This is the fourth in a series of weekly blog posts addressing discipline and parenting practices. In this series, we will explore reasons that parents choose among discipline approaches, the science behind those techniques, and alternative approaches to discipline.
By Gail Goodman, PhD (Director, UC Davis Center for Public Policy Research)
Why do we have children? It could be to bring more love into our lives. Or maybe it’s just because we slipped up one night while in a passionate embrace. Of course, there are many other reasons as well. Some parents are just kids themselves, some are single without another adult for support, some are poor and in great need. Personal situations can make life more difficult, for sure.
Even in the best of circumstances, parenting is super hard work and takes tremendous patience. When we have so many other concerns in life – a bad day, self-doubts, problems at work, or no work at all, not enough money, a rotten neighborhood, or drug addiction – and then we add in a child who is misbehaving, it is tempting to give the child a smack. After all, that was done to most American kids growing up, and most everyone says “I turned out fine,” or “I deserved it,” or “It was better than being yelled at.” And many religious and cultural ideas suggest that kids actually need a good hit. But let me tell you what the research shows: Spanking does not achieve our parenting goals.
In the end, we hope for well-adjusted children who are moral, happy, and loving. To achieve this, children need acceptance, love, and support. Physical punishment does not lead children to feel accepted, loved and supported. John Bowlby (1982) and Mary Ainsworth (1989), in their work on attachment theory, got it right. They emphasized the importance of a positive parent-child relationship for children’s mental health and well-being.
According to attachment theory, important parts of the child’s brain are highly activated under conditions of threat (e.g., separation, physical assault). Spanking is a condition of threat. Even in infancy, the child’s “attachment system” essentially “asks” the following fundamental question: Is the caretaker nearby, accessible, positively responsive, loving, and attentive? If “yes,” the child will feel loved, secure, and confident, and, behaviorally, is likely to explore and learn, to have empathy, to be a leader, and to be sociable. Most parents likely agree that those are good things.
But if the answer is “no,” the child first feels scared, rejected, and then angry, and is likely to develop anxious or avoidant tendencies, be more immature, have lower self-esteem, experience more trouble learning, and to exhibit worse mental health. The child is less likely to feel empathy for others, less likely to be a leader, and less likely to be sociable. This anxious or avoidant response is associated with what we call “insecure attachment.”
Spanking is significantly related to insecure infant attachment1, probably because the answer to the question above is “no.” Ideally, you don’t want any “no’s” because a negative is much stronger than a positive. As Baumeister and colleagues (2001) put it, “Bad is stronger than good,” meaning negative experiences in life have a more lasting effect and are remembered better than positive experiences. Children are just forming their impressions of themselves and others, so negative things, like a whooping, can have a whopping negative effect.
These early attachment relationships follow us into adulthood2,3,4. The attachments we have with our own parents affect how we raise our children. Parents’ attachment insecurities (as assessed by self-report scales) are associated with heightened use of physical punishment inflicted on their children5. Theoretically, the parent’s attachment insecurities relate to the parent’s own childhood experiences.
When a child is distressed, avoidant parents (e.g., ones who are uncomfortable with close emotionally intimate relationships due to their own childhoods) become less supportive, more likely to hit. We can see that tendency even in doctor’s offices when children are getting shots6 or before and after invasive medical procedures7.
Research confirms that positive parenting has much better outcomes than physical punishment or than other negative approaches, like belittling kids8,9. Using physical discipline with children sets many up to have trouble in school, to have problems with authority figures, to act out aggressively toward others, to be prejudiced and depressed, to take drugs or alcohol to self-medicate, and to build psychological (if not real) walls for emotional defense10,11.
Positive child outcomes are more likely when parents refrain from using physical punishment and other negative parenting practices, and instead treat their children with warmth, reasoned communication, and nurturing. Studies find that this type of positive parenting can foster positive psychological outcomes, such as high self-esteem and cooperation with others, as well as improved achievement in school.
See, for example:
Parents can be brave and bold—Take a positive approach, even if it means going against how you were raised. Children will be more cooperative and better off, parents are likely to be happier, and the world will finally be a kinder place.
Ainsworth, M. D. S. (1989). Attachments beyond infancy. American Psychologist, 44, 709-716
Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Finkenauer, C., & Vohs, K. D. (2001). Bad is stronger than good. Review of General Psychology, 5, 323-370.
Bowlby, J. (1982). Attachment and loss: Vol. 1. Attachment. New York, NY: Basic Books. (Original work published 1969)
2Cassidy, J., & Shaver, P. R. (2016). Handbook of attachment, 3rd edition. New York, NY: Guilford.
5Coyl, D. D., Newland L. A., Freeman H. (2010). Predicting preschoolers’ attachment security from parenting behaviours, parents’ attachment relationships and their use of social support. Early Child Development and Care, 180, 499-512.
1Coyl, D. D., Roggman L. A., & Newland, L. A. (2002). Stress, maternal depression, and negative mother–infant interactions in relation to infant attachment. Infant Mental Health Journal,23, 145-163.
10Durrant, J., & Ensom, R. (2012). Physical punishment of children: Lessons from 20 years of research. CMAJ, 184, 1373-1377.
6Edelstein, R. S., Alexander, K. W., Shaver, P. R., Schaaf, J. M., Quas, J. A., & Goodman, G. S. (2004). Adult attachment style and parental responsiveness during a stressful event. Attachment and Human Development, 6, 31-52.
8Gershoff, E. T. (2013). Spanking and child development: We know enough now to stop hitting our children. Child Development Perspectives, 7, 133-137.
11Gershoff, E. T., & Grogan-Kaylor, A. (2016). Spanking and child outcomes: Old controversies and new meta-analyses. Journal of Family Psychology, 30, 453-469.
7Goodman, G. S., Quas, J. A., Batterman-Faunce, J. M., Riddlesberger, M., & Kuhn, J. (1997). Children’s reactions to and memory for a stressful experience: Influences of age, knowledge, anatomical dolls, and parental attachment. Applied Developmental Sciences, 1, 54-75.
3Hazan, C., & Shaver, P. R. (1987). Romantic love conceptualized as an attachment process. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52, 511-524.
4Main, M., Kaplan, N., & Cassidy, J. (1985). Security in infancy, childhood, and adulthood: A move to the level of representation. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 50, 66-104.
9Silva, J. (2007). Parents Raising Safe Kids: ACT 8-week program for parents. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.
Dr. Gail S. Goodman is Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Director of the Center for Public Policy Research at the University of California, Davis. Her research concerns memory development, child maltreatment, trauma and memory, and children in the legal system. She has received many awards for her research and writings and has served as President of Division 7 (Developmental Psychology) of the American Psychological Association. Dr. Goodman has published widely and has received many federal, state, and foundation grants. Her research has been cited in U.S. Supreme Court decisions. She obtained her PhD in Developmental Psychology from University of California, Los Angeles and conducted postdoctoral studies at the University of Denver and the Université René Descartes in Paris, France. Dr. Goodman has served on the faculty of the University of Denver, the State University of New York, and the University of Oslo, Norway. She has consulted with numerous governments and agencies throughout the world on policies and research concerning child victims in the legal system.