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Physical Punishment Does Not Improve Behavior, Study Finds

drawing of parent about to spank their child

Verywell / Nez Riaz

Key Takeaways

  • Physical punishment, such as spanking, worsens a child's behavior over time.
  • Children are negatively affected by spanking regardless of gender, race, culture, or parenting style.
  • Alternative discipline methods can improve behavioral outcomes.

Spanking children for misbehavior has been the discipline method of choice for many generations, across a myriad of cultures. In the U.S., physical punishment of children is still legal in the home in all 50 states and in public schools in 19 states. If it is still so widely used, is it really that bad? 

According to a new study published in The Lancet, physical punishment is not only harmful to children, it worsens their behavior rather than improving it. The results stand true across gender, race, culture, and parenting styles.

Furthermore, the study debunks common myths about spanking. Study authors hope to alter public policy on physical punishment against children as a result of their research.

“Parenting is incredibly challenging, but it is even more challenging if we keep doing things that research has clearly shown does not work and harms children," says Elizabeth T. Gershoff, PhD, the lead author.

About the Study

Countless research studies have been conducted on the topic of physical punishment over the past 20 years with differing results. This fact makes decoding the research challenging for parents, health professionals, and policymakers.

What makes this most recent study different is that researchers looked at more than 1,600 previous studies and selected those that examined physical punishment of children and followed up on the children afterward. They analyzed 69 studies to find the outcomes associated with physical punishment. The researchers found six main themes. Here is a closer look at their top findings.

Physical Punishment Increases Problem Behavior

Rather than improving behavior, physical punishment such as spanking can actually increase misbehavior over time. This misbehavior can include things like aggression, intentional harm to someone, defiant behavior, and anti-social behavior such as destruction of property, lying, and stealing. 

Kellie Syfan, MEd

Punishments increase avoidance behaviors, meaning that the person being punished will avoid the person who punishes them...and will do whatever they can to not get caught and avoid the punishment

— Kellie Syfan, MEd

Physical punishments don’t just have long-term consequences, explains Kellie Syfan, MEd, a behavior analyst. Short-term behavior also worsens, but it might not be visible to whoever provided the spanking.

“Punishments increase avoidance behaviors, meaning that the person being punished will avoid the person who punishes them...and will do whatever they can to not get caught and avoid the punishment,” Syfan explains. “This means that increases in lying and sneaking can occur.”

Physical Punishment Is Not Linked to Positive Behavior

Of the 69 studies reviewed, none of them showed improvements in a child’s behavior, attention, intelligence, relationships, social behaviors, or stress response. This means that despite claims that physical punishment is effective or that it can improve a child's behavior, the research does not support this claim.

Physical Punishment Increases CPS Involvement 

Parents who use physical punishment increase their risk of being involved with Child Protective Services (CPS).

“Parents [who use physical punishment] generally know the amount of force they are using and where they are using it, but there is always a chance that a hand or implement hits too hard or does not hit where it was aimed,” explains Syfan. “This means that in the moment, you may not know if what you are doing will be classified as abuse.”

Dr. Gershoff suggests that the line between discipline and abuse is so blurry that physical punishment should simply be removed as an option.

“We do have laws outlawing child abuse but deciding what is ‘acceptable’ hitting and what is ‘abuse’ is arbitrary,” says Dr. Gershoff. “It is a sad fact that U.S. law does not afford children equal protection from violence. While hitting an adult is called assault, hitting a child is called ‘discipline.’”

Physical Punishment Predicts Worsening Behavior

By looking at scientifically robust research that measured punishment and behavior at separate points in time, over an extended period, researchers were able to confidently say that physical punishment predicts worsening of behavior, regardless of any other factors. 

There is a common argument that it is poor behavior that leads to physical punishment, rather than physical punishment causing poor behavior. Researchers have concluded that this assumption is, in fact, a myth. They confirm that while children with challenging behaviors did experience more physical punishment, it still worsened their behavior. 

“In other words, yes, defiant and aggressive children do elicit more physical punishment from their parents over time, but physical punishment predicts a further worsening of child behavior. It is, sadly, a vicious circle,” explains Dr. Gershoff. 

Parenting Style Does Not Change Impact

Parenting style also does not alter the long-term negative effects of physical punishment. Children with warm and responsive parents still showed long-term behavior difficulties if they experienced physical punishment. Likewise, children who experienced physical punishment still struggled academically even when parents responded to their learning needs with additional support.

This research also debunked the “cultural normativeness theory” that suggests the effects of physical punishment are not as bad when the culture accepts this form of discipline as normal. Syfan explains that cultural upbringing is one of the main reasons parents continue to use physical punishment as a form of discipline.

“The way we parent is affected both by how we were parented and the culture of parenting we grew up around or choose to surround ourselves with now,” she explains. “Physical punishment is a part of that culture and can get passed down through the generations.”

Despite physical punishment being the norm in previous generations, this research shows that the harm caused by spanking exists regardless of race, ethnicity, or gender.

Frequent Punishment Worsens Outcome 

Researchers found that children who were hit more frequently showed more obvious issues in behavior and worsening academic results. Reassuringly, Dr. Gershoff says that when parenting strategies change to non-physical forms of discipline, children’s behavior can improve.

“There have been many parenting interventions that have successfully helped parents stop using physical punishment and, once they do, their children’s behavior improves and the parent-child relationship improves,” she says.

How to Improve Outcomes for Kids

Public Policy

Many countries around the world have banned the physical punishment of children. They succeeded by simultaneously running national parent education campaigns around the topic. As the first step in this country, removing physical punishment from U.S. schools is being considered.

Elizabeth T. Gershoff, PhD

Last month, a bill was introduced in the U.S. House and Senate to ban school corporal punishment—The Protecting Our Students in Schools Act—that does acknowledge the research consensus and would require all states to ban physical punishment in order to receive federal education funds.

— Elizabeth T. Gershoff, PhD

Currently, 19 states allow physical punishment in public schools. Private school physical punishment is only banned in 2 states.

“Last month, a bill was introduced in the U.S. House and Senate to ban school corporal punishment—The Protecting Our Students in Schools Act—that does acknowledge the research consensus and would require all states to ban physical punishment [in public schools] in order to receive federal education funds," says Dr. Gershoff.

At Home

Children typically mimic behaviors they see in the home. So, it's important that parents are mindful of their own behaviors and try to model what they want to see in their kids.

“Teaching children about why we expect certain behaviors—like sharing, taking turns, and being kind—and modeling them for our [kids] is the best way of ensuring children will engage in those behaviors in the future, including when parents are not around," Dr. Gershoff says.

If you have used spanking or hitting as a form of discipline in the past, it’s not too late to change. There are plenty of online parenting programs available that teach positive strategies for managing behavior. But remember, what works for one family, may be different than what works for another.

“There is no one perfect answer—it’s a combination of strategies that you will need to hone and refine to fit your family best,” says Syfan.

What this Means For You

As the study indicates, physical punishment comes at a cost for parents and children. If spanking is one of your discipline strategies and you want to make changes, having support is important. Here are some resources that you might find useful. 

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Article Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Global Partnership to End Violence Against Children. Progress towards prohibiting all corporal punishment in North America. Updated February 13, 2020.

  2. Heilmann A, Mehay A, Watt RG, et al. Physical punishment and child outcomes: a narrative review of prospective studies. Lancet. Published online June 28, 2021. doi:10.1016/S0140 6736(21)00582-1

  3. New York Times. In 19 states, it's still legal to spank children in public schools. Published December 13, 2018.