For many parents, the idea of spanking their child is abhorrent. And yet, about a quarter of parents do it—despite a pile of evidence that it’s the wrong approach.
Mike LeSauvage remembers exactly when he decided that he wasn’t going to spank his kids anymore. His son and daughter, aged three and five, were bickering in another room. He hollered for them to come and see him—planning only to give them a talking-to—and when his son entered the room, his eyes were fearful, his hands were on his behind and he was standing as far as he could from his dad. “I saw myself as I appeared to him: an angry, powerful and terrifying man,” says LeSauvage, a Canadian father who is currently living in Leonardtown, Maryland. “I didn’t like what I saw.”
Spanking had been part of LeSauvage’s parenting toolkit up to that point. After all, he’d been spanked as a kid growing up in northern Ontario. He still remembers the day his mom discovered all the household’s wooden spoons hidden under his mattress—he had stashed them there so they couldn’t be used to administer a whack.
And so, starting when his kids were around three, spankings were the occasional punishment for behaviour like reaching for the stove or tearing up a book. Over time, though, he admits that he was spanking less as a deliberate disciplinary strategy and more out of anger, and as often as several times a month. He started feeling crappy about it. “I was trying to tell myself that this was the right thing, even though I felt, deep down, that this is not how you should leave another human being,” he says. “You shouldn’t hit them, walk away and leave them crying. I would look to my wife for reassurance and we’d say ‘We’re doing the right thing, right?’”
For generations, spanking was “the right thing.” Although its popularity is on the decline and completely verboten in some parenting circles, it continues to be a discipline go-to for up to 25 percent of Canadian parents, according to the International Parenting Survey.
But here’s the problem: A mountain of research says that spanking simply doesn’t work as a disciplinary tactic and actually puts kids at higher risk of aggressive behaviour, depression and anxiety. And, as LeSauvage discovered, spanking can also leave parents feeling terrible and affect their relationships with their kids.
Despite the consensus from medical organizations like the Canadian Paediatric Society and the American Academy of Pediatrics that spanking is not OK, it’s still happening and still being debated. Consider, for example, the uproar over NFL player Adrian Peterson’s child abuse charges for a spanking that got out of hand (“switching” his four-year-old son by using a tree branch to hit his bare legs because that’s how he was disciplined as a child in Texas). Or the headlines when Pope Francis said it was “beautiful” hearing that a father didn’t hit his child in the face when he smacked him because it preserved the child’s dignity.
Here’s what to keep in mind when you’re making up your mind about spanking.
1. Spanking raises the risk for problems now and later
“The more you’re hit, the more likely you are to be aggressive,” says Joan Durrant, a professor in the department of community health sciences at the University of Manitoba who has studied the effects of spanking for 30 years. “Children who are spanked are at greater risk of bullying others and using aggression as a way of solving problems and conflicts.”
This doesn’t mean that all children who hit become aggressive or that children who are never hit are never aggressive. “But by spanking, we only raise the risk of negative outcomes, and we don’t know who is going to feel those negative outcomes until the harm has been done,” says Durrant. “It’s a very risky thing to do. It’s like how we used to drive around without seat belts.”
Many studies have looked at the effects of spanking, but it’s difficult to understand the results because spanking was often lumped in with more violent, clearly abusive forms of discipline, such as slapping and punching. In 2002, Elizabeth Gershoff, a professor of human development and family sciences at the University of Texas at Austin, conducted a meta-analysis that carefully analyzed all the previous studies that had been done. The result? “We found that spanking doesn’t improve any aspect of children’s lives and, in fact, is linked to negative outcomes,” she says. “Spanking is linked to more mental health problems, more behaviour problems, more problems with children’s relationships with their parents and more problems with how they do in school.” In another meta-analysis published in 2016, Gershoff and a colleague looked again at spanking research—dozens of studies over 50 years and involving 160,000 kids, excluding data about spanking with an object like a wooden spoon this time—and found the same results.
Recent Canadian studies back up these findings, too. A 2016 Quebec study of nearly 1,700 kids found that those who were spanked when they were three years old were more likely to be physically aggressive (like hitting, biting, kicking, reacting aggressively when teased or being accidentally hurt by another kid) by age five and to have behaviour problems (like stealing, lying or breaking their own or other people’s stuff). Researchers at the University of Ottawa published findings in 2017 that looked at more than 5,500 kids over a two-year period and found that those who were spanked when they were two and three years old were less ready for school (in terms of vocabulary, math and literacy skills) when they were four and five. In this case, physical punishment was a risk factor that often worked in tandem with other parenting behaviours, such as being less likely to read with their children and less likely to explain why their behaviour was a problem.
2. Spanking doesn’t work the way you want
Even if you were willing to roll the dice and hope that your kiddo wouldn’t be negatively affected by spanking, evidence shows that spanking isn’t effective at making kids behave right now or preventing them from misbehaving in the future. “Children who are spanked are not more likely to be compliant in the short term or long term, so they are not learning how to behave differently in the future, which is our long-term goal as parents,” says Gershoff, a mom of two. “We want kids to make good choices when we’re not around, but spanking isn’t making that more likely.” And while most studies rely on self-reporting, consider this small 2014 American study by noted spanking expert George Holden where 15 moms wore digital audio recorders for six evenings: When they spanked their kids, 73 percent of the time the kids were misbehaving again within 10 minutes.
Véronique Bergeron, an Ottawa mom of nine kids (yep, nine!) aged three to 21, is another former spanker. She did so with her oldest four kids but eventually realized that spanking made her feel like she was a toddler, reacting in frustration. She still gets the urge to spank during chaotic moments, but she doesn’t give in and tries to look at the bigger picture (chances are, she says, her kids are acting out because they need to run around at the park before dinner).
“When we hit our children, no matter how good the reason seems to be, we use the love and trust that bind us to our children against them,” says Bergeron. “We play on their natural fear of losing our love and affection and use it against them.”
3. There’s a reason why spanking often makes you feel bad
Bergeron’s toddler comparison is apt: While some parents may calmly and rationally decide that it’s time for a spanking, for many others, it’s born of frustration. “Practically every parent has had the urge to spank because of that feeling of a lack of control that comes with raising young children,” says Durrant, a mom of one. We have an almost primitive gut response to that feeling of being out of control and feeling blocked in our goals, and it can quickly elicit aggression, she says. “Often, spanking is an impulsive thing that comes from our brains reacting to that sense of near desperation in the moment,” says Durrant. “When we do that, we often feel really awful afterwards. We snap back into our rational-thinking brains and realize that isn’t what we intended to do. Guilt and regret are very common among parents who spank their children.”
What if you never spank out of anger? If you only do so once you’ve calmed down as a deliberate discipline strategy? “It doesn’t seem to make a difference to the child’s experience,” says Durrant. “It’s not going to be positive.”
4. Culture doesn’t protect kids from the effects of spanking
There’s a theory that spanking is less detrimental in racial and cultural communities where it’s common practice. “The idea is that spanking should have fewer negative consequences and be less traumatic because children accept it,” says Gershoff. She tested the idea in two different ways: by talking to families in six different countries outside of North America in the first study and by talking to white, black, Latino and Asian-American families in the United States in the second study. The results? “The more children were spanked, the more aggressive they were,” she says. “We didn’t see any evidence of cultural normativeness as a kind of buffer. If it was true, you would see a decrease in negative effects or an increase in positive effects, but we just didn’t see that.”
In some cases, people might feel hesitant to talk about spanking with immigrant parents when spanking is part of their culture. Jean Tinling is the director of family programs at Mosaic Newcomer Family Resource Network, a community organization in Winnipeg that offers services for new Canadians, many of whom come from countries where physical discipline for kids is par for the course. Mosaic offers a peer-to-peer program where a mentor who speaks the same language visits the home of a family who is new to Canada to talk about parenting goals and forms of positive discipline, such as timeouts. “We don’t tell anyone how to parent; we talk about how hard parenting is for all of us,” says Tinling, who is also a master trainer for the Positive Discipline in Everyday Parenting program. “No matter what the cultural group, when we ask about long-term goals, people want kind, responsible, independent kids.”
5. Canada has specific laws on spanking
While about 50 countries around the world have banned spanking, it’s actually legal in Canada under certain conditions. Under Section 43 of the Criminal Code, sometimes known as the “spanking law,” parents can use force to correct a child as long as “the force does not exceed what is reasonable under the circumstances.” That law dates all the way back to 1892.
In 2004, the Supreme Court of Canada upheld a challenge to that law but also set out a series of “judicial limitations” that are not incorporated into the Criminal Code. The rules: Only parents can spank; you can’t spank kids under two or over 12; kids who are incapable of learning from spanking (such as kids with certain disabilities) can’t be spanked; you can’t spank with objects (such as belts and spoons); and no blows to the head are allowed. You also can’t spank with the intent to harm.
Canada’s spanking law might be on its way out, though. In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) recommended revoking section 43 in its final report, and the federal Liberal government promised to implement all of the TRC’s calls to action. So far, though, the spanking law is still on the books.
LeSauvage still feels bad about spanking his kids, who are now 10 and 12, and his son continued to be scared of being spanked for a couple of years after it stopped. Today, though, his kids don’t even remember being spanked. They’re nice, normal kids, and he is the fun, loving dad he always was. “There are still times when I’m hugging them and there’s this moment of pure love and trust and I think ‘How could I have ever raised a hand in that way?’’’ he says. “I’m glad I stopped when I did.”