Spanking creates defiant, aggressive children

March 23, 2009

ANN ARBOR—Spanking makes it more likely, not less, that children will be defiant and aggressive.

Plus, physical punishment puts kids at risk for increased mental health problems, anti-social behavior and serious injuries, a new University of Michigan report shows.

“There is little research evidence that physical punishment improves children’s behaviors in the long term,” said Elizabeth Gershoff, the report’s author and an associate professor in the School of Social Work.

The report, released in collaboration with the Phoenix Children’s Hospital in Arizona, offers a review of empirical research on the effects physical punishment has on children.

Gershoff analyzed 100 years of research and published studies on physical punishment, spanking in particular. Most findings indicate that spanking is an ineffective parenting practice within the United States and around the world.

“There is growing momentum among other countries to enact legal bans on all forms of physical punishment,” said Gershoff, whose research focuses on the impacts of parenting and violence exposure on child and youth development over time.

The practice is regarded as a violation of international human rights law, she said.

Several recent studies reveal that many parents still physically abuse their children, especially children ages 1 and 2. By the time children reach fifth grade, 80 percent have received physical punishment.

In multiple studies, spanking has been found to lead to children suffering mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression, alcohol and drug use, and poor psychological adjustments. These problems also increase stress levels, she said.

Gershoff’s report indicated that spanking can also harm parent-child relationships. If the child avoids painful experiences, and if they see the parent as the source of pain from corporal punishment, they may avoid parents. This can interfere with a child developing trust and closeness, she said.

So how should parents discipline their children? Gershoff says children behave better when they are motivated by praise or the promise of rewards rather than by threats of punishment. Children need teaching and guidance from parents so they can learn how to make better choices in the future.

“(Spanking) does not teach children why their behavior was wrong or what they should do instead,” the report stated.

The findings appear in “The Report on Physical Punishment in the United States.”

To read the report, visit



School of Social Work:

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