Spanking kids can make them more aggressive later, study finds

By J.J. Smith. Children who are spanked frequently at age three are more likely to be aggressive when they’re five, even when you account for possible confounding factors and the child’s level of aggression at age three, according to a new study by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

“Mothers’ Spanking of 3-Year-Old Children and Subsequent Risk of Children’s Aggressive Behavior,” in the May issue of Pediatrics found that mothers with more parenting risk factors were more likely to spank frequently.

The mothers who spanked were more likely to report aggressive behavior when the child was five, including:

  • Arguing or screaming a lot
  • Bullying
  • Being mean to other children
  • Getting into fights
  • Teasing or threatening others

The study conducted by Catherine Taylor, an assistant professor of community health sciences at Tulane University in New Orleans, asked nearly 2,500 mothers how often they had spanked their 3-year-old children in the past month, as well as questions about their child’s level of aggression.

Demographic factors were also tabulated – such as child gender, and eight maternal parenting risk factors, including parenting stress, depression, alcohol use, and the presence of other types of aggression within the family.

Almost half (45.6 percent) of the mothers reported no spanking in the previous month, while 27.9 percent reported spanking one or two times, and 26.5 percent reported spanking more than twice.

This isn’t the first study to say that spanking young children is counterproductive, but earlier studies were less reliable because they didn’t account for other factors such as stress and depression in mothers, and child abuse, which also might make children more aggressive.

“This study is not saying that children don’t need discipline,” Taylor said in a US News & World Report interview.

“Kids need discipline. But we really encourage parents to focus on positive, non-physical types of discipline such as time out, instead of spanking.”

Taylor says it’s clear that spanking is a risk factor for increased aggressive behavior in children. “If you’re trying to improve behavior, this is counterproductive.”

Despite recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics against spanking, most parents (90 percent) in the U.S. approve of and have used corporal punishment as a form of child discipline. Researchers state that this study suggests that even minor forms of corporal punishment increase the risk for child aggressive behavior.

The American Academy of Pediatrics strongly opposes striking a child for any reason.

“If a spanking is spontaneous, parents should later explain calmly why they did it, the specific behavior that provoked it, and how angry they felt,” reads an Academy statement on their website,  HealthyChildren.org.

“They also might apologize to their child for their loss of control. This usually helps the youngster to understand and accept the spanking, and it models for the child how to remediate a wrong.”

The Academy also counsels parents, “Children after getting a beating from their parents do what they are told to do, but only for a limited time. Psychologically, it has ill effects and the child usually becomes violent and unfriendly.”


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