Why It's Never Okay to Spank a Child

New research indicates spanking could lower kids' IQ and lead to serious behavioral problems down the road.

By Andrea Atkins

As he faces charges that he abused his child by hitting him with a denuded tree branch (also known as a switch), Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson has told the media and the police that he never meant to hurt his son. He was disciplining him the way he was disciplined as a child. 

“…(D)eep in my heart I have always believed I could have been one of those kids that was lost in the streets without the discipline instilled in me by my parents and other relatives,” Peterson said in a statement posted online.  “I have always believed that the way my parents disciplined me has a great deal to do with the success I have enjoyed as a man.”

It seems a convincing case for corporal punishment. Of course, Peterson and others who believe that they were helped—not hurt—by such punishment have no control group. They don’t know how it would have come out had other disciplinary measures been employed. And while 70 percent of Americans believe that corporal punishment is sometimes necessary, most child development experts say hitting kids can hurt them physically and psychologically. Worst of all, repeated spanking could lower a child’s IQ.

The Evidence Against Spanking

Murray Straus, Ph.D., co-director of the Family Research Lab at the University of New Hampshire, discovered in a wide-ranging study that children who are spanked have lower IQs than those who were not. Not all children wind up with lower IQ scores, he said, but many do. And the more frequent the spanking, the greater the damage to the child’s IQ. His study showed that the IQs of children aged two to four who were not spanked were five points higher four years later than the IQs of those who were. 

Another study by Canadian researchers demonstrated more reasons to avoid spanking: Children who are physically disciplined are more likely to experience depression, aggression, anxiety, and are more likely to use alcohol or drugs

Straus says it’s hard to convince people of the reality of these studies because so many of us were hit by our own parents and see no danger. “We turned out OK,” they reason. 

“Most people who were spanked don’t beat up their partners and kids and don’t commit crimes,” Straus says. “When people say this, they are telling the truth, but the implication that there is no harm to spanking is false. I smoked for 20 years and I didn’t get lung cancer. It doesn’t mean that smoking doesn’t cause lung cancer. It just means I was one of the lucky ones.”

“But Spanking Works”

Many parents find that when they spank a child, it gets the child to stop misbehaving. Straus says that’s true. “It does teach them. It does work, and I hate to admit that since I’m morally against spanking, but what the research shows is that it works only in the immediate situation…In the long run, it increases the possibility of misbehavior and it increases the possibility that as an adult, the spanked child will commit crime and violence. It doesn’t mean the child will do those things, but it increases the possibility.” 

One of the reasons spanking seems to work, Straus adds, is that parents do it repeatedly, and what kids need more than anything else is a parent who is paying attention to them. The most harmful parent is one who neglects his or her child. “Kids need correction,” he says. “Part of the reason kids who are spanked a lot grow up to be decent people is not because of the spanking, but because people are tending to their misbehavior and correcting it. They grow up well almost despite the spanking.”

Straus says spanking and verbally correcting kids work about equally as well. “Any parent of a two year old will tell you that if you say ‘no, no’ to a child who is misbehaving, the child will stop, but a few minutes later will be doing the same thing again. That’s also true of spanking.” One study showed that 50 percent of kids go back to the behavior in an hour; 80 percent within a day—with either form of discipline. “Regardless of the correction, the probability of a two-year-old repeating a behavior is almost certain,” he adds. 

The Best Way for Parents and Grandparents to Discipline 

Parents (and grandparents) can correct misbehavior with words. And the correction is most effective, Straus says, when you offer explanation along with your correction. “Don’t touch the stove because you might burn your hand” helps a child understand why the stove is forbidden. “Don’t touch the stove/slap” helps a child understand that mom or dad might hit him.

Attitudes Are Changing 

The percentage of parents that believe that spanking is sometimes necessary has gone down from 96 percent in 1968 to 70 percent in 1995, says Straus. “But it has stayed at 70 percent ever since. That’s a big decrease, but it’s remained steady. And 70 percent means that much more than a majority continues to think that spanking is necessary,” he adds. 

But even among people who think it’s OK, there is a subtle shift occurring. “When I was a kid,” Straus says, “most people believed that spanking was not only a means of correcting misbehavior, but they thought it was morally good for the child’s development. People used to say that spanking builds character. Now, many people still believe it is necessary, but something to be avoided. They think it’s best not to spank, but that sometimes you have to.”

He also notes that the frequency of spanking in America has gone way down. Thirty years ago, parents spanked their kids several times a week. They used belts and paddles and continued such punishments into a child’s teen years. Today, the frequency is more like once a week, and the use of belts or paddles has gone way down. And most parents don’t spank kids after age 12.

“Those are big changes for something that people continue to believe in,” says Straus.

Adrian Peterson had the best interest of his son in mind, Straus says. “I have no doubt, because he was taking steps to deal with the child’s bad behavior. He just took the wrong step.”

American parents need more guidance to help them change their disciplinary techniques, Straus says. “You can be a better parent if you don’t spank. And being a better parent—that’s what people are concerned about.”



I was born in 1950. I was spanked when I deserved it (not very often), but mostly had privileges taken away. I am not a violent person, and my IQ, depending on the online test I take, is somewhere between 120 and 150. I don't see how a quick smack or three on a part of the body where Nature has provided abundant padding, especially when dealing with a child below the age of reason, can be called abuse. *Beating* a child is something else again.

chrijeff50@hotmail.com on 2017-09-12 07:47:56

The fact that fewer kids are being spanked in my opinion accounts for the lack of respect kids have for authority, school shootings and all accounts and instances of violence and disrespect. I am sorry but previous generations who were disciplined by spanking have grown up to be more respectful and would never do some of the things todays kids are doing. My daughter was going with the no spanking theory. No matter what we did, the attention he got, talking explaining her son was just more and more obnoxious. Finally, she gave him a few swats on the bottom, Guess what, he now fears spanking where before he feared nothing, pitched fits when you took away privileges and would not stay in his room, in a corner or anything else. He is beginning to finally show some respect for authority. There are some children who are naturally obedient and do not need a spanking, but some do, because that is the only form of punishment they respect.

ladyluck152@yahoo.com on 2015-03-06 07:21:40

Call me ! ThomasHuskey@yahoo.com 757-746-3018 5310 York Circle, Newport News. 23605

thomashuskey@yahoo.com on 2014-11-04 17:45:06

My brother and sister were raped by our step dad ! And we were all beaten daily ! I personally have been diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder ! From the VA Clinic in Hampton, Virginia. I would be glad to talk to someone who may make some since of it all ! I'm 51 my sister is 52 and my brother is 49 ! I need to talk to someone ... "please" ...

thomashuskey@yahoo.com on 2014-11-04 17:39:30