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Research shows smacking children does more harm than good

I recently came across a research paper by Elizabeth Gershoff published in the journal of Law and Contemporary problems in 2010 entitled:

More harm than good: a summary of the scientific research on the intended and unintended effects of corporal punishment on children.

The aim of this blog post is to summarise the main findings of the 25 page research paper which explores the findings of hundreds of research studies from many disciplines including: psychology, medicine, social work and education.

Main finding:

“The social and medical sciences report that the risks for substantial harm from corporal punishment outweigh any immediate benefit of immediate child compliance.” (P32)

Read on to find out the many forms of ‘substantial harm’ that can result – I was shocked!


Basically, corporal punishment is hitting, smacking, spanking or physically punishing a child with the intent of changing their behaviour rather than harming them (it is not about physical child abuse).

Do you smack your children?

Statistics for the United States for parents physically punishing their children are as follows:

50% of parents of toddlers

65-68% of parents of preschoolers

85% percent of middle and high school children

Why parents use physical punishments?

Do you smack your children? Were you physically punished as a child?

Tradition–parents who were spanked as children and adolescents tend to be more supportive of corporal punishment then children who were not.

History – criminals were historically punished by public floggings or other physical punishments.

Religion – some religions advocate corporal punishment

It is interesting to note that while it is no longer legal for courts to sentence criminals to corporal punishments for crimes, it is still legal for parents (and teachers in some states) to physically punish their children as a method of discipline – with the exception of New Zealand where it is now illegal to use corporal punishment on a child.

Intended effects of physical punishment:

Do you think smacking is helpful and it is basically ‘harmless’?

Parents have both short-term and long term intentions when it comes to choosing to hit their children.  


In the short term they may want to get their child’s attention, make them comply or change their unacceptable behaviour (eg: hitting, biting, stealing, lying or playing with matches) An aside: it seems contradictory and disingenuous to hit a child for hitting another child while saying ‘hitting is bad’… doesn’t make sense right?

Numerous research studies show that in the short term, physical punishment is NO more effective than other methods such as time out with a barrier preventing the child from leaving. In other words physical and non-physical punishments are EQUALLY as effective at modifying the behaviour in the short term and non-physical punishment does not have all of the negative consequences like increased child aggression and risks of physical injury among the many others outlined below.


In the long term, parents intend for the corporal punishment to act as a deterrent to the child repeating unacceptable behaviours and encouraging them to continue to act in more socially acceptable ways.

“A consistent body of research evidence reveals that more corporal punishment by parents is associated with less long-term compliance and less pro-social behaviour and more aggression and anti-social behaviour”

In other words the more children are physically punished the less they comply with their parents wishes, the less they behave in socially appropriate ways and the more aggressive they become and the more they behave unacceptably.

Put simply smacking makes children’s and adolescent’s behaviour worse, not better, in the long term!

The paper then goes on to talk about the many unintended consequences of corporal punishment – this was a shock to me.

Unintended consequences of physical punishment

Physical injury and abuse. Most importantly, a parent’s risk of physically harming and abusing their child increases the more frequently they use physical punishment as a means of discipline. Child abuse often starts out with the intention to discipline and escalates to harm.

Mental health problems. The more frequently children are hit or the more severely they are hit the more likely they are to have emotional and psychological stress as well as metal health problems like depression and anxiety.

Harms parents’ relationships with their children. Children who are physically punished tend to avoid their parents, dislike them, want to run away, don’t develop closeness and become distrustful of their parents.

Increased aggression and anti-social behaviour. The more physical punishment the more aggressive the child and the adult become. Often times the aggression is directed towards their own children and spouses as well as others.

This is the one unintended consequence I didn’t expect that shocked me:

Reduced cognitive ability. Studies have shown that children who are physically punished have lower IQ scores and lower results on standardised tests of mental abilities.

To conclude:

While not every child will suffer the many serious negative consequences due to physical punishments as summarised in this blog post, the evidence is compelling that physically punishing your child does more harm than good.

Do you want to take the risk of harming your child and your relationship with your child for some short-term compliance, when you could use other methods that are equally effective but don’t carry the many unintended negative consequences?

If you though spanking your child would make them a better person, think again, the research shows that in fact, they are more likely to become aggressive and behave in more anti-social ways. 


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