No Longer Up for Debate: Physical Punishment Causes Negative Outcomes for Children

Elizabeth Gershoff, Gail S. Goodman, Cindy L. Miller-Perrin, George W. Holden, Yo Jackson & Alan E. Kazdin

Introduction

A large body of research consistently links parents’ use of physical punishment, including spanking, to an increased risk of harm to their children. Children who are spanked are more aggressive, have more mental health problems, have lower cognitive ability, and have a higher risk for physical abuse than their peers who are not spanked. These research findings hold up across populations, settings, and cohorts. However, despite these research findings, the majority of parents and a substantial minority of psychologists continue to believe that spanking is effective at improving child behavior and does not have detrimental effects on children.

These beliefs are often not challenged by the media, which typically frames stories about spanking as a “debate” among researchers. Part of the difficulty of convincing the public, as well as some psychologists, that physical punishment of children causes harm is that it is unethical to conduct randomized controlled trials (RCTs) to study this issue. That is, it is unethical for researchers to randomly assign some children to be in a “hit” experimental group and others to be in a “not hit” control group.

RCTs are typically considered the gold standard of research evidence because they can demonstrate causality: in this case, that spanking or other forms of physical punishment is the direct cause of negative outcomes in children. But when experimental studies are unethical, are there other research approaches to apply to the body of evidence to conclude that a causal relationship exists between physical punishment and harm to children?

In this research brief, the authors apply standard criteria for establishing a causal relationship between physical punishment and poor outcomes among children. They review a large body of evidence that employs advanced statistical methods to tackle key questions that have dogged causal claims. One of these questions is whether children’s behavior problems are the consequence or the cause of physical punishment—do children with worse behavior get punished more, or does physical punishment cause a child to start behaving badly? Another key question is whether negative child outcomes have more to do with the characteristics of the parent or child—do the parents who use physical punishment have other characteristics, such as a lack of warmth, that account for children’s poor outcomes? The authors also explore the impact of racial and ethnic differences in the use of physical punishment, parenting style, and neighborhood quality to confirm that the findings are generalizable across contexts.

Key Findings

  • Research on physical punishment meets five standard criteria in the medical and social sciences for drawing causal conclusions.
  • A small but rigorous group of studies using statistical methods to approach causal designs have found physical punishment predicts increased risk of negative outcomes to children.
  • The outcomes linked to physical punishment such as spanking are the same as those linked to physical abuse, suggesting that both parent behaviors are on the same continuum of violence against children.
  • Links between physical punishment and negative child outcomes do not vary by race or ethnicity, parenting style, or neighborhood quality.

Policy Implications

The research linking physical punishment with harm to children is, with only a few exceptions, consistent across dozens of studies and has been replicated across a range of study designs and methods. Therefore, it is time to end the so-called debate about the efficacy of physical punishment: spanking and other forms of physical punishment do not benefit children and instead cause them harm. The message to policymakers, psychologists, and parents is clear: it is time to implement multiple strategies to end this outdated parenting practice (see Box).

Gershoff brief box

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Reference

Gershoff, E.T., Goodman, G.S., Miller-Perrin, C.L., Holden, G.W., Jackson, Y., & Kazdin, A.E. (2018). The strength of the causal evidence against physical punishment of children and its implications for parents, psychologists, and policymakers. American Psychologist 73(5):626-638. doi:10.1037/amp0000327.

Suggested Citation

Gershoff, E.T., Goodman, G.S., Miller-Perrin, C.L., Holden, G.W., Jackson, Y., & Kazdin, A.E. (2018). No longer up for debate: Physical punishment causes negative outcomes for children. PRC Research Brief 3(12). doi:10.15781/T22R3PG2X.

About the Authors

Elizabeth T. Gershoff (liz.gershoff@austin.utexas.edu) is a professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences and a faculty research associate in the Population Research Center, The University of Texas at Austin; Gail S. Goodman is Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Director of the Center for Public Policy Research at the University of California, Davis; Cindy L. Miller-Perrin is Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Pepperdine University; George W. Holden is a professor of psychology at Southern Methodist University; Yo Jackson is a professor of psychology at Pennsylvania State University; and Alan E. Kazdin is Research Professor and Sterling Professor of Psychology & Professor of Child Psychiatry (Emeritus) at Yale University.

Acknowledgements

This work was supported by grant P2CHD042849 from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. This article is based on a report written by the authors for the Task Force on Physical Punishment of Children sponsored by APA Division 7: Developmental Psychology and APA Division 37: Society for Child and Family Policy and Practice.


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