Is Spanking Effective to Change Child Behavior?

A topic that often comes up in discussions about raising children is that of spanking as a behavior modification strategy. This is especially the case when parents are raising a child with more challenging behaviors than the average child.

In my experience, most parents report they have used some type of physical punishment, such as spanking, for what they consider to be more extreme behaviors; but have done so infrequently.

Most professionals do not recommend punishments such as spanking when dealing with child behaviors, and a recent study illustrates the ineffectiveness of this strategy. Researchers at Southern Methodist University used video recordings of 33 families during evening routines across 4-6 days (Holden, Williamson, & Holland, 2014). They found that most instances of spanking occurred during routines such as eating dinner or giving children a bath. Noncompliance with rules or instructions given by parents led to 90% of the spankings given. There was an average of 30 seconds between when the parents first attempted to discipline the child and the parent spanking the child. Finally, in the vast majority of these incidents the children engaged in misbehavior again within 10 minutes of receiving a spanking.

This study illustrates what I have found to be true in clinical practice: physical punishment, such as spanking, is not an effective strategy for improving behavior in children. As a parent and professional, I certainly understand the frustration and emotion that can lead parents to try the strategy of spanking. We all have moments when our kids are hitting on our last nerve – we are worn out and don’t feel like we have the energy or resources to deal with one more issue! However, resorting to spanking doesn’t solve the problem; and as this research shows it generally leads to continued misbehavior.

There are many strategies that are more effective, and the simplest thing to do in these moments is give everyone a “time out” from the situation and each other. Putting some space between parent and child can help everyone calm down and approach the situation in a more rational way. As a parent, if you find yourself resorting to spanking often out of your own frustration and emotion, give yourself a time out and step away to gain a moment of perspective. Often when you can take a brief break to breathe and think, you will come back to the situation able to manage it in a more effective way. It can be difficult to step away; but it can mean the difference between solving the problem effectively, or staying stuck in a repeating loop of child misbehavior and physical punishment.


Holden, G.W., Williamson, .A., & Holland, G.W.O. (2014). Eavesdropping on the family: A pilot investigation of corporal

punishment in the home. Journal of Family Psychology, 28(3), 401-406.

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