The case against spanking

The Liberals have committed to repealing the ‘spanking law’. Overwhelming scientific research says it’s long overdue, says an expert.

Father disciplining toddler. (Sandro Di Carlo Darsa/PhotoAlto/Getty Images)

Father disciplining toddler. (Sandro Di Carlo Darsa/PhotoAlto/Getty Images)

Does conceiving, giving birth to or raising a child give you the right to hit another human being? Under Canada’s current laws it does. However, among the 94 recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which the Liberal government has committed to follow, is a repeal of the “spanking law.” Currently, this law allows parents and caregivers in Canada to use force to discipline a child.

Supporters of the practice claim spanking is not only safe, but the parent’s prerogative to hit a child. Giving a child a whack for misbehaviour is, after all, a time-honoured tradition still used in households across the country. But this opinion, typically rooted in personal experience, is not supported by science.

There is, to the contrary, overwhelming evidence that Canada should join the 48 countries and regions around the world that already ban spanking, from Sweden in 1979 to Benin, Peru and Ireland in 2015. Not one major study has provided evidence that spanking is beneficial for children. Instead, hundreds show findings to the contrary: the practice is associated with a large range of negative outcomes for those subjected to it.

Two decades of research provide clear and conclusive evidence that spanking is not safe. Indeed, hitting as a disciplinary measure can result in injuries such as bruises. Moreover, it’s not even effective. Spanking a child actually increases the likelihood of behavioural problems such as aggression and delinquency. Kids who are spanked are more likely to do poorly in school. Spanking also increases the likelihood of mental health problems and disorders such as depression, anxiety, alcohol misuse, drug problems and suicidal thoughts.

The practice is also related to increased odds of suffering from heart problems, arthritis and obesity. Notably, these poor outcomes have been found among individuals who were subjected only to spanking, hitting or slapping and did not experience more severe physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse or neglect.

In some families, spanking may unintentionally escalate to more severe physical violence. Parents can become angry in the moment or when a child stops responding to milder forms of hitting, the hits get harder and injuries become more severe, including broken bones and head injuries.

So why are we still having this debate?

The most common argument for spanking boils down to “I was spanked and I turned out okay!” If this was your experience, you’re fortunate. However, it’s important to remember this is not the case for everyone. Many kids are spanked and they suffer—both as children and sometimes as adults.

Spanking has been a part of parenting for generations. This doesn’t make those who’ve relied on the strategy bad parents. We just didn’t know better. But in light of the demonstrated harms, we need to change our parenting behaviour. And the truth is, many non-physical positive parenting strategies are effective in correcting unwanted behaviour. It’s possible to guide and shape children without the risks linked with spanking. Warmer and closer relationships with our kids are created with positive parenting approaches that reward wanted behaviours. Simply stated, there is no reason to ever spank a child.

Many countries, including New Zealand and Costa Rica, and other regions have already banned spanking. Regrettably, Canada has been slow to respond to the science. Making the practice illegal is not meant to punish or criminalize parents, but rather to change our thinking and shift social norms, in pursuit of a non-violent society. Most important, banning spanking is necessary to protect our children. Like adults, children have the right not to be hit.

The Liberals should be commended for committing to repeal the “spanking law” in response to the recommendations of the TRC. Canadians need to make educated decisions based on evidence and not on worn-out opinions. As a nation, we need to comply with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child that prohibits spanking. And we need to love and protect our kids and give them the best chance to live up to their potential. Hitting has no role in achieving that goal.

Tracie O. Afifi, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the departments of community health sciences and psychiatry at the University of Manitoba. She has expertise in child abuse, family violence and mental health. She holds Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) New Investigator and Foundation Scheme awards.

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The case against spanking

  1. This article is very disappointing. Just saying that “research” has shown something is bad isn’t helpful. Why not cite some of the research? Give some evidence for the points made? Some of the links (harsh parenting and aggression is children, for example) have been demonstrated quite convincingly. Others (spanking leading to arthritis, obesity, etc.) are weak correlations that do not rule out factors associated with poverty and social disadvantage. The issue has been on the agenda for decades, with little progress in changing the Criminal Code. Now is the chance for media outlets like Mclean’s to tackle this, and make the case for or against the proposed changes. How about more effort from you.

  2. Non zero sum games. Parenting is one of these. There is no test you can perform to perfectly evaluate this. It may have been worth looking into, but the people who look at these numbers and draw conclusions clearly have no understanding of uncertainty. It makes for good click bait though. It got me in here to make a comment.

    Spanking is not the only way. If you have perfect patience, perfect timing and perfect execution, you can easily avoid spanking. If you have spanking in your arsenal, it can be quite effective used at the right time. You can also apply spanking in such a way that it is worthless and worse than worthless outright damaging.

  3. Another “expert” trying to get some print space. Spanking and abusing children is not the same. How many children fall on their bud and how many get these after affects?

  4. Funny, I’ll read an article tomorrow asking why teenagers and young adults are so disrespectful and wont listen to anything anyone of authority says. Further research will then show, none of these kids were spanked or disciplined in any way due to research supposedly saying discipline is bad. The research will also show these people learned nothing because there was no repercussion for there actions other then being told “you can’t do that”.

    • Maybe you should also interview the kids who were spanked and find out about the humiliation, disappointment, shame and fear they experience from being spanked. Time to wake up and realize the Earth isn’t flat anymore and that spanking is counterproductive.

      • Why is it that the only children I see slapping their parents are children who have never been spanked? Canada does not need a law prohibiting spanking. Most parents are not spanking. We have children who are spoiled and violent toward other children and they have never been hit by their parents. They have been completely coddled. In fact, universities have to call a meeting of parents and inform them that they cannot call professors or attend campus to advocate on their adult children’s behalf because their children are now adults. We have children who show no respect to one another or to adults. My daughter got space in a day home for her daughter because they had to dismiss a child who would not stop biting other children. The parents of the child refused to take action to stop their child from biting others. My guess is that these professors have never done a study on depression rates of children who have never been spanked. They are not happy people. They are bullies who have no friends. I witness my 6 year old niece slap her father in the face. She has never been spanked by him. She had no fear of him or anyone else. I guess she will learn in the playground when she hits another child who is bigger who is just like her that has no fear of reprisal and is bigger than her.

        • Since you prefer anecdotal evidence to research, here’s some supporting the other perspective. When my son was little there was a kid that I disliked having over for a playdate. His parents used punitive, harsh measures to regulate his behaviour, and it worked…so long as they were within view. The minute they disappeared out of view the kid sprouted horns and a tail. (this was confirmed by other parents as well who had dealt with him). Another kid whose parents were harsh had a reputation as a keptomaniac. I could go on and on.

          You object when a child slaps a parent out of frustration, but if an adult slaps a child for the same reason this is acceptable, even preferable. Adults are supposed to be the ones with superior verbal and emotional skills, not the kids.A parent’s role is to confer the same skills to their children as they grow. They do not instantly become mature and emotionally competent with a slap, they become fearful and sneaky. The kid learns when and by whom he will get hit, and then plans his misdemeanors accordingly. This is how bullying often starts.

          • Your anecdote proves nothing because you use an example of a child who by your description is a victim of “punitive, harsh measures” from parents who are would be assessed as abusive. Generalizing that every parent who uses their hand to swat their child on the bum is guilty of child abuse is like generalizing that every parent who hugs their child is guilty of sexual assault. As for suggesting that a six year old doesn’t have the skills to verbalize her frustration and thus should be excused for slapping her father in face is ridiculous. This child is not a toddler. She sits in a classroom a school each and every day. She abuses her father because she can. If she continues it, she will one day be guilty of elder abuse.

          • Gage G:
            You’re using a flawed argumentation technique: extrapolating to an irrational extreme. You’re assuming a child who hits her father will absolutely escalate to elder abuse someday.
            You failed to address the key point of why you think a parent can hit a child, but not vice versa. You also equate “not spanking” with “no discipline whatsoever”. There are other ways to promote good behaviour and stop bad behaviour. It’s harder work (intellectually) for the parent than just giving in to the urge to hit someone who is annoying you though. Maybe that’s why child abuse correlates with education level.
            As for a 6 year old not being a toddler well she isn’t one,,but only just barely. There’s no magic transition that happens. In fact that comment makes me wonder if you actually have kids. And I think the father would rather he be the one who gets a slap than one of her schoolmates. I saw time and again that the kids the teachers had their eye on continuously were the ones with the tough talking parents.
            Oh, and the punitive harsh measures were not physical abuse, but unfair emotional punishments for rather typical misbehaviours for a certain age group. It falls into the same category as hitting someone to punish bad behaviour.

  5. Why doesn’t the Liberal government mandate exactly what foods parents must serve their children for meals? Surely there are studies that indicate what kids should be eating. Then the Liberals can mandate what time parents should put kids to bed. There are studies indicating how much sleep kids should get every night. Then the Liberals should mandate what time kids should be inside, or haw about how much time they should be allowed to spend watching TV. There’s studies for that too. Then the Libertals can mandate what colour the kids’ clothes should be . . . What nonsense. They call themselves “liberal”, but they are more intrusive than any government has a right to be.

    • The government isn’t “mandating” anything. It’s abolishing a law.

  6. I think “non-violence” is a lofty ideal that we should all strive for. But this involves much more than just not spanking children. If our country really believed in non-violence, we would not need a police force, and the military would only be for humanitarian purposes. Excessive use of flesh for food would be put away, as it is violent to animals and a large contributor to the global problems of climate change, environmental devastation, extinction of species, and health problems. The “violent use” of courts would be abolished, so there would be no high paid lawyers, nor the loophole of the rich oppressing the poor through the instigation of court cases that the poor can’t afford. Violent games and movies would be replaced with non-violent media that promoted love and service to others as the ideal. Corporate monopolies to take over or squeeze out the little guy would be abolished. The system of usury (interest) would be abolished, and loaning would be done on a good-will basis. Farming out work to poorer countries where workers are taken advantage of would be abolished. And on, and on. In short, it would be have to be heaven on earth, which most people would not like at all.

  7. Singapore has one of the lowest crime rates in the world they where ranked 79th in the world where Canada is 51 time higher, they are ranked 10th in the world for crime ? Singapore uses the cane and very rigid punishments and it works ! our system obviously doesn’t work !!! but the clown PM and his band of bozo’s want to change the spanking laws, how this clown got elected is beyond belief ! and then there are the wall builders to the south of us ! The USA had 351 mass murders this year alone ! enough said

  8. The Liberal party isn’t against abortion, but it’s against spanking. That just doesn’t feel right, and I don’t expect the changes to be helpful. How can you turn a blind eye when a parent wants to abort their own child, but zone in on spanking? What’s their real motive for repealing this law? I would love to hear something more substantive. This whole discussion is superficial if we don’t address the root issues of people’s motives for spanking, how they do it, and the relationships parents have with their own children. Spanking isn’t always abusive. It just sometimes is. We already have laws against violence toward people who are born, but we don’t have laws against violence done to unborn children. If the motive for changing this law is concern for children, wouldn’t that concern extend to those who aren’t born yet? I would love to hear where the Liberal’s real concern is rooted.

  9. Never spanked my kids, not even once…..but I always wondered about Churchill and his generation who won two world wars and constituted the so called “ Greatest Generation“: wern`t those guys canned into submission regularly in all of those elite boarding schools in England….yet they ruled the world for 2 centuries, and the individuals went on to accomplish more than a few things…most of them did not go on to become: serial killers, depressed basket cases, or end up in Sing Sing, Alcatraz, or Rikers Island.

  10. Imagine the following scenario:
    You’re at the busiest intersection in town. It’s rush hour and the traffic is heavy. Scores of pedestrians are at the intersection. Suddenly a three year-old child darts into the intersection, into the oncoming motor traffic. Brakes screech; horns honk. Everyone is frozen in panic. One man rushes over to the child, pulls him to safety on the sidewalk, then gives the child a smack on his bum. The child cries loudly.
    Question: Who was that man?
    Answer: The man was the child’s father. Everyone else at the scene just stood there in silent shock.
    Question: Why did the father strike the child?
    Answer: Because he loves the child and wants to teach him that darting into oncoming vehicle traffic
    is dangerous and he shouldn’t do it again,

    The (normal) child will learn two things from this experience: (1) He shouldn’t dart into traffic; and (2) his father loves him

    • Weirdly, I didn’t have to beat my children in order to teach them not to run into traffic.

      And if anyone should be beaten, it’s the father that allows a three-year-old to run into traffic in the first place. Apparently that would teach him that we love him and not to allow his three-year-old to dart into traffic.

      • Tresus Capax:
        You neatly side-stepped the scenario! For whatever reason, the child DARTED INTO TRAFFIC!
        Blaming the father is irrelevant. It happened in a split second!
        The point I was trying to make is that the child needs to be forcefully taught that he did something dangerously, even life-threateningly, wrong which must not be repeated.
        What would you have done in the scenario I outlined?

        • “You neatly side-stepped the scenario!”

          Uh, it’s an invention of your imagination. There’s nothing to “side-step”.

          “For whatever reason, the child DARTED INTO TRAFFIC!”
          Well no.
          A three-year-old darting into traffic is entirely the fault of his parents or guardian. A three-year-old isn’t old enough to be trusted not to run into traffic.

      • The biggest killer of young children is accidents. The only rule parents enforce is seat belts and car seats because it is the law. Everything else is up for negotiation. Children are not being spanked or disciplined. Kids refuse to hold their parent’s hands and they do run into traffic. What exactly do you think a parent who has no right to discipline a child can do about it? Parents don’t want to spend time with these children because they are obnoxious. Parents expect nannies and then the school system to raise their children. That is why childhood psychiatric disorders are soaring…conduct disorder and oppositional defiant disorder.

        • I’m not sure what you’re trying to say.
          If it’s that a parent isn’t responsible for preventing a three-year-old from running into traffic you’re absolutely wrong.
          And if you really can’t imagine a way to prevent a child from running into traffic without beating him or her, I truly hope you’re not a parent.

          • I never said a parent is not responsible for the safety of their child. I only said that few seem to want to upset their children by insisting that their children hold their hand when approaching the car, etc. Parents do not seem to want to set limits that upset their children and perhaps are naïve that accidents can and do happen. I know one can raise a child without spanking. It involves a lot of attention and a wiliness to correct behavior on a consistent basis. I am a parent and now a grandparent. I am really glad that part of my life is past. There was nothing worse than watching a child physically bully my child and other children at a party while the parents appeared oblivious. It is fine if one wants allow their child to hit them but it is really not okay to let them hit other children….and no I didn’t beat my kids.

          • I still don’t understand why you responded to my comment.

            People don’t want to “upset their children by insisting that their children hold their hand”, and parenting is difficult, so some people who can’t be bothered with all the “attention” should be allowed to spank?

  11. “One who spares his rod hates his child; but he who loves him disciplines him in his youth.”
    —Proverbs 13:22.
    Yes, I know the Bible is ancient and outdated. But the Book of Proverbs was written by King Solomon, traditionally considered the wisest person that ever lived.
    I, for one, think that the wisdom of King Solomon is still relevant today!

    • This article seems to have obfuscated some of the key elements of this story. Why does the repeal of the spanking law come at the recommendation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission? Some context might be useful here as this will likely speak to the actual application of the law (ie. justification of abuse by government appointed guardians against children, as was the case in the residential schools). Also, the writer conflates two differing perspectives on the government’s ruling on spanking. It is one thing to repeal a law that permits spanking. It is completely another to enforce a law that “bans” spanking. The whole notion of banning spanking is smuggled into this story by the writer (and people in this comment’s section seem to have fallen for the sleight of hand). My sense is that the repeal has more to do with confronting some of the shadier aspects of Canadian history and less to do with an absurd attempt by the Liberal government to legislate on child-rearing. Honestly, I was surprised to find this as a regular article, as it reads like an editorial from a writer with a very particular agenda. Was this in the editorial section of the magazine? It’s hard to tell when reading online.

  12. This is not an article on the status of science on spanking; it is an advocacy article. The article makes all of the standard advocacy fallacies in spades. First, smear tactics by associating with other negative things, such as referring to spanking as “a parent’s prerogative to hit a child” and “Giving a child a whack”. Second, present the other side via strawman arguments: “The most common argument for spanking boils down to “I was spanked and I turned out okay!” ” Third, assert that you have all of the science and they have none: “Not one major study has provided evidence that spanking is beneficial for children.”

    The first problem is that the very definition of spanking. Are we referring to beating a child bloody, whipping them with a belt, slapping them across the face, or putting them over your knee and lightly slapping their bottom? The outcomes of those at the beginning of this list will have nothing to do with the outcomes at the end of the list; these are just not comparable types of spanking. Most of the science is with the early part of that list, not the latter part.

    Dr. Diana Baumrind of the University of California, a psychologist known for her classic studies of authoritative, authoritarian and permissive styles of child-rearing, has said the studies cited by opponents of corporal punishment, Dr. Baumrind contended, often do not adequately distinguish the effects of spanking, as practiced by nonabusive parents, from the impact of severe physical punishment and abuse. Nor do they consider other factors that might account for problems later in life, like whether parents are rejecting or whether defiant or aggressive children might be more likely to be spanked in the first place.

    The arguments for spanking are not, “I turned out ok”. One argument is that young minds are tuned to learn by physical association and don’t have the cognitive capacity to understand via other means. That is, all animals — including humans — are wired to associate physical responses to the actions that caused them; if you touch something hot on the stove and get burned, you associate the stove with hot things as stop touching them. Light spanking is a version of this process with reduced physical harm.

    For example, we don’t want our children to run into the street and get killed. A small child is incapable of understanding a reasoned explanation for that potential harm, and they can’t learn by trial and error because those errors kill them. Either you must physically restrain them in a stroller, carrier, or leash, or they must associate running into the street with some physical harm.

    Another response is the process of listening to authority, particularly parents when you are young. To this day I recall a conversation I had with my father when I was 5. I was rarely spanked, but if I was it was always over the knee and a few light whacks on my bottom. One day I was play-wrestling with my father and he grabbed me and put me over his knee and spanked me exactly as hard, and we were both laughing and laughing. This wasn’t the first time we did this play wrestling. He asked me how come I laughed when he spanked me while wrestling but I cried when he spanked me when I did something wrong.

    That’s when I first realized it wasn’t about causing harm, but about obedience, rules, submission, and knowing I did something wrong. If the spanking was in that context, I cried because I knew I did something wrong, disobeyed, and I would be made submissive and it was demonstrated to me that I wasn’t the one in control, that I had to follow the rules. When it was in a different context — wrestling — the same physical process was fun. It was just as big a whack on my bottom, which generally hurt less than most physical play I’d do at that age anyway, particularly ending up with scraped knees and arms from climbing, jumping, running, falling, and so on.

    I’ve looked through the science. I see essentially nothing that addresses light spanking on bottoms, physical association, or authority-submission response. Most of it lumps all forms of spanking together and tends to look at the more extreme versions of hitting that are borderline physical abuse. Contrary to the article, there is science suggesting value of spanking, for example: Marjorie Gunnoe, “Associations between parenting style, physical discipline, and adjustment in adolescents’ reports”, Psychological Reports 06/2013; 112(3):933-75, found children spanked before age 6 grew up happier and more successful. I don’t know that this is *good* science or repeatable, but such science does exist.

    More importantly, none of the science I’ve seen on this topic controls at all for heritability. That is, they are simple correlations between spanking and later physical aggressiveness of the child. It may very well be that genetic sources for aggression are what lead the parent to spank (particularly the more aggressive types) as well as the child, and there is no actual cause and effect. In fact, a large meta-analysis in Human Genetics by Polderman et al., “Meta-analysis of the heritability of human traits based on fifty years of twin studies”, suggests that parenting style, including spanking or not, has negligible effect on any measurable behavioural, personality, or habits of people. One identical twin brought up in a spanking household is no more aggressive on average than the one brought up in a non-spanking household. Adopted siblings of the same age brought up in the same household are no more similar in behaviour later on than strangers brought up in separate houses, regardless of spanking or no spanking. Genetics and *unshared* environment roughly split the causal factors; shared environment of home has virtually no effect.

    Note that this study suggests that spanking is neither good nor bad; it simply has no effect either way. I find that position the most convincing of all, both from the above study and from many psychologists in this area including Dr. Diana Baumrind (mentioned above), Dr. Elizabeth Owens, Dr. Murray Straus, Dr. George Holden, and Dr. Robert Larzelere have all spent the time to separate the mild spanking from the extreme and abusive and all agree that there is little evidence it has any real negative effect, or perhaps any significant positive one either.

    Please don’t tell us the science is single-sided or even in your favor here. It most certainly is not. The best science appears to suggest mild spanking is inconsequential in long-term development, and if it serves a short-term purpose to stop a dangerous behaviour, it is a legitimate tool.

    • I doubt most people who were spanked would share your experience of “a few light wacks” that made you laugh in another context.
      But you certainly made the case that spanking is unnecessary. If the spanking was done to communicate that you had done something wrong and not to cause you pain, there’s no shortage of ways to communicate that without hitting.

  13. We certainly live in a topsy-turvy world.
    We live in a society that generally accepts abortion (feticide) on demand as a woman’s right to choose.
    Yet here we are debating whether the spanking of a child should be outlawed.
    There’s a disconnect here. What’s going on here?
    Perhaps the difference is that in the case of abortion, the victim is no longer alive and therefore is no longer a cause for concern and is basically forgotten.
    Whereas with spanking, there is concern about the short and long-term effects on the victim.

  14. The only one that needs a severe spanking is PM Buttercup.

  15. Now, I’m really confused. Spanking in Canada has essentially been outlawed since the Supreme Court of Canada outlawed spanking except for trifling amounts in 2004. At that time there were so many restrictions mandated as to make it almost impossible to do. So why are we talking about this now? Oh that’s right, because the leftist ideologues want it 100% there way – no exceptions. Sort of like some of the environmental laws in the USA where farming one’s land is impossible if it would harm a rare bug or some such thing. Btw, when it was legal to do so, I spanked all 3 of my kids. All are peaceful, respectful and productive citizens. The research is nonsense.

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