To spank or not to spank? Study says early spankings make for aggressive toddlers

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A new study of 2,500 white, Mexican American and black children from low-income families suggests that early spankings make for aggressive toddlers. According to the study, which is published in the journal Child Development, “Children who are spanked as 1-year-olds are more likely to behave aggressively and perform worse on cognitive tests as toddlers than children who are spared the punishment, new research shows.”

“Age 1 is a key time for establishing the quality of the parenting and the relationship between parent and the child,” said study author Lisa J. Berlin, a research scientist at the Center for Child and Family Policy at Duke University. “Spanking at age 1 reflects a negative dynamic, and increases children’s aggression at age 2.”

“The study also found that mothers who said their children were ‘fussy’ babies were more likely to spank them at ages 1, 2 and 3. But children who were more aggressive at 2 were not more likely to get spanked.

‘The implication or the suggestion in past arguments is that some kids who are more aggressive or difficult to control might elicit more spanking, but that’s not what we found,’ Berlin said.”

The average number of spankings for 1-year-olds in this study was 2.6 per week.

I am by no means a perfect parent (if such a thing even exists) and I’ve definitely felt the urge to spank my kids on occasion. I’ve raised my voice and not always parented the way I planned to but I cannot imagine a situation where I’d ever conceive spanking a 1-year-old – especially more than twice per week on average!

Alma from Always on the Verge


Why are we spanking one year olds? My next question is, why are we spanking one year olds almost 3 times a week? What are they doing that deserves physical punishment?

I wish they would have told us that in the article because I cannot for the life of me understand what a one year old does that requires physical punishment. This goes back to something that I preach a great deal about.

Forcing unrealistic expectations on children.

I have heard reasons as to why people spank their young children and they range from not wanting to eat, not wanting to sit in a carseat for extended periods of time, and not wanting to go to sleep when the parents want them to. All of these common reasons are things that children should not be really expected to do…. but our society has said that they are. What needs to change here? The kids or the expectations?

Alma also notes that this is certainly not the first time a study has showed the negative effects spanking has on a child. CNN posted Spanking Kids Leads to Long-Term Bad Behavior more than 10 years ago.

On the Attachment Parenting Blog API Speaks, Sarah wrote about the one and only time her now 7-year-old son was spanked (back when he was 18 months old and by the hand of her mother-in-law) in her post His Only Spank.

Carina spanked her 3.5 yr old son after he made a colossal mess of her living room (don’t believe me? check this out) and said in the comments:

I have mixed feelings about the spanking (don’t we all?). I have tried a lot of alternate disciplinary tactics. Today was the first day that we did a bare-bum and open hand spanking. The good thing is that I was not angry, it was not a release, it was done calmly. Afterwards I made him sit on my lap and talk about it. I probably wouldn’t have done it, except that he poured out most of the chocolate syrup on the carpet yesterday, after which he lost TV privileges and had a long time out. With the escalation today, I felt like we needed to step up the discipline.

Carina also told me, “It’s rare that we use it [spanking] as a discipline (hate using it when there is any other alternative). We’d tried everything else and nothing else was working. I think I come down on the side of ‘if it’s rare and appropriate.'”

LilSugar wrote Did Your View on Spanking Change Once You Became a Mom? and confesses that her’s did.

I was adamant that I would use spanking as a method of punishment in our home… before I became a mother. When it came time for me to teach my daughter right from wrong, I popped her tush a couple of times and found it completely ineffective. She actually enjoyed the quick tap and giggled her way to more mischief. Eager to try a new plan, I gave her a time out in a not so fun part of the house — the dark guest room. In 60 seconds, I discovered that the new system was more compelling than making physical contact.

A commenter MissSushi said:

I will probably spank, but only for very severe things. Sometimes you need the shock of it as a wake up call. We hardly ever got spanked as kids, but the few times it happened because of severe and usually dangerous transgressions, it really made an impact. I got slapped across the face as a teenager when i was totally going over the line and it shut me up and kept me from doing it ever again. I needed the reality check to realize how god awful I was behaving. None of my siblings and I really ever misbehaved, and anywhere we went people raved over how well behaved we were. My mother used consistency, manual labor, spanking when necessary, removal of privileges and taking away our toys/electronics. Taking our things away worked for us because she didn’t give them back. We weren’t allowed outside, and we weren’t allowed to play with anything. A few weeks of trying her patience out staring at the walls when you aren’t scrubbing the floors and doing laundry for a six-person household was miserable. I will be using a similar method.

Debs from Muddy Bare Feet said:

My opinion on the matter is very clear – children should never be hit because they are people, just like adults, and have the same human rights (or should have) not to get hit anytime they do something “wrong”. On the list [message board she is a part of] I gave the example of an adult who was doing something “wrong” (I do not believe that a child’s behaviour is ever “wrong” but that’s another discussion), or who refused to do what you wanted them to – would you hit them? Of course not, so why is it seen as okay by some people to hit a child? Hitting out of anger, i.e. not in a premeditated way, is loss of control on the part of the parent and not the child’s fault, yet they become the victim of it. Premeditated hitting, counting down, saying, “If you do that again, you’ll get a smack” is just plain cruel to me. I cannot imagine doing that to another human being.

She references some websites and books about “nonviolent parenting,” such as Children are Unbeatable. (Speaking of nonviolent parenting, I found it interesting to learn that in Sweden it is against the law to spank a child.)

Debs then goes on to say:

I hope it doesn’t sound too stupid, but I’m kind of hyper-aware that this is the only chance I’ve got to get it right. This is the only childhood R will ever have, and I keep having a little panic that I’m going to mess it up for him! I’m also very aware that, as we can’t have any more children, this is my one chance to do this parenting thing right. 🙂

Annie at PhDinParenting notes that one of the 10 things all new parents should know is “Discipline means teach.”

New parents worry that they need to ‘discipline’ their child. But often when they say discipline, they mean spanking or punishing. However, the word discipline means to teach. That is what parents need to do. They need to guide and teach their children. In the same way that we do not expect a first grader to learn calculus, it is important to understand what age appropriate behaviour is and to shape your expectations of your child and your discipline (teaching) according to what a child can reasonably be expected to understand at any given age.

Annie also has a lot of information for parents who want to find other methods of disciplining their child in her Best Anti-Spanking Resources post.

In a post from April, Summer from Wired for Noise raises awareness about SpankOut Day. “SpankOut Day USA was initiated in 1998 to give widespread attention to the need to end corporal punishment of children and to promote non-violent ways of teaching children appropriate behavior.”

Summer is against spanking as a form of punishment.

Despite the cute names people may like to use taking your hand to another human being is hitting. Hitting. Children should not be hit.

I’ve written before my thoughts that spanking does not equal discipline. Some people have the mistaken idea that a parent who does not spank simple lets their kids run wild without correcting or guiding them. This black and white, one way or the other type thought often prevents them from seeing the benefits of choosing not to hit my children, and the dangers of them choosing to hit theirs. I believe in disciplining children, not punishing.”

Commenter Susan of Lil Mom That Could admits that she used to spank, but doesn’t anymore. “Okay I hate to say this but I have proof that spanking does not work. I will admit it I spanked- hold my head in shame. Moreso because I was spanked – a learned trait – I didn’t work. Yes I got the behavior to stop for that minute but never for good. Now I have been giving my son a stern voice and a time-out. This has done more for him and me – he respects me more – we resolve our problems verbally, work out why he was being naughty.”

A few commenters on the Strollerderby post, They Say: Spanking Makes Your Kid Mean, a Bit Dumb, question how scientific this study was and if other variables could have played a role in the aggressiveness of the children.

Another commenter (Manjari) from the Strollerderby post said, “Whether or not the study is sound, I don’t think children should be spanked. I don’t want anyone to hit me, and I think kids should have the same protection from violence that I do.”

What do I think about all of this? (I know you want me to chime in.) My thoughts are that a very occasional spanking is not likely to cause a child any permanent harm (though I still can’t imagine or condone spanking a 1 year old). That doesn’t mean I believe in spanking for my children, because I do not. However, I know that even parents with the very best of intentions sometimes do things they regret. What should a parent do if that happens? I think explaining to the child why he/she (the parent) acted the way they did and apologizing to the child and telling them you love them is a good course of action.

I think that children who are spanked are more likely to grow up into adults that spank because of the argument, “I got spanked and I turned out OK.” But the cycle of spanking – hitting another human being – violence begetting violence – continues. How is that a good thing to teach?

I read a lot today about the argument (in favor of spanking) that kids today are out of control and disrespectful and I think the vast majority of that comes down to how they were raised in the early years. Were they treated with love and respect? Were boundaries firmly established? Were they given consistent and loving care? Resorting to spanking at a later age seems like what parents do when they’ve lost all control. I think, however, that if we are raising our children with empathy from the very beginning, starting with birth, we are less likely to get to the point of no return and have to resort to spanking. I could go on, but that could be another whole post entirely.

Additional resources:
Gentle Christian Mothers
Best Anti-Spanking Resources (it’s worth repeating down here)
From API Speaks, there are several post about how to Practice Positive Discipline
From the American Academy of Pediatrics: What is the best way to discipline my child?
From CNN: Spanking detrimental to children, study says

Cross-posted on BlogHer

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20 thoughts on “To spank or not to spank? Study says early spankings make for aggressive toddlers”

  1. “The average number of spankings for 1-year-olds in this study was 2.6 per week.”

    This just makes me so sad. Like you said, I’ve had the urge when angry to spank my 3-year old (as wrong as it is – and thankfully I’ve been able to keep from losing that last bit of self-control)… but a 1 year old?! That’s still such a baby. And almost 3 times a WEEK? I feel so sad for these babies, and the parents that feel this is what they “should” do.

  2. I know one family where spanking was the ONE AND ONLY discipline tactic/punishment. I distinctly remember dad spanking baby’s hand because she was trying to grab the spoon when he was feeding her. *shudder*
    The kicker is that they were SURPRISED when their son got in trouble at school because his only strategy for solving problems on the playground was to hit other kids. *sigh*

  3. I don’t think a young child is able to distinguish that “spanking” is trying to teach him or her a lesson, even if it’s done with love on the part of the parent. I think the message corporal punishment sends, rather, that if you’re bigger than someone, you can hit them to get them to do what you want.

    Alfie Kohn had an interesting article in the NYT this past week on how parents can use discipline as a method of control and not as a way to teach right from wrong. It’s worth a read:

    Another website that has a lot of concrete alternatives to punishment is this one:

    I know that compassionate parenting doesn’t come easily to many people (myself included). For me, learning about developmentally appropriate behavior (i.e., it’s our toddler’s job to test us) and to keep in mind that what may seem like obstinate, strong-willed behavior in children may actually be desirable traits in independently thinking grown ups.

    Most of all, I think it’s important for parents to be able to share their struggles and shortcomings with others without fear of judgment if we are to successfully overcome our compulsion to spank or to discipline punitively. I can’t say enough how much more willing I am to be gentle with my daughter after I’ve had the opportunity to share freely with my mama friends and to hear from them that they go through the same thing.

  4. Sarah Ji,
    As a mother who was spanked and who grew up thinking that spanking was the way to go I can understand how hard it is to break the cycle. It was helpful for me to realize that we all are humans and we all make mistakes, even as parents. Hearing other moms who were trying hard was helpful to me because I felt less alone in my struggles.

    My mother never apologized to us even when she made mistakes and I have found that apologizing to yourself and your children when you make a mistake is healing for both parties.

    I was raised to think that apologizing made children respect their parents less but I believe it is the opposite.

  5. I have two kids ages 13 and 9 both girls, all these years I never really had to spank my kids but I had to slap the oldest just once but that was because she would not stop biting me, needless to say that officially stopped the biting she was very young and I tried EVERYTHING just could not find anything that would work, I couldn’t be around her without her biting me so hard she was bruising my skin, but that is the only time I ever had to go to extremes, she is a beautiful young lady and very well mannered, couldn’t ask for a better kid

  6. I’m the Mom to three kiddos 13,11,6. I have not and will not spank. I have never seen a child deserve a smack for anything. I screw up and make mistakes – we all do. Yet if anyone smacked me for it I could press charges. Our children are only human, they are going to mess things up, say things we don’t like, and not always be nice to one another. But, well that’s life. I try to deal with situations on a case by case basis. Generally speaking taking away prized items and rights almost always fits the bill around here. When they were younger I would remove them from the situation and try to explain to them why I had done what I had done. I look at a lot of their behaviors and wonder why they did what they did and then work with the child to resolve the situation. Natural consequences have also worked well for us. If you make the mess you must clean it up. If you bite your brother be prepared for him to bite you back twice as hard, because it could happen. I’m lucky my kids are awesome, they get complemented often and I’ve had teachers request my kids for their classes so I think they are turning out OK.
    I’m no parenting expert, but I was in an extremely abusive relationship while in college, and well nobody deserves to fear being hit. Especially someone who can’t conceive why they are being hit. My husband was spanked and slapped often as a child and to this day can’t stand anyone touching his face without warning him first. Extreme yes, but very real.

  7. I was raised with spanking, and I’ll be the first to admit it is damn hard to break that cycle. I have to walk away a lot. A LOT. But it is worth it to me. Hitting is not not teaching.

  8. Wow, what an amazingly thorough post. I’m not sure what I could really add. Spanking is so far from my radar… it just doesn’t suit my husband or my personalities or parenting style at all. We haven’t had to face discipline issues yet, though. I try not to judge others because we all have our own parenting challenges, but my kneejerk reaction when I hear about someone spanking their kids (which I still do hear often) is to wince. And bare bottom spanking? Just seems creepy to me. Sorry, just my two cents.

  9. My second child is 1 year old right now. And I can say yes, they are totally, totally frustrating. But I’ve never spanked him, or my 4 1/2 year old either. I believe that a lot of the things we regard as ‘discipline’ issues are really age appropriate behaviours that kids will outgrow on their own, whether we spank, use time-outs or sticker charts, or not. At least that’s been my experience. Young children lack impulse control and verbal skills, and so it seems like they misbehave a lot when they’re really just exploring and learning in the best way they know how.

    The idea of spanking a 1 year old, who is really just a baby, makes me sad.

  10. i think the most important issue or concern for parents who spank for spankings sake is the limited knowledge most people have about how their children develop.

    i am not one of the lucky ones who can have children of my own though my heart aches for one. i have however made children and their development a walking talking part of me. too many of my friends have babies physiologically speaking with little thought or concern into understanding how we grow. when issues arise and i can offer up my knowledge, i am ignored because i do not have any children of my own only to have them later tell me that their doctors told them the same thing i did.

    if only people would think to take a child development class before they have their children, our children can grow to their full potential.

    (eegads this sounds all hoity toity but i guess what i mean is, that there are developmental stages we all go through and there is absolutely never a reason to spank a child under 3. sometimes, a swat is what needs to happen at the time…hot stove! hot stove! but when a child does not have the language to tell you what is bothering them then it is up to you to figure it out.)

    babble babble…

  11. The few times I’ve spanked Lauren, she’s laughed at me. When I threaten consequences, she one-ups me: no Nintendo DS for a week? She’ll say throw it in the trash. Sent to her room for an hour? She won’t come out. Any kind of punishment is ineffective for her, seemingly. Lucky for me she’s rarely bad.

  12. As a non-parent, I can say that I have on more than one occasion thought when seeing kids act up “Someone nneds to tann his/her hide”. Then I start thinking back to the times I got the belt for no good reason. Yes I was one of those kids who got spanked and turned out OK. OK, if your don’t count it made me question authority, not trust people, and in general have a lot of bouts of PTSS- still things I deal with today. Of course- here it comes- my parents knew no better”

  13. I love the website Gentle Christian Mothers. It’s taught me so much about not just non spanking, but being non-punitive. It’s the whole mind set that needs to change. In my opinion, substituting spanking with time outs etc might save your child some pain, but won’t necessarily make for a whole lot of improvement. I’ve learned so much about modeling grace and forgiveness and positive parenting to our kids. I still have to break my preconceptions anew every day. But it’s good.

    I’ve never spanked my kids. But I have been tempted. And then I realize it would be damaging and wouldn’t help anything. And the thought of watching their little faces turn to fear filled faces, and the look of rejection and insecurity. They can’t understand why their mom who is supposed to be their solid foundation, would make them feel threatened and sore and it is terrifying to them. It breaks my heart to think about.

    We need to start seeing a “misbehaving” child and instead of assuming he needs more discipline, we need to start to realize he needs more love. Or more security. Or some need fulfilled. That’s what “bad behavior” stems from – an unmet need. When we use harsh punitive measures to control the behavior we teach the child his needs are not important and he needs to shut up about them and ignore them or else there will be ill consequences. No wonder we end up with a society full of messed up adults, if our need have not been met as children

  14. My favourite is a parent who spanks their child for hitting another child. Slightly hypocritical? Spanking your child just makes them think it’s OK for a bigger person to take aggression on a littler person.

    I’m wondering how the 3.5 your old child who made the colossal mess of the living room was even able to create such a mess. Where was the mom when it was happening? Did she not notice the child took chocolate syrup out of the fridge? I’m not sure that a 3.5 year old should be left to their own devices for such a period of time, and that perhaps if they were being supervised, it wouldn’t have happened.

  15. Is there a reason you chose to include “low income” in your introductory statement. Is that relevant to any other point? Just curious if you were trying to say something about instances of excessive spanking being related to class…. Thanks.

  16. I included it because it seemed like a relevant part of information about the study since they only included “low income” families. I’m not suggesting that excessive spanking is related to class. Unfortunately, I think it happens in low, middle and high income families.

  17. Thanks so much for discussing spanking. I was about to comment on how I think punishment is important to teach children about consequences, but in writing my response I started thinking about how I would handle a similar situation with an adult. The fact of the matter is children, in their own way, can comprehend consequences if they are explained thoroughly in terms they understand. You might tell an adult how their poor behavior choices affected your or someone else in a negative way, and in the same manner, you can explain to your child how something they did has hurt someone else or created a bigger problem.
    I have consistently put my 3 year old daughter(she has only been mischievous since turning two) on time out (to no avail)and have recently considered calmly spanking her once to enforce boundaries, but this discussion has encouraged me to think differently about my particular situation. We want to encourage respect from our daughter and believe that she deserves that same respect, but when considering discipline, I guess we never thought of it as a lack of respect. If my husband spanked me for throwing water out of the bathtub, I would see it as a lack of respect on both parts; and of course, one only encouraging the other. It definitely proves how cyclical the spanking and poor behavior can be. Thank you,crunchydomesticgoddess!

  18. Child buttock-battering vs. DISCIPLINE:

    Child buttock-battering for the purpose of gaining compliance is nothing more than an inherited bad habit.

    Its a good idea for people to take a look at what they are doing, and learn how to DISCIPLINE instead of hit.

    I think the reason why television shows like “Supernanny” and “Dr. Phil” are so popular is because that is precisely what many (not all) people are trying to do.

    There are several reasons why child bottom-slapping isn’t a good idea. Here are some good, quick reads recommended by professionals:

    Plain Talk About Spanking
    by Jordan Riak,

    The Sexual Dangers of Spanking Children
    by Tom Johnson,

    by Lesli Taylor M.D. and Adah Maurer Ph.D.

    Most compelling of all reasons to abandon this worst of all bad habits is the fact that buttock-battering can be unintentional sexual abuse for some children. There is an abundance of educational resources, testimony, documentation, etc available on the subject that can easily be found by doing a little research with the recommended reads-visit

    Just a handful of those helping to raise awareness of why child bottom-slapping isn’t a good idea:

    American Academy of Pediatrics,
    American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry,
    Center For Effective Discipline,
    PsycHealth Ltd Behavioral Health Professionals,
    Churches’ Network For Non-Violence,
    Nobel Peace Prize recipient Archbishop Desmond Tutu,
    Parenting In Jesus’ Footsteps,
    Global Initiative To End All Corporal Punishment of Children,
    United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

    In 26 countries, child corporal punishment is prohibited by law (with more in process). In fact, the US was the only UN member that did not ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

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