 3, by either mother or father, was associated with increased child aggression at 5 years.

Another reason many people spank their kids – or feel that it’s not such a bad issue – is that this is what they learned from their own parents. Sentences like “My parents used to smack me now and then and I grew up totally fine” are not hard to come by.

But, did you really turned up fine?

What Are The Effects of Spanking Children?

If you want the short story, the take-home message is that spanking children (and other methods of physically punishing kids) is associated with negative outcomes such as increased aggression, emotional problems, and cognitive problems.

According to Prof. Gershoff, “children who are spanked are more aggressive, more likely to be delinquent, more likely to have mental health problems, more likely to have problems in school, and more likely to have problems in their relationships with their parents”.

A recent, important paper by Prof. Gershoff, Dr. Holden and other colleagues states clearly that  adults who reported having ever been spanked in childhood were more likely to have attempted suicide, to have used street drugs, and to have had a drinking problem than adults who had not been spanked, over and above whether the adults reported having been physically or emotionally abused as children.

And although many people may think that spanking is a mild-enough form of physical punishment and that people will “turn up fine”, that’s usually not the case.

Spanking is not “mild” as opposed to other physical punishment. It carries the same detrimental effects as physical abuse.

What Do We Really Teach Our Children If We Spank Them?

It’s really simple if you think about it. If you spank your children, you teach them that problems can be solved with violence. And that’s probably what you don’t want to archive.

When we teach our kids that hitting is a way to resolve a conflict, we better expect them to adopt that view and use violence themselves. That’s why we see more aggressive behaviors in kids who were spanked.

But spanking childre does more than that. Hitting your child disrupts the connection between you and him/her. You are breaking the trust they have developed in you over countless hours of care and holding.

“Children are confused and saddened or angered by parents who hurt them.  They aren’t learning that their behavior was unacceptable, rather, the children tend to focus on the pain and are wondering why their parents, who say they love them, will actually hurt them”, says Dr. Holden. And I couldn’t agree more. You know that I’m all about helping parents form secure attachments with their children, and spanking does the exact opposite of that.

What Can I Do Instead Of Spanking?

I know that kids can drive you crazy sometimes. Hey, just like me, you are a human being. You get angry. You get frustrated. Sometimes you feel helpless. That’s totally fine and natural. But I want to help you find ways to prevent yourself from hurting your child – physically and emotionally – when you are in the middle of a storm.

Remember that punishments don’t usually work. They are just not that good in creating the behavioral changes we want to produce. It doesn’t really work in lab rats and it definitely doesn’t really work in humans.

Reward Positive Behavior

When you want to discipline your kids, it is better to show them what they’re expected to do, and reinforce that, instead of focusing on what’s not to do. Yes, they need to learn what they are not allowed to do, but hitting them won’t do the trick.

Be a role model

Do you want your child to be responsible, calm and respectful of others? Well, you gotta be that way yourself. Children learn so much more from what we do than what we say, there’s no way around it. As I’ve said, if you choose violence to solve conflicts, your kids will do the same.

Hit the metal while it’s cold

You’re not a blacksmith, you’re a parent. When dealing with misbehavior, it’s best to take action and make decisions when things are cool and not in the middle of the storm. If your child does something he or she wasn’t supposed to, and you feel your anger rise, just focus on stopping what their doing so they won’t harm anyone or anything.

Then tell them “I do not approve of what you just that, and I (or we, the parents) will think how to deal with it later”.

Later, when you are calmer, you should discuss with your partner how to respond. But then you can act differently and refrain from hitting your child, which will serve no one.

Take a privilege away

Children do need to learn that there are consequences to their behavior. So, instead of giving them a smack, try to take away a privilege, such as screen time, a dessert or any other thing they may feel remorse for not having. And don’t forget to explain what are you doing. “It is not acceptable to hit your sister, so as a consequence I’m taking away your new Lego for the rest of the day”.

Get yourself a time-out

If you ever feel that you just can’t take it, and every other method of regulating yourself doesn’t help, it’s best if you force yourself to take a time-out. It’s perfectly ok to tell your child that you need a breather and move away for a minute, then calm yourself down.

If you read my posts about mindful parenting, you may already know some techniques of calming yourself in the midst of a storm. If not, start by downloading the following free mindful parenting exercises guide.

Get the free Mindfulness Exercises Guide

Download the free guide with 5 different mindfulness exercises that you can try right now

One great way to calm yourself down is by using belly breaths (aka diaphragmatic breathing). By breathing slowly and deliberately, you calm your hyperactive nervous system and turn the volume down.

A Quick how-to belly breath instruction

Find a quiet moment and practice the following method:

  1. Lie on your back (or if you prefer, sit comfortably on a chair).
  2. Put one hand on your belly and the other on your chest.
  3. Take a deep, slow breath through your nose.
  4. Feel how your belly pushes out and the hand on your tummy rises. Try to hold the hand on your chest as still as possible.
  5. Breath out slowly through your lips and feel your tummy go back down.

Repeat for 5-10 breaths. Try to make the exhales a little bit longer than the inhales. A good ratio is about 4 seconds in and 6 seconds out, but I really think you should do whatever feels right for you.


Phyisically punihsing children as a way of discplining them is still regarded as legtimiate and effiecient in many places, including the US. However, reserach shows that spanking children is not effiecient in preventing them from repearting the behavior. Actually, it makes children more aggressive and in the long run it hurts their trust in their parents and puts them on the track for anxiety, depression, and relationship problems in adulthoods.

If you sometimes feel like you need to spank or smack your child in order to teach him or her a lesson, it's best to refrain from that and adopt strategies to regulate your anger and use more beneficial teaching methods.

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