To spank or not to spank: Corporal punishment in the US

A pro football player uses a switch on his child, and an American cultural divide between races, regions, and religions is exposed.

Maya Beltran/Houston Chronicle/AP
Bonita Jackson, mother of Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, talks about her son in Houston on Sept. 16, 2014.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

The way corporal punishment evolved in Sandy Haase’s family is, in many ways, typical. Growing up in Orange County, in California, in the 1960s, Ms. Haase knew what would happen if her father got angry. If she or one of her siblings talked back, or perhaps turned on the TV when they were not supposed to do so, “it was ‘Go and get the yardstick,’ ” she says. 

The “spankings” that would follow, she says, were angry, severe, and scary. One instance left her in need of bandages. When she had children of her own, she and her husband agreed that they would use spanking only as a last resort. 

Which is what they did, recalls her 22-year-old son, Colin. 

“Looking at it now, I don’t see it as a negative thing,” he says. He describes his and his sister’s upbringing as warm and loving, with spanking only a very minor part of childhood: “It helped me. It set me straight when I wasn’t listening to words.” 

Still, he says, he does not think he will spank his own children when he has them.

For her part, Sandy Haase expresses ambivalence about it.

“I know there were times when I did it when I was getting extremely frustrated,” she says. “I would flash back to my dad and think, ‘Oh gosh, am I doing what my dad did?’ ” 

As in the Haase family, overall support in America for corporal punishment, polls show, has decreased significantly during past decades. But what is also emblematic of the Haase family is the ambiguity and nuance that surrounds corporal punishment, even among those who use it. Swirling around every spank or paddle are questions about the line between discipline and abuse, the proper way to use physical punishment, intentions versus actions, outcomes versus causes. And they are questions that lead directly to some of the deepest fissures in US society. 

This came into sharp focus last month when public debate erupted after NFL running back Adrian Peterson was arrested on child abuse charges for giving, in his words, a “whupping” to his 4-year-old son for pushing another child.

Prosecutors say Mr. Peterson had hit his son repeatedly with a switch, the common name for a thin, flexible twig or stick, leaving multiple cuts and bruises on the boy. 

Soon child advocates took to the airwaves to condemn corporal punishment overall, while other commentators lambasted the National Football League for having an apparent problem with domestic violence. But soon a number of Southerners, who are more likely to spank their children, told the Northeast opinion writers to back off. Some Evangelicals brought up the biblical warning about sparing the rod, spoiling the child. A number of high-profile athletes defended Peterson, including former pro basketball star Charles Barkley, who said that if corporal punishment were a crime, then “every black parent in the South is going to be in jail.” And parents began arguing in chat groups and on radio call-in shows that switching and spanking were different things, and that outsiders shouldn’t be telling moms and dads how to raise their kids, anyhow.

Indeed, some academics fret about the term “corporal punishment” because it is both misunderstood and broad; used officially in the parenting context it means any physical punishment – or discipline, depending on one’s view – of children.

But whatever one’s interpretation of this volatile topic, peeling back the debate over corporal punishment soon uncovers the divisions and misunderstandings between American cultures and races, regions and religions, parenting experts and everyday parents. Quickly, the fight over “spanking” starts to look a lot like a struggle for the country overall, played out on the bodies of children.

•     •     •

From the macro data, it seems that corporal punishment is becoming less popular in the United States. Evaluating numerous national surveys taken over the past decades, Murray Straus, an expert on corporal punishment at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, found that the number of parents who say spanking is sometimes necessary dropped from more than 90 percent in 1968 to about 65 or 70 percent in 1994, and then has remained fairly steady through today. Researchers have found that the number of parents who use corporal punishment has also decreased.

But take a step back, and the US is still clearly a country that spanks.

While the numbers may reflect a decrease in corporal punishment, they are still high. Figures differ, survey to survey, but most research concludes that 65 to 85 percent of parents have used corporal punishment. Prof. Elizabeth Gershoff of The University of Texas at Austin, one of the leading academic voices against corporal punishment, determined in the late 2000s that by the time American children reach high school, 85 percent have been physically punished by their parents. 

Kenneth Dodge of Duke University in Durham, N.C., who has followed hundreds of children in national longitudinal studies from prekindergarten through adulthood, has found that 70 to 80 percent have been corporally punished. 

And in an ongoing study conducted by researchers at the University of New Hampshire, 47 percent of US university students report that their parents “hit them with a paddle, hairbrush, belt or other object at age 10.” 

Some of the lowest corporal punishment numbers come from a 2013 Harris poll that found that 67 percent of parents had spanked their children, compared with 80 percent in 1995. But much of that drop can be explained by a decrease in the number of adolescents being hit, Professor Straus explains. His research shows that 90 percent of toddlers are still hit by parents. 

Moreover, corporal punishment still has the support, implicit or explicit, from much of official America. 

Every state in the union allows it. (Similar hitting between adults is generally considered assault, and convicted criminals are legally protected from corporal punishment.) 

Nineteen states allow it in schools. And while many districts in those states decline to use corporal punishment, others embrace it. US Department of Education statistics show that 200,000 students are paddled every year, and Florida Department of Education statistics show that in some school districts in the northern part of the state more than 1 out of 10 students is paddled. The Arlington school district outside Memphis, Tenn., recently voted to reinstate corporal punishment, with board members saying that teachers should have all possible tools at their disposal.

Corporal punishment shows up in various institutions. As recently as the mid-1990s, one judge in Tennessee was known for paddling teenage defendants. A Texas judge was suspended in 2011, but reinstated about two years later, after his daughter posted a YouTube video she’d recorded in 2004 showing him beating her savagely with a belt for illegally downloading music on her computer. And some pastors specifically encourage corporal punishment from the pulpit.

“God says your children desperately, desperately, desperately need to be spanked,” said well-known pastor Voddie Baucham in a 2007 sermon to the Hardin Baptist Church in Texas. “Amen, hallelujah, praise the Lord and spank your kids – OK? They desperately need to be spanked. And they need to be spanked often.”

Given this picture, one could be excused for wondering why the Peterson case made waves at all. 

But as it turns out, it is not really the nation that spanks, but many groups within the nation. And these groups tend to feel very differently about what that means and why they’re doing it.

•     •     •

In the early 1990s, a growing number of academic studies began showing a clear connection between corporal punishment and children’s aggressive behavior. Those children who were spanked more were more likely later to be involved in partner-to-partner domestic violence, face academic and health risks, and fall behind in a whole host of social indicators. 

But for the most part, those studies followed white Americans. Researchers, who were becoming increasingly convinced of the dangers of corporal punishment, realized that they needed to replicate their findings within other demographics before they could make credible recommendations about eliminating it. So they began a number of studies evaluating the effect of corporal punishment on more diverse groups of children, with a particular focus on African-Americans.

What they found surprised and bothered many of them. In various studies, researchers found that the effect of spanking on black children was different than it was on white children. In 2004, for instance, scholar Jennifer Lansford, who worked with Professor Dodge of Duke University, reported findings from a diverse group of 585 children they followed from prekindergarten through Grade 11. Rather than making black children, as a group, more aggressive and worse off, some instances of corporal punishment within that demographic seemed to correspond to better outcomes. 

That report immediately drew accusations of racism. Some warned that it was dangerous, and could be interpreted as actual encouragement to spank children. But what the Duke researchers – who are still opposed to corporal punishment – determined is that the damage caused to children by spanking, paddling, or other sorts of punishments is less about the physical act than it is about the psychological message imparted by the parent to the child.

In other words, it wasn’t that African-American children dealt better with corporal punishment. It was that their parents were better at giving it.

“To the extent that the child understands and appreciates genuinely that the child is loved by the parent, and that even though it hurts, the parent’s intent is to help the child – to the extent that the child understands that, the consequences are not negative,” Dodge says. “If the child interprets it as a parent who is out of control, or a parent who does not love the child – a parent being hurtful and hateful – that is the bad message and the mechanism by which [the negative outcome] happens.” 

Whether or not the child sees a parent as out of control can depend on the way a child is spanked, as well as how spanking is viewed in their wider community: as something done by normal, loving parents, or something taboo, done behind closed doors in secret, explosive moments of anger. 

This is one of the misunderstood aspects of the Peterson case, Dodge and others say. Much of the commentary and criticism has focused on the injuries to Peterson’s son – and indeed, lasting injury is one of the ways most states draw the line between parental rights and abuse. But more important than the physical marks of corporal punishment is the psychological harm that often accompanies it. 

But that psychological harm, some scholars point out, can also come from nonspanking punishment such as screaming. Referred to sometimes as “the new spanking” in more permissive, white, educated families, moments when parents “lose it” or “go ballistic” on their children verbally can be even more damaging than spanking, psychologists say. But as one scholar pointed out, there aren’t any efforts to ban white moms from yelling. 

After Peterson’s arrest, a number of commentators spoke about the reasons black families may feel more inclined toward corporal punishment: According to the University of Chicago General Social Survey, blacks are 11 percentage points more likely than whites to favor it. Many pointed out that there are simply different stressors and priorities facing white and black families in America. While many white children have the luxury of growing up precious and thinking the world revolves around them, many black children often grow up in environments where misbehavior can be a matter of life and death, commentators said.

Just look, some argued, at the recent police shooting of the unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. 

“We predominantly white parenting experts have done a disservice to black parents like Adrian Peterson,” says Robert Larzelere, a professor at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater with an expertise in parenting and corporal punishment. “We don’t give someone like that a credible alternative to the way he was raised. He hears this prohibition language and he thinks, ‘Well, I wouldn’t turn out the way I did if I wasn’t spanked.’ ”

A few recent studies, however, have questioned those early 2000s connections between corporal punishment and race. Prof. George Holden of Southern Methodist University in Dallas says that the difference in attitudes and outcomes is socioeconomic and regional rather than racial. Other studies show that families with more children tend to spank more. And, as with just about everything in the research about corporal punishment, the effect attributed to spanking depends on how numbers are crunched and interpreted. 

This is one of the biggest problems that Professor Larzelere, who has studied corporal punishment for decades, has with the current ideological wave suggesting a full ban on all forms of physical discipline. 

While he agrees that corporal punishment certainly can have a negative effect on a child, he worries that much of the research linking spanking and aggression does not differentiate between a harsh beating when a parent is furious and a quick swat to the rump with an open hand when the parent is calm. He also says that while it’s clear that aggression in children correlates with having been spanked, it’s not always clear which came first – the chicken and egg problem, as he puts it. 

“If you look at the frequency of any discipline act over the past year, if the frequency increases so does the aggression in school the next year,” he says. “So I think the correlation is explained entirely by the fact that some kids are more oppositional than others, and that causes parents to use more of every kind of discipline tactic.”

There are studies that show how some controlled spanking can be positive, he says. 

•     •     •

“Backup spanking,” done calmly and in a consistent manner with defiant 2-to-6-year-olds, in order to back up more mild forms of discipline such as timeouts, is shown to be effective at changing behavior, says Larzelere. Indeed, recent work by Marjorie Gunnoe at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., has shown that children who have been spanked in this sort of way have better outcomes than children who have never been spanked. (There are few studies evaluating never-spanked children because, until very recently, there simply weren’t enough of them.)

The importance of regulating spanking is a point that Jared Pingleton, director of counseling at Focus on the Family, a powerful conservative Christian outreach group headquartered in Colorado Springs, Colo., tries to make regularly. 

His followers, as a group, tend to approve of corporal punishment far more than does the population as a whole. The 2012 General Social Survey found that 65 percent of Americans overall, but 80 percent of born-again Christians, approve of spanking. In the debate after Peterson’s arrest, many in online discussions made reference to the biblical warning that “he who spares the rod hates his son.” (There is much theological debate about the interpretation of the word “rod” in this line from the book of Proverbs, which continues in some translations as “but he who loves him is careful to discipline him.” But the most popular American understanding of it is that it encourages corporal punishment.) 

While Mr. Pingleton agrees that a certain type of spanking is an important disciplinary tool, he also is adamant that children need protection, and says that most parents are not in enough control of their own emotions to administer spankings in the calm, consistent, and rational way that can have a positive effect. 

“The first and last thing we need to emphasize is that a child should never be abused,” he says. 

Infants should never be spanked, he says. (Research shows that 15 percent of parents do hit their babies.) Adolescents should not be spanked, he says. And the child should always receive a warning first.

When his four sons were younger, he says, he would take time to cool off before calling them into a room to be paddled. He says he was careful to make sure that the paddling stung, but did not do any long-term damage. The point, he says, is to give a brief physical pain to prevent pain that will last a lifetime. This, he says, is far less damaging to children than Northeast-style permissive parenting, in which the child grows up thinking he is the center of the universe.

•     •     •

But individual cases often go very differently than what experts prescribe as a responsible way to spank.

And Lyndsay Jones remembers, with some irony, a day she says her parents heard a Christian lecturer give advice like Pingleton’s.

They told her about it, the 22-year-old recalls, and then blamed her for having the sort of delicate skin that made bruises appear regularly. 

She was an only child, growing up in Indiana, in a conservative Baptist family. And regularly, she says, her father hit her with his fist and with a braided leather belt. 

“The idea was that if there was any lack of obedience, then the child had to be punished as if it were a really big deal,” she recalls. “They would explain to me what they were doing later on with direct Scripture.”

She remembers once in her Christian high school getting sent with two other girls to the principal’s office because she was talking in science class. Later that day, the science teacher found her in tears and asked why she was so upset. 

“I said, ‘I don’t think you understand what kind of trouble I’m going to be in when I get home,’ ” she says. “And he looked at me, and he said, ‘You’ve just got to understand, it’s because your parents love you and they love God.’ ”

Indeed, researchers have found that very few parents spank like they’re “supposed to.”

Which is why opponents of corporal punishment say it’s better to not even try to toe that line. 

“The risk of a parent going too far and going out of control [is] way more if the parent is engaging in corporal punishment in the first place,” Dodge says. 

Professor Holden, the Southern Methodist University scholar, this year published a study in which he and his team gave audio recorders to Texas mothers who acknowledged yelling at their young children twice a week or more. The researchers were not looking to study corporal punishment. But they realized when they reviewed the recordings that they had the first, in-the-home look at spanking. (Most studies are based on information reported by parents about their own behavior.) 

Fifteen of the 33 families spanked. And none of them did so in the way that either Pingleton or Larzelere says is effective. 

“They were all spanking for minor misbehaviors, and were not spanking as a last resort but as a second resort,” Holden says. “They’d say, ‘No, stop it,’ and then hit. They were spanking after 30 seconds, on average. More than half were pretty heated.” 

And in 30 of 41 incidents, the spanked children misbehaved again within 10 minutes.

This relates to one of the big explanations Straus sees for the continued spanking of children, particularly young children: Much of the time, toddlers and preschool-age kids are just plain hard to manage. In one recent study of 2- and 3-year-olds, he says, 50 percent repeated within an hour a behavior that parents tried to correct, while 80 percent repeated it within one day. 

“It didn’t matter what the parents did,” Straus says. “If they explained, if they spanked, if they diverted the child to another activity, if they blocked off getting to the dangerous place – the recidivism rate was still the same.”

One conclusion to draw from this is that nothing works to discipline young children, Straus says. But really, he adds, it’s the opposite: Ten years later, the child won’t be doing the same misbehavior, and, as he says, “most of us grow up to be decent human beings.” 

So everything works, Straus says, including spanking. Still, he says he is completely against corporal punishment. 

“The issue is that the side effects of corporal punishment are all harmful, while the side effects of explaining are all beneficial,” Straus says. “Hundreds of studies have now shown this.”

Others who are against corporal punishment say that it comes down to human rights. 

“Parents have very clear views about what they consider acceptable corporal punishment and what they do not,” Holden says. 

“Parents will say, ‘I’ll never slap my kid on the face, but I’ll slap his rear.’ They’ll say, ‘I’ll never whup my child, but I’ll spank my child.’ Some distinctions are racial, cultural. I’m currently an advocate of never ever hitting a child for any reason. Because to me it’s all the same.... With a different age group it would be assault. People in America do not consider the concept of children’s rights, that children have a right not to be hit, like any other individual.” 

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