It doesn’t work, and it teaches all the wrong lessons.
Every parent struggles at some point with willful, misbehaving children. Many parents regularly resort to corporal punishment — striking a child with an object or an open hand — to force compliance, to punish, or simply out of anger or frustration.
I grew up in the South, where, according to social survey data, support for corporal punishment ranks highest, and it was everywhere. I was spanked occasionally at home, but what I remember most is being paddled at school. Tennessee is one of 19 states where paddling in schools is both legal and common to this day.
I was a particular mix of smart, verbal, and emotionally immature that my teachers were not equipped to deal with, so instead, they hit me with a piece of wood. They did it dozens of times a year, right up through eighth grade, when I was as tall as the teacher hitting me.
All that paddling didn’t make me behave any better. Quite the opposite. I realized early on that if I was willing to endure a few seconds of pain, I could do whatever I wanted. Since authority was nothing but the capacity to prohibit and punish, insofar as I could avoid getting caught or just tolerate the punishment, I didn’t have to give a damn about the rules.
I have had a somewhat dysfunctional relationship with authority ever since. And from what I saw, all the smacking and paddling didn’t make my classmates any better either. Some became submissive, some acted out, but no one — at least no one I ever knew — viewed it as an occasion for moral betterment.
I would wager that many of the people I grew up with now spank their kids. For my part, I went the other way. The minute I first contemplated having children, I swore that I would never lay a hand on my child in anger, or allow anyone else to do so. My child would never have to obey just because adults are bigger and can force them.
Like all other parents, my wife and I have screwed up a million times, in a million ways, since having kids. (They are 12 and 14 now.) But because we had that bright line in our heads — no violence, none — our kids have never been struck by an adult in anger.
Corporal punishment in the home is still technically legal in all 50 states. But I think spanking — striking a child, by whatever euphemism — should go extinct. We do not countenance violence against spouses, co-workers, or other people’s children. We should not countenance it against our own.
I did a tweet thread about this in December, and the feedback was both voluminous and illuminating. Some people took opposition to spanking as obvious, said I was just virtue-signaling to like-minded Vox readers. Many people told wrenching stories of being struck as children.
But many others defended both the spankings they had received and those they doled out as parents. Polls show that 65 percent of Americans approve of spanking. Celebrities like Kelly Clarkson still publicly defend it.
So at the very least it’s a live question, something many parents and prospective parents are wrestling with in good faith. But I think there’s an extremely strong case that if you are considering it, you should opt against it, and if you are using it, you should stop.
There are two basic arguments. The first is drawn from social science, which shows that spanking does not work to produce better behavior or healthier kids. The second is a moral argument, about violence and what it does and doesn’t teach children.
First, let’s take a look at what researchers have learned when they tried to assess whether spanking teaches kids a useful lesson.
The research is clear: spanking does not work
In 2016, Elizabeth Gershoff, an associate professor of human development and family sciences at the University of Texas Austin, published a meta-analysis that pulled together 50 years’ worth of research on spanking, cumulatively involving more than 160,000 children. The paper, published in the Journal of Family Psychology, focuses specifically on “what most Americans would recognize as spanking and not on potentially abusive behaviors,” she said. It is the most comprehensive research review to date. (Vox’s Brian Resnick had a great interview with Gershoff in 2016.)
The results were clear: Spanking does not produce good behavior. In fact, it is linked to increases in a wide variety of negative outcomes, from antisocial behaviors to mental health problems to (unsurprisingly) spanking or physical abuse. It does not lead to more compliant or well-behaved children. (Susan Pinker wrote up the study for the Wall Street Journal; the comments beneath her piece are instructive.)
Here’s another literature review, from September 2017, arguing that spanking should be officially classified as an adverse childhood experience (and thus included in anti-violence campaigns), because it produces the same kinds of effects as physical abuse. The authors found spanking was linked to “adult mental health problems includ[ing] depressive affect, suicide attempts, moderate to heavy drinking, and street drug use.”
Spanking produces less of these than outright physical abuse, but they are on the same spectrum — “spanking is empirically similar to physical and emotional abuse,” the authors argue.
“Spanking is not as bad as physical abuse,” Gershoff said. “It’s a continuum, but all of the research suggests it’s activating the same kind of problems that physical abuse does.”
Way back in 1991, the American Academy of Pediatrics warned that corporal punishment is linked to “increased aggressive and destructive behavior, increased disruptive classroom behavior, vandalism, poor school achievement, poor attention span, increased drop-out rate, school avoidance and school phobia, low self-esteem, anxiety, somatic complaints, depression, suicide and retaliation against teachers.” (Vox’s Joseph Stromberg pulled together additional research against spanking back in 2014.) And in June, researchers writing in the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics reported that three quarters of pediatricians do not support spanking.
The overwhelming consensus in the research community is that spanking does not work, not for any of the purposes claimed for it. It is associated with the effects one would expect from low-level physical abuse. That’s why it is outlawed everywhere, including the home, in 53 countries.
— Simon Kuestenmacher (@simongerman600) October 31, 2017
Nonetheless, science is always about probabilities, and for any probability, there will be plenty of examples on the other side. Many otherwise loving parents, including my own, have spanked their children, and plenty of spanked children, including me, have come out the other side more or less intact. Every parent thinks they know their child best. And many just don’t know what else to do. (Here’s a list of alternatives.)
So let’s put the science aside. To my mind, the most convincing argument against spanking is simply that it is violence, and we ought to avoid violence when we can.
Spanking is violence
There are many kinds and levels of corporal punishment, ranging from infrequent swats on the butt to regular open-handed smacking or striking with belts or paddles, and many contexts in which it might be employed.
In my experience, many people are willing to expend a great deal of intellectual and emotional energy parsing the nuances, separating out “acceptable” parental violence from the unacceptable, aiming for just the right level of force in just the right circumstances. James Dobson’s Focus on the Family has a whole seven-step checklist.
To my mind, it is easier simply to draw a bright line where it is clear: none.
The United Nations Children’s Fund has no problem calling spanking violence. According to UNICEF, “Violent discipline at home is the most common form of violence experienced by children.” (UNICEF reports that, globally, 75 percent of children between the ages of 2 and 4 are subject to corporal punishment.)
What makes spanking violence is not the amount of physical force applied, or the level of physical pain produced. In fact, violence need not be physical at all (as victims of emotional abuse can attest). The essence of violence is a fundamental shift in a relationship.
Violence violates a principle that is found in one form or another (and among other places) at the heart of Kantian morality, Protestant theology, and American democracy: the principle that all human beings, just by virtue of being human, possess a certain basic dignity and are due a basic level of respect and autonomy.
To commit violence is to deny a person what psychologists call their intentionality, their ability to make decisions about their own body. To deny “bodily autonomy” is to shift from caregiving (or friendship, or romantic love) to control. It is to shut down someone else’s ability to make choices; it imprints on the victim’s deepest lizard brain a sense of insecurity and powerlessness.
As the research above shows, a child carries that sense of powerlessness into adulthood as a gnawing anxiety that’s never quite quelled. “They become very cautious in interactions with other people,” Gershoff explains, “and they kind of assume the worst.”
Violence only ever teaches one, fundamentally authoritarian lesson
The core illusion of spanking is that it teaches lessons about how children ought to behave. The research shows that to be false, as a general matter, but I also happen to believe that anyone is capable of seeing that it’s false, with some introspection and observation.
Think about a manager and his (or her) employees. Even if he is frustrated with their behavior, he does not strike them. Why?
In part, it’s illegal. But we also know that it is simply wrong for those with power to impose their will on those with less through force. The manager-employee relationship confers a certain power on the former and obligations on the latter, but that power and those obligations have limits. By law and by ethics, the employee retains a core level of bodily autonomy. (Unions and other activists fought for years to make it so.)
Furthermore, we know that violence would not “work” in that situation. We have all had, or known, verbally and psychologically abusive bosses. We see (and research shows) that this leads to poor employee health and performance. Employees become consumed with avoiding the boss’s anger, but that is very different from being motivated to do a good job.
Would the occasional smack upside the head improve the situation? It is unlikely. Positive feedback tends to engender positive motivations, which draw on imagination and confidence; negative feedback engenders negative motivations, which draw on anxiety and fear. (Ask anyone who trains dogs.)
The reason for this is simple. In the face of force or violence, our lizard brains light up, our fight or flight instincts kick in, and we feel a surge of adrenaline. We retreat to the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, basic physical safety, and all higher thought is wiped out. We are no longer thinking or learning, using our frontal cortex — we are reacting, in a rudimentary, biological way.
Someone in that position is not going to make the complex judgments needed to do good work. They won’t be able to access the empathy that makes them good friends or co-workers. The best an author of violence can hope for is compliance. Once violence enters the picture, all other relationships reduce to dominance and control.
Another, blunter way of putting this: The only lesson violence ever teaches is a fundamentally authoritarian lesson. It teaches that human relationships are hierarchical and that those above have a right to dominate those below.
One of the reasons we have sought for so long to reduce violence in society is that we don’t want a bunch of proto-authoritarians running around; we want independent thinkers capable of self-governance, and that is not possible without a basic guarantee of bodily autonomy.
Now. Acknowledging all this — the basic reasons that we deem violence out of place in civilized society — try to articulate a principle that carves out an exception for the caregiver-child relationship.
What is the moral theory that says violence is wrong in all those other contexts but right in this one? What is the psychological theory that says violence causes only fear and more violence in those other contexts but is salutary and character-building in this one? Why, out of all the vulnerable groups to which we offer legal protection, would we exempt children?
Children are the least capable of processing the reasons and rationales behind corporal punishment, the least able to follow chains of reasoning and assign responsibility. They are the ones most likely to absorb violence purely as violation, as terror.
Many people remember being struck as children. I’ll wager very few remember the lessons they were allegedly learning.
Violence is structural and needs to be uprooted at the institutional level
I heard a great deal of thoughtful feedback on Twitter from parents of black kids. Though none put it quite this way, their messages had a common theme: Relative to their wealthier and lighter-skinned neighbors, the world their children live in is likely to be more authoritarian. They are less likely to be granted bodily and personal autonomy, less likely to be treated as free, thinking individuals, and more likely to be viewed through the lens of dominance and compliance.
Black kids are subject to more corporal punishment at school, more likely to be hassled or killed by cops, more likely to be turned down for loans or mortgages. Everywhere they go, everyone they interact with — teachers, police, landlords, bank officials — black kids, especially young black men, have to soothe lizard brain fears before they can hope to access authority figures’ frontal cortex. They are seen primarily as potential threats.
That means that any slip-up, any failure to comply in the right way at the right moment, can be disastrous for a young black person, leading to death or lifelong entanglement in America’s often grotesque justice system.
Parents of young black kids in America know this is the world that awaits them. They know their children will always walk a tightrope, and they are understandably desperate to keep their children on it. (Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote about this movingly in Between the World and Me.)
What I heard from them was that black children need to know that stepping out of line could get them hurt or killed. That they don’t have the buffers white kids do. They have to learn that.
Obviously, I’m in no position to judge the struggles of black parents in the US, especially poor black parents. But I also heard from professionals who work with black children and see that the deep hurt and rage so many young black kids feel is connected to the violence they experience at the hands of caregivers and authority figures.
If there is one thing we know best about violence, it’s that it feeds on itself. To someone locked in a cycle of violence, more violence always looks like the logical and inevitable next step. (That’s why they call it a cycle.) Breaking out is difficult, especially when it can feel like unilateral disarmament.
That is the context in which violence by caregivers against black children must be seen — as part of a cycle of violence that extends from a tragic history and unjust institutions down into black communities and black families. The same could be said of poor Appalachian whites, recent immigrants from countries with harsh caste systems, or other communities in which corporal punishment remains common.
The most important task before us, collectively speaking, is to break those cycles of violence at the systemic level, at the level of policy and representation and social norms. That is the ultimate work of justice and liberation.
But one step that is within the reach of every caregiver — one act of rebellion against a culture of violence — is to keep violence out of the home, to create a space of calm and safety in which reason and compassion can take root. If we prepare children for a better world, they will help create it.