Spare the Rod… Healthier Child?

Spare the Rod… Healthier Child? July 9, 2012

From USA Today, but of course not all agree (by the way, I recommend William Webb, Corporal Punishment in the Bible, if you want to see someone take on this issue with some hermeneutical finesse):

Children who are spanked, hit, or pushed as a means of discipline may be at an increased risk of mental problems in adulthood — from mood and anxiety disorders to drug and alcohol abuse, new research suggests.

Although it is well established that physical and sexual abuse, emotional neglect, and other severe forms of maltreatment in childhood are associated with mental illness, this is one of the first studies to show a link between non-abusive physical punishment and several different types of mental disorders, says epidemiologist Tracie Afifi, lead author of the study in today’s Pediatrics.

“There is a significant link between the two,” says Afifi, an assistant professor of epidemiology in the Department of Community Health Sciences at theUniversity of Manitoba, Canada. “Individuals who are physically punished have an increased likelihood of having mental health disorders.” Approximately 2% to 7% of mental disorders in the study were linked to physical punishment, she says.

The study’s findings add evidence to the argument that “physical punishment should not be used on any child, at any age,” she says.

Parents’ right to use physical punishment has been abolished in more than 30 nations, but not in the USA or Canada, says the Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment, endorsed by the United Nations and others.


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  • Peter F.

    You could make the case that 93 – 98% of mental disorders are due to not spanking.

  • Kenny Johnson

    We spanked my son. It’s been rare though. And now I’m even less likely to spank. I’ve raised my voice to him many times — which I almost always regret and apologize to him for it. It seems that more and more studies seem to suggest that spanking is not healthy. So because of that, I’m trying to abstain. Luckily, we have a pretty well behaved son who (usually) listens, so there’s not usually even the need for discipline of any kind (other than reminders and warnings).

  • Studies like this live to paint a black and white picture, but things just aren’t black and white. Every moment of punishment, regardless of form, is painful. That we live in a world where any punishment is necessary is a sad sad truth. In the end doesn’t it come down to the parent’s motives an attitude? It seems like any kind of punishment which is carried out with a vindictive or angry spirit by an embarrassed or self centered parent will likely lead to emotional/mental disorders. this kind of parent typically resorts to physical abuse in their anger and fear, but couldn’t the isolation of an angry time out, or withholding of rewards for breaking a rule that a child for not understand be even more painful than a quick swat on the but?

    I’m not a parent and don’t plan to spank, hit, push, or otherwise abuse my children, but it seems to me that there are times when love demands a quick distribution of positive punishment for the protection of one who will not heed a more deliberate approach. It would need to be a last resort, an outpouring of last ditch love to save a child, and contain no amount of anger or vindictive motives. I’m thinking of things like a toddler defying a parent’s calls to stop and running into the street.

    Does there come a point when love demands that a child who can’t understand the situation must be helped to feel the seriousness of the potential consequences?

    I’ll use my dog as an example. He’s a Vizsla (Hungarian Pointer) and is bred to hunt birds with his nose. He LIVES to run fast, explore the forest, and follow his nose. He is a dog that needs to run for an hour everyday and needs to be free to use his nose. But he is also bred to love people an has an ingrained need to be near you. He is emotionally sensitive, but also stubborn and headstrong. I read books and studied dog training online for countless hours. Ive listed to days worth of podcasts and went to puppy school with him dozens of times. I did it all as best I could, but I still couldn’t teach him to come when called reliably. I followed all the positive reinforcement protocols, rewarding him with treats and play and love. Still, when his nose took over or when he saw that turkey run off the path ahead he was gone. He always came back a few minutes later and never ran away, but I feare for his safety. If it was a rattlesnake or a rabid raccoon he chased next time, or I’d the deer ran across the nearby highway he could be killed. Though many hunters use shock collars I had resisted, taking the high road of positive reinforcement only. The trainers i read called them barbaric, but fear for his life led me to finally get one. Sure I could keep him on a leash for the rest of his life, but to run and sniff and hunt is embedded in his soul.

    I got the best collar. I researched, read, took a class, and took it slow. The initial introduction was painful for both of us, but now as I look back that little but of punishment was the best thing for him. He is now obedient, yet free. He runs joyously through the woods, but knows enough to listen when I ask him to leave the rotting carcass or hissing opossum. He comes happily when called, gets a scratch on the head or a game of tug and then runs back into the undergrowth.

    But now, when they see the collar on him, people tell me all the time how they need to get one for their dog because he doesn’t listen. They ask me where I got it, etc., and I’m torn inside whether I should answer. So many dogs have been harmed physically and emotionally by owners who react angrily because they are embarrassed by the fact that their dog doesnt listen. Many would use this tool to cover their own insecurities while enslaving their dog to fear instead of using it to free and protect their dog.

    Some call for shock collars to be banned. For some people they certainly should. I would imaging that the statistics would show that owners who try to solve behavior problems with punishment have dogs with far more aggression issues, but in the end the issue isn’t the methods or the tools, it’s the hearts of the people that yield them. Legislation can never bring about justice for everyone. It will protect some and damn others. NiaJust the way it isand the reason the word of God, lived by those who follow Christ is so importan

  • phil_style

    Irrespective of the health reasons, what is the moral justification for hitting? why do parents exact violence on children?

    I can think of a few reasons for the use of physical force generally:
    1. Corrective smacking, To provide instant negative consequences of bad behavior. This is effective in the short term, but human brains are very quick to disassociate the “correcting violence” from the real consequences of negative actions. Soon enough the correcting violence will seem to be arbitrary.
    2. Hitting/ smacking in order to punish. I don’t really get “punishment” without any other end., as though somehow bad behavior deserves pain in some kind of karmic quid pro quo. This kind of thing smacks [pun intended] of arbitrariness to me, is hard to justify and is comparable to a vengeful attitude. Reprehensible in my book.
    3. Forceful Restraint. This I can understand. Puling a child away from a dangerous situation, and/or physically baring them from causing harm to others. But hitting is not involved here. An adult employs their greater physical strength in order to PREVENT harm, not to inflict any.

    Are there other reasons to hit a child?

    I was smacked as part of my childhood discipline. I love my parents, and they disciplined my in the way that has been going on for generations. I would never consider it abusive or extreme, but I do think it was unnecessary. I intent to not use violence as a corrective or retributive tool on my children, not just for health reasons, but for moral ones.

  • Sorry for the crazy iPhone induced typos and the fact that I accidentally published before I was done. : )

    I think that I would stand with phil_style (#4) in saying that physical hitting is most likely never appropriate. I see the collar (as I use it) as being more analogous to a long invisible leash than an omnipotent flying fist. To physically restrain in a way that communicates the seriousness and potential consequences to one who cannot understand the situation or lacks the experience to know realize why they should not do what they want to do does seem to be different than arbtrarily tying a physical punishment to an unrelated situation.

  • I wonder how they’re drawing the line between non-abusive spanking and physical abuse. For instance, it may not qualify as abuse, but a parent capriciously spanking their child to satisfy a momentary wrath- one could avoid the label of “abuse” for this, but it might have the detrimental effect that the article points to. I wonder if there’s a way of truly separating those with a wrathless, redemptive attitude and application of the spanking that are being labelled as “non-abusive.”

    I wonder this because I firmly believe much spanking comes from a failure to discipline, not over-discipline; the parent is detached and allows bad behavior to persist to the point where it’s not simply tolerated, it grates on the parent’s psyche until they lash out. People doing this are still able to classify what they’re doing as “disciplinary” or “non-abusive” but it’s certainly very far from loving, authoritative, true discipline.

  • Kenny Johnson


    I would hope that any physical force I used with my son was either #1 or #3. However, as I’ve said… my son is 5 and I think I’ve spanked him… maybe… 10 times in his life. Generally though, we’ve used other corrective measures most often. He’s been in pre-school/day care since he was 2 so he understands “time-outs.”

    But generally he listens, behaves, and is even pretty good about asking permission before doing something so discipline isn’t usually even necessary.

  • Spank? Yes.
    Push? No.
    Hit? Never.

    Agree with the earlier comments that the context in learning how each of these categories are defined is essential to establishing the true value of the study.

  • Brad Davis

    I have concerns about any form of physical or corporal punishment (including spanking), but I think the study is being misrepresented in the media. The study does not show that occassional spanking causes increased risk of mental disorders. It found a correlation between “harsh physical punishment” and mental disorders. Only 5.9% of the study’s repsondents were classified as having experienced “harsh physical punishment” and therefore being at increased risk for mental disorders. Other studies have shown the prevalence of any physical punishment (usually spanking) to be 50% or higher. Most of the respondents who were classified as having received “harsh physical punishment” likely experienced more than occassional spanking.

  • John Inglis

    I agree completely with the comments about the attitude and goals of parents.

    Proactive parenting (positive reinforcement, natural consequences, modelling, teaching, etc., etc.) takes a great deal more work than simply spanking when things get to out of hand or annoying, or even using spanking as a formal part of the discipline process.

    I also agree that much depends on what is meant by “spanking”. My version of spanking invovles an immediate quick swat with the hand on the butt through the layers of clothing. Very different from the classic “woodshedding”. My use of it was not only very rare, but also restricted to very particular circumstances and basically ended when my children became verbal. In most cases, I afterward saw other ways of resolving the issue, but my being human (limited and also sinful) got in the way of realizing the availability of alternatives at the time or of having prepared my child and me better before the circumstance arose.

    I very much disagree with the Dobson school of spanking, and I seen no support at all in the Bible for spanking. Spanking may be useful, but it’s no more “biblical” than using a spoon (also useful) at dinner is biblical.

    That my kids are routinely called “excellent well-behaved polite kids” justifies to me the belief that spanking is not necessary during the raising of children. On the whole, I think that the western world would be a better place if all countries in it banned the spanking of children (like Sweden).


  • Patrick


    Proverbs has several suggestions about whipping your kids. Even if we want to ignore it, it’s still there. It seems “biblical” to whip your children tempered by love and wisdom when they deserve it.

    So, the authors of this article and Proverbs have 2 opposing views of the value of whipping kids:

    Prov. 13:24, 19:18, 22:6,15, 23:13-14, 29:15-17

  • john o

    I have to agree with Patrick. I don’t spank my kids out of a preferred form of correction, but rather it seems Scriptural commanded. Several others have already mentioned attitude, but that seems to be an issue with any form of corrective actions. True discipline is time intensive and a humbling act that reminds me of my sinfulness before God. It serves not only to prevent harmful future behavior, but also a chance to present the Gospel message in basic form.

  • Aaron

    Patrick – the old testament also commands parents to put their children to death if their children curse them. Exodus 21:17

  • Tom F.

    Partrick, Proverbs 13: 24 comes in a couplet; the point is that not disciplining a child will lead to “spoiling”, as is demonstrated by the second part of the couplet. It seems a bit of an overread to say that “whipping” is required by the verse. 22:15 is the same.

    I think you cheated a bit with the Proverbs 19 passage, it doesn’t say anything about the means of discipline. Likewise with 22:6. You’d think with accusing people of “ignoring” scripture that you would be a bit more careful to not ignore what is actually in those other verses.

    In any case, it’s not like we have to get that literal with other Proverbs sayings. Litterally, look just one verse back in verse 23, before the famous 13:24.

    “An unplowed field produces food for the poor,
    but injustice sweeps it away.’

    Is our means of caring for the poor absolutely tied into leaving fields unplowed? Would we be unjust if the poor in America have no access to unplowed fields? Could a case be made that modern economics dictates that having all fields plowed actually means more food for the poor? My guess is that you will probably take a pretty flexible interpretation of that verse.

    So it is with verse 24- Is our means of discipline for children absolutely tied to “a rod”? No. Would we be unjust if no child was ever hit? No. Could a case be made that modern psychology dictates that no children should be hit, because not being hit actually leads to more flourishing of children? Yes. And if you don’t buy this argument, than I have trouble seeing how you are going get around the fact that the poor in our country have no access to fields. And thus, my friend, YOU are ignoring Proverbs 13:23.

  • Mark h

    I was spanked as a child. Never pushed, never hit, but spanked. I think im okay

    I spanked my children. Never pushed, never hit, but spanked. Never when angry. I think theyre okay

    My daughters don’t spank, hit, or push. They do discipline.

    Isn’t that the point.

  • Amos Paul

    I have several…


    with much of this politcally oriented ‘research’ about spanking…

    “While the new study rules out the most severe cases of physically lashing out at children, , ‘it does nothing to move beyond correlations to figure out what is actually causing the mental health problems,’ says Larzelere (of Oklohoma State University, Stillwater). He criticized the study’s reliance on memories of events from years earlier, and says it’s not clear when punishment occurred. ‘The motivation that the child perceives and when and how and why the parent uses (spanking) makes a big difference. All of that is more important than whether it was used or not.'”

  • Amos Paul
  • Tom F.

    Amos, I posted a bunch of longitudinal studies last time this came up, don’t you remember? Yes, this study is correlational, and it gets critiqued for that reason in the original article Scot posted.

    I agree with the author of the WSJ article that you posted in this much; the effects of spanking are likely to be small. But in fact, the research he mentioned by Berlin strongly supports the main hypothesis: spanking young children predicts increased amounts of later aggression, and underlying aggressiveness does not itself lead to more spanking. In short, Berlin is a non-correlational study that showed that spanking was harmful. That’s a big deal.

    It also lowers intelligence just slightly: the WSJ article says that as well.

    This is huge, and not really fair: for so long, the main criticism was “its all correlational, where’s the longitudinal data?”. When it finally gets here, the response is now…well, it doesn’t hurt intelligence THAT much (according to the first article you posted). Huh?

    I tried to look up the Gunnoe article mentioned (in the second article you posted) that suggests that spanking might benefit kids, but it is not available publically or on my school’s (albeit limited) journal subscriptions.

    I don’t undestand what you mean by “politically motivated”? You mean, some researchers might believe that spanking is harmful and want to study it to see if that turns out to be right? Why would that disqualify their research? Would it be politically motivated to believe that spanking is helpful and want to study it? Assuming Gunnoe is a pro-spanking researcher, should I dismiss her research because it was “politically motivated”?

    What politics is involved here? Is spanking on the Republican or Democratic platforms? I don’t understand.

  • ab

    to all those who cite the OT as justification for hitting your child with an object (I am sorry but that is exactly what “spanking” is– if you did it to an adult it would be punishable by law as assault)…. when will you stone your disobedient children to death? Deuteronomy 21 tells you to, right?

  • Elaine

    Some Christians point to Hebrews 12:5-6 which says “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he scourges everyone he accepts as a son.” They point to the word “scourges” and say that this is the same kind of scourging Paul received when he was beaten, or the same kind of scourging Jesus received before he was crucified.

    There are two ways you can take this passage, literally and metaphorically. If you take the passage literally, you are saying that you believe that each child should be physically scourged and beaten in the same way Paul and Jesus were. Those beatings often resulted in a severe bleeding and bruising for the recipient. I don’t believe that those who advocate spanking would say that children ought to receive this kind of scourging, which would be physically damaging to the child. So we must conclude that this passage is used metaphorically.

    There are many creative and effective ways of guiding children toward right behavior without spanking. Since the New Testament is based upon disciplining with grace, spanking would not be in harmony with New Testament teaching – ”Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.” Eph. 4:2; ”if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted.” Gal. 6:1.

  • Jesse

    I have a 14-month old who I’ve begun spanking (with my hand, through layers of clothing and cloth diapers) when he insists on doing things he knows he is not allowed to do. So far, that includes messing with the buttons on our entertainment stand and playing in the dog’s water bowl. I also flick him in the mouth on occasion when he screams at the top of his lungs out of frustration (wanting more food, not being permitted to do something he wants, etc.). This is coupled with positive reinforcement consisting of some sign language, and the early stages of trying to use words (he was a preemie so he’s a bit behind developmentally), etc. As my son progresses in his ability to communicate verbally, I will likely use flicking/spanking less often, but I doubt I will do away with it altogether.

    I was spanked on occasion as a child and that was pretty much the primary form of discipline for me. Granted, I was a good kid.

    The study seems flawed and, in my opinion, skewed. There’s a great deal of difference between spanking, hitting, and pushing. Lumping the former one in with the latter two doesn’t make a great deal of sense…seems to me to be a move motivated by one’s distaste for any physical punishment rather than the actual effects of specific forms of punishment. Additionally, as was brought up, little attention seems paid to potential other causes of mental illness. Besides, the opinions of those participating in the study on the value of physical punishment seems likely to have an effect on how they answered researcher’s questions tying those experiences to their own mental troubles. And 2-7%? At that point it just seems like a wash, given the other shortcomings.

    On a more humorous note, one of my best friends is a pastor’s kid and he tells me that when he was spanked as a child, his parents would follow the punishment with a bit of prayer. I always found that funny.

  • Tom F.

    Jesse- I would seriously reconsider physically disciplining your 14 month son. Even spanking advocates would be unlikely to recommend punishing a child that young. Your son does not have the cognitive capacities to understand why you are hitting him. You need to be the parent and adjust the environment so that he can’t get in trouble. Yes, children this young can be “willful” but its just frustration; they don’t have moral categories that tell them that whatever they are doing is wrong. Without those categories, your child is simply experiencing being hit. He may know he is doing something that you don’t want him to do, but that is different than doing something wrong. Until at least 2 (and this is being really generous here), this is a really, really bad idea.

    Look, its clear from these posts that I’m not a fan of spanking, but whatever, it probably isn’t too awful if it is done sparingly at later ages. But seriously, please don’t hit a child that young. Don’t take my word for it; go look up what people who do spank say about this. You will find lots of very conservative, very pro-spanking people who will tell you this is not a good idea. Please, please, you can ignore everything else I’m saying, but please stop hitting a child that young. Please…

  • Jesse

    Thanks, Tom. I’m reading up on this now…not finding much by way of refraining from spanking until 2 (most are either for/against, but little by way of when to start from those who are for) except a few people’s opinions – just regular moms and dads. So far that line seems to be arbitrary.

    Any suggestions on articles?

    I should note that I haven’t an interest in dying on the hill of spanking. I can be persuaded to parent without it if the argument is compelling enough. Its too early – and I’ve spanked/flicked my son only a few times – to be able to determine if it’s effective for curbing his behavior.

    So…persuade away!

  • Tom F.

    Okay, Jesse, I’m no expert, but here’s what I would say based off what I do know.

    1.) Dr. Dobson, an arch-conservative on these matters, suggests no spanking until 18 months. And he looooves spanking. You can read what he thinks in Dare to Discipline.

    2.) Your 14 month old is exploring, and exploring means running into places he shouldn’t go. But the child has only the most rudimentary of ways of thinking about what is forbidden. They can (probably) understand that you don’t like it when certain things happen, and they can understand that bad things happen to them when they do things (like falling and other sorts of natural pain). But there isn’t a category of “wrong” yet (around 2-3 years old according to most developmental literature). So any discipline is simply the exercise of force until moral categories develop. And one of the big things that impacts children’s perception of spanking is the meaning that the ascribe to it. Is my parent spanking me because I they care about me and don’t want me to do something wrong, or because they are arbitrary. At 14 months, children simply have very little capacity to make meaning of that sort of physical intrusion, and so you are rolling the dice on what his little brain is going to do with that experience.

    3.) What I would suggest is simply enviromental modification. Your child wants to explore, and will be frustrated if exploring is ended. I would suggest a two-fold strategy: until a year and a half to two years old, you mostly want to control the environment so that he can’t get in trouble. Maybe literally raise the TV off the ground. Once he begins to be able to speak, you can guide his exploration of the TV (or whatever else) in a way so that he can’t break anything, and but make it clear that this sort of exploration is only something you can do together. Moral categories make sense to introduce now. Other sorts of behavioral consequences at this age can be really helpful too, and so is verbal explanation: you don’t want him to break it!

    In the meantime, when he starts fiddling with thing he shouldn’t on his own, physically move him away from those objects. They have such short attention spans anyway, its possible that he will forget. And if he doesn’t, he will associate touching those things with being physically moved in a way that is momentarily frustrating to him (and thus he learns), but it is not physically painful. Also, he doesn’t associate any part of you with physical pain that way either.

    Look, the studies show that most parents end up spanking their 2-3 year old toddlers at some point. And toddlers can be extremely frustrating sometimes! Ideally, I would want to see it not used at all, but the realistic option is probably just making sure all other disciplinary options have been completely exhausted, so that its a very rare occurrence in the life of the child.

    But hey, I don’t have a kid, just a few child development classes, so take all this with a grain of salt. You know your kid, and ultimately only you know what will work. Maybe your kid doesn’t mind being flicked, and that’s effective for him. But on average, with the typical kid, I think that its not a good idea.

  • Elaine

    Tom F.,
    Great points!

    Parents who are dedicated to avoiding spanking (or no spanking) are able to find many other options for guiding and punishing. IMO, if a parent cannot outwit their infant or child the shortcoming is the parent’s not the child’s.

    I sincerely hope that the parents of young children reading here will heed your advice to study child development. Parents don’t know what they don’t know. Children simply are not physically unequiped to do things many parents expect.

  • B

    Children are not dogs or any other animal, and should not be compared to them. They are precious children, and its the job of parents to lead, correct and above all, love and protect our kids.
    The problem with this article is “Spare the rod… ” The Rod is to be used to lead, guide- like a shepards staff- it is not meant for beating and hitting sheep, its for extending out to touch the shoulder of the sheep and usher them the way the shepard means for them to move. I agree with Elaine too (i did not read all the comments) that if you can’t get creative and spend a little time finding ways to direct and lead your kids then that is your problem not theirs.
    The Bible says the Rod and Staff COMFORT me. Being hit brings NO comfort, no matter how lovingly its done. In fact, for someone to say they hit me because they love me? I think they are crazy and absolutely abusive.