Spank 'Em, Ground 'Em or Time Out?

Spanking five year olds may be linked to later behavioral problems

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) Using spanking for discipline with preschoolers is still a very common practice. But how, if at all, does it affect kids later on? A recent study found that there are some negative long-term effects, depending on who does the spanking and when.

Five-year-old children who were spanked by their moms, even once a week, had more behavioral problems four years later.

Meanwhile, 5-year-olds spanked frequently by their dads were more likely to have vocabulary problems four years later.

Spankings for 3-year-olds, however, did not appear to affect how children behaved when they were 9 years old.

"Seek other discipline options besides spanking."

The study, led by Michael J. MacKenzie, PhD, of the School of Social Work at Columbia University in New York City, looked at how common spanking was and how it appeared to affect children's behavior.

The researchers focused on 1,933 children who were involved in a long-term research study from 20 different medium and large US cities.

The parents of the children had been asked how often they spanked their children when the kids were 3 and 5 years old.

Then, when the children were 9 years old, the researchers followed up by assessing the children's behavior and "receptive" vocabulary skills.

Receptive vocabulary refers to how well children recognize and/or understand words that they see or hear.

In their analysis, the researchers took into account a wide range of other factors that might influence the children's behavior or vocabulary development.

These factors included the child's age, sex, birth weight, prenatal exposures (smoking, alcohol, etc.) and temperament at age 1, based on the mother's report.

The factors also included a wide range of family characteristics, including other children in the home and the mother's ages, race/ethnicity, education level, income, country of birth, upbringing, mental health and personality characteristics.

Among the children's parents, 57 percent of the mothers and 40 percent of the fathers had spanked their children at some point when the kids were 3 years old.

When the children were 5, just over half the mothers (52 percent) and a third of the fathers (33 percent) had spanked their children.

When the researchers looked at the behaviors of the children at age 9 — after considering the other factors — they found that children showed more "externalizing behaviors" if their mothers had spanked them when they were 5 years old.

Externalizing behaviors refer to various "acting out" behaviors, such as aggression, rule-breaking, hyperactivity, and throwing tantrums.

A greater number of externalizing behaviors among 9-year-olds whose mothers had spanked them existed even if the mothers spanked them less than twice a week.

Meanwhile, the 9-year-olds had poorer receptive vocabulary skills if their fathers had very frequently spanked their children when the kids were 5.

Frequent or infrequent spankings at age 3, from the mother or the father, did not appear to affect children's behavioral issues at age 9.

The researchers concluded that spanking is still quite common for young children but that it can have some negative longer-term effects.

"These results demonstrate negative effects of spanking on child behavioral and cognitive development in a longitudinal sample from birth through 9 years of age," the researchers wrote.

They suggested that more research should be done to find the best types of disciplines practices that lead to good outcomes for children and parents.

LuAnn Pierce, a licensed clinical social worker in Colorado, noted that spanking is a "form of violence" – it is hitting.

"It isn't surprising that many of the kids who were spanked demonstrated externalizing behaviors," she said. "What is surprising is that it isn't more consistent across age groups, regardless of who does the spanking."

Pierce said a person's instinct when hit is to hit back.

"Children who are stuck by adult authority figures are usually unable or unwilling to strike them back, so they lash out at others (externalizing behavior)," Pierce said. "When we are powerless at the hands of someone who is hitting us, regardless of the reason, we usually do something to regain control of our lives. This often results in bullying peers or talking back to other adults."

She said there are also possible explanations for why the other children who were spanked did not show externalizing behaviors.

"Some of us internalize our feeling/behaviors, meaning we keep those thoughts and feelings to ourselves," Pierce said. "Often people who internalize develop a different set of problems – they frequently become depressed, anxious and use food or other substances to self-soothe. These problems often follow kids into adulthood, according to many research studies."

She said it is possible, but rarer, to avoid any long-term effects from spanking.

"There are some who are spanked and do not develop extreme internalizing or externalizing behaviors, but they are usually in the minority," she said. "It is always preferable to use a form of discipline that teaches the child what you want him/her to do and avoid violence for the reasons stated above."

The study was published October 21 in the journal Pediatrics. The authors declared no conflicts of interest.

The research was funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the National Science Foundation and the US Department of Health and Human Services.

Review Date: 
October 20, 2013
Last Updated:
October 25, 2013