Disciplinary Spanking
Many parents use spanking as a form of discipline, and spanking can be an effective teaching tool when used in an appropriate manner. Pediatricians should be able to present parents with the scientific information on this topic and provide specific guidelines to use the tool effectively, while avoiding abuse.

Parents recognize the unique joys of happy, well-behaved children and desire to have the parenting skills that will support that outcome. Effective discipline requires both affirmation (praise for right behavior) and correction. When verbal reprimands, “time-out,” or positive reinforcement fail to correct the child’s misbehavior, parents must resort to other corrective measures.

  1. Historically, disciplinary spanking has been a very common corrective practice in the United States and elsewhere.
  2. Ninety-four percent of Americans reported spanking their 3- and 4-year-olds at least occasionally (based on interviews of a nationally representative sample of 991 parents). (1)
  3. More than four out of five Americans who were actually spanked by their parents as children say that it was an effective form of discipline. (2)
  4. There is no evidence indicating that ordinary disciplinary spanking of preschoolers causes aggression or adult dysfunction. There is also good evidence that it does not.
  5. Disciplinary spanking and physical abuse are very different, though they are often lumped together as “corporal punishment.”
    • Disciplinary spanking
      1. The Act: Spanking, consisting of one to two open-handed swats to the (padded) buttocks of a child
      2. The Intent: Training, to modify behavior
      3. The Attitude of the Parent: Love and concern
      4. The Effects: Mild physical and emotional discomfort, behavioral correction
    • Physical abuse
      1. The Act: Physical assault, including to beat, punch, choke, etc.
      2. The Intent: Violence, involving “physical force intended to injure or abuse”
      3. The Attitude of the Parent: Anger and malice
      4. The Effects: Significant physical and emotional injury
    • “Spanking bans” are not supported by scientific research.
      1. In the only scientific consensus conference on corporal punishment, cosponsored by the American Academy of Pediatricians (AAP) in 1996, it was concluded that a spanking ban was not supported by relevant scientific evidence. The conference consensus statements included precautions about corporal punishment, but did not recommend a spanking ban.(3)
      2. The subsequent AAP position statement condemning all spanking went against the findings of its own consensus conference and was based on personal opinion regarding spanking.
  • Because most parents occasionally use appropriate spanking, pediatricians should discuss guidelines for disciplinary spanking to ensure parents avoid disciplining in anger and causing significant physical and emotional harm.
  • Parents who choose to use disciplinary spanking should be supported rather than condemned.
  • Pediatricians can help educate parents and dispel the myth that ordinary spanking of preschoolers causes harm.

There is no evidence indicating that ordinary spanking of preschoolers causes aggression or adult dysfunction. There is also good evidence that it does not.

Research reveals that it is how a parent uses the disciplinary method more than the actual method used that determines its effectiveness. The parent-child relationship is the key to success in discipline.

Little quality research has been done on disciplinary spanking specifically. The best research has favored its use in certain settings.

University of California Berkeley, Baumrind Study: A study by two research psychologists of families with children aged 3 to 9 years over a 10-year period. (4)

Identified three parenting styles on a continuum of behavioral control: Authoritarian (little nurturance, excessive limit setting, and spanking), Authoritative (much nurturance, firm limit setting, and moderate spanking), Permissive (some nurturance, little limit setting, and rare spanking), See “Conversation: Discipline” for additional information and resources.

Findings: Most favorable child outcomes were found when parents balanced firm control (including disciplinary spanking) and positive encouragement (authoritative parenting), Permissive parents were more likely to report attacks of rage over their child’s misbehavior, Children of authoritative parents were the most socially responsible and self-assertive, Corporal punishment was effective and harmless, The total pattern of parental control determined the effects of the disciplinary responses.

Quotes from the press release (5):

“Her study of spanking in middle-class, white families was undertaken in response to anti-spanking advocates who have claimed that physical punishment, by itself, has harmful psychological effects on children and hurts society as a whole. These claims, Baumrind said, have not distinguished the effects of occasional mild-to-moderate spanking from more severe punishment, or taken into account such confounding factors as earlier child misbehavior and the effects of total child rearing patterns …”

“The study separates out parents who use spanking frequently and severely—resulting in evidence of harm—and focuses on those families who occasionally spank their children, a practice that Baumrind calls normal for the population sampled.”

“Occasional spanking does not damage a child’s social or emotional development, according to a study of long-term consequences in the lives of more than 100 families.”

”… a blanket injunction against [spanking] is not warranted by the evidence.”

Conclusions of meta-analysis of 9 relevant studies on spanking, including the only 4 randomized control trials (RCT) of spanking. (6)

Concluded that child outcomes of physical punishment were only more adverse than those of alternative disciplinary tactics when spanking was overly severe (such as beating up a child or striking the face or head) or was the primary disciplinary method.

Identified optimal type of non-abusive spanking as a backup measure when a child responds defiantly to milder disciplinary techniques such as time-out (based mostly on research of 2- to 6-year-olds). Under these conditions, spanking led to less noncompliance or antisocial behavior than 10 to 13 alternative disciplinary techniques.

Conclusions of meta-analysis of 14 spanking studies. (7)

“The strongest causal evidence against customary spanking seems to be due to residual confounding because behaviorally difficult children cause parents to use all disciplinary corrective actions more frequently.” (6)

A meta-analysis by Lazelere and Kuhn referenced in the above article also found “that spanking could be more effective than alternatives when it was used nonabusively to back up milder disciplinary tactics when 2- to 6-year-olds defiantly refused to cooperate with them.” (6)

Guarendi Study: A study of 100 families of outstanding students (State Teacher’s Association had teachers select the most outstanding students). (8)

Seventy percent of these “excellent” students’ parents used spanking in child rearing; most used spanking between 18 months and 6 years.

Spanking was neither the main method nor a desperate intervention. The occasions when spanking was used: Dangerous behavior, Deliberate disobedience, Disrespectful behavior.

In randomized clinical field trials studying time-out, the spank procedure was:

One of the two most effective back-up procedures

Preferred by mothers, i.e., most practical

This timing of the conversation is dependent on the age of the child. Ideally, this could become part of a yearly discussion with parents, 
This conversation involves the parents of the child.

At a well child check around 12 months of age, begin the discussion of discipline/teaching with parents.


Ask parents if there is anything they tell their child “no” about yet and what type of discipline techniques they may have already used.

Discuss that these early years (especially from about 18 months to 36 months) are the most crucial time for consistent discipline/training because this is when the foundation is established.

However, during these early years it may seem like you are not making much progress with training. Being consistent through this time is vital. Think of it as a retirement savings plan: you keep faithfully investing and eventually down the road you will reap the benefits.

Expect that your child will test the limits—this is a normal part of development. Keep focused on the eventual goal of raising a respectful and responsible child. Keep in mind that it is often a child’s desire to draw out the process and wear down the parent.

During the early toddler years, it is vital to be very consistent with what you tell your child “no” about. Use a firm, lower voice and have a serious expression on your face so your child will know it is not a game. Redirection is usually helpful at this young age. However, when redirection is not working for something that you have clearly established as a “no-no,” putting the child in a playpen time-out for 1 to 2 minutes is usually a good option.

Around 18 months to 2 years, disciplinary spanking can be a very helpful disciplinary technique, if parents choose to use it. Mention that even though spanking is controversial today, most parents in America choose to occasionally spank, and dispel the myth that ordinary disciplinary spanking is harmful to children. (Giving the “Meeting the Challenges of Parenting” handouts from acpeds.org, which includes a handout on spanking, is helpful for many parents; also refer them to goodparent.org if they have further questions about spanking.)

Basic guidelines to discuss with parents who want more information on disciplinary spanking:


Spanking is most needed from 18 months to 3 to 4 years when available methods are limited and when reasoning is ineffective. The need should begin to decrease after 6 years of age, when reasoning and consequences (privilege removal and even fining) are more effective.


Be proactive; plan ahead. Don’t spank impulsively or reactively.

Forewarn the child of the spank consequence for the particular offense.

A few swats to the backside. (Spanking should not leave more than transient redness of the skin and should never cause physical injury.)

Spank in private.

Loving embrace and review of the offense—the message is “I love you. Your behavior was inappropriate.”


When milder methods of correction fail (such as disapproval, physically holding, logical consequences, and time-out), spanking can be very effective if properly administered, especially with the younger child.

Disciplinary spanking can be very helpful to enforce primary measures (such as time-out). See the “Time-out” handout at http://www.acpeds.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/Time-Out1.pdf.

Dangerous behaviors, such as running into the street or touching an electrical outlet

Deliberate and persistent problem behaviors

Disrespectful behaviors

Carefully assess your child’s physical, mental, and emotional developmental ability before using any method of correction. Children with special needs or developmental delay will need individual assessment to determine the methods of discipline that are appropriate for them.
infoParents who are unable to complete this assignment should be monitored carefully for their ability to separate and/or differentiate themselves from their child and eventually their ability to appropriately set limits for the child.
  1. Straus MA, Stewart JH. Corporal punishment by American parents: national data on prevalence, chronicity, severity and duration, in relation to child and family characteristics. Clin Child Fam Psych. 1999;2:55-70.
  2. Consumer Research Poll, National Values. Commissioned by the Family Research Council; 1994.
  3. Friedman SB, Schonberg SK. Consensus statements. 1996;98:852-853.
  4. Baumrind D. Rearing competent children. In: Damon W, ed. Child Development Today and Tomorrow. San Francisco, CA. Jossey-Bass; 1989:349-378.
  5. McBroom P. UC Berkeley study finds no lasting harm among adolescents from moderate spanking earlier in childhood. http://berkeley.edu/news/media/releases/2001/08/24_spank.html. Published August 24, 2001.
  6. Larzelere RE, Cox RB, Smith GL. Do nonphysical punishments reduce antisocial behavior more than spanking? a comparison using the strongest previous causal evidence against spanking. BMC 2010;10:10.
  7. Larzelere RE, Kuhn BR. Comparing child outcomes of physical punishment and alternative disciplinary tactics: a meta-analysis. Clin Child Fam Psych. 2005;8:1-37.
  8. Guarendi R. Raising Good Kids: Back to Family Basics. Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division; 2011, https://www.amazon.com/Raising-Good-Kids-Family-Basics/dp/159276777X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1467053011&sr=8-1&keywords=Raising+Good+Kids%3A+Back+to+Family+Basics.
    1. Den Trumbull, MD, reviews recent research on the risks and benefits of disciplinary spanking and has other very helpful information on child rearing, goodparent.org.
    2. Handouts from the American College of Pediatricians (ACP) on discipline (http://www.acpeds.org/health-professionals/handouts):
      • Meeting the Challenges of Parenting
      • Time-Out
      • Childhood Tantrums and Whining
      • Guidelines for Disciplinary Spanking
    3. ACP position statement “Corporal Punishmentand ACP “Corporal Punishment Policy,” (http://www.acpeds.org/the-college-speaks/position-statements/parenting-issues/corporal-punishment-a-scientific-review-of-its-use-in-discipline)
    4. Recommended books for parents on discipline/training: