Helping Parents to Stop Spanking Babies Can Reduce Child Abuse

Helping Parents to Stop Spanking Babies Can Reduce Child Abuse

A recent study has been circulating in the press with shocking headlines like spanking babies is A Third of Parents Spank Their Babiessurprisingly common!  Of course this is old news.  Dr. Murray Straus published similar research cited in Duke Law Journal, 2010 that about a third of babies are spanked.  In a study of 156 families,  Dr. Brigitte Vittrup found that 21% percent of the mothers reported slapping their child’s hand once or twice a week, and 14% reported spanking their infants weekly.  A much larger study of over 4,800 children, by Dr. Michael MacKenzie, titled “Who Spanks Infants and Toddlers? found that “about 15% of children are spanked at 12 months, with this share rising to 40% by 18 months and nearly 50% for children age 20 months or older.”  Redundancy in science is a good thing.  It is a double take to our initial shock of “Can that be true?”

Yes, it is true. Many parents are spanking babies, and it is a serious problem.

Frequency of Spanking

Some people immediately object saying, “Before we get carried away here, are we talking about spanking or a parent just smacking a baby’s hand when she reaches for the stove?” In this study, researchers allowed parents to define spanking for themselves.  They simply asked parents if they spanked their baby in the last month. Nearly a third of parents answered yes. Remember, parents generally under-report spanking.  Case in point, Dr. George Holden set out to research verbal abuse by audio recording 37 families for about a week every evening.  Shockingly, in the first real-time study of spanking, he discovered parents were smacking or spanking frequently for minor concerns – like sucking fingers or turning the pages of a book without permission.

So how serious is spanking babies? Researcher from University of Michigan, Dr. Shawna Lee found that parents who spanked their baby (on average 15 months old) in the past month had a greater chance of being involved with Child Protective Services (CPS).  Now that’s pretty serious.  “CPS involvement means that authorities have a serious concern about the welfare of the children in that household.  Most abuse is not reported, so this is a very conservative way to measure the link between spanking and abuse,” explains researcher Dr. Shawna Lee.


Think of it this way, 29% of all Americans report being physically abused by their parents. That translates to 88,000,000 people.  Compare this to the actual number of CPS reports, which are only around 3,000,000.

Screen Shot 2014-03-24 at 9.06.01 AMThis research goes beyond the finding that parents spank babies, and asks what would happen if we intervened to end spanking in these families?  The research suggests that by eliminating spanking the rate of CPS involvement would also reduce.  Dr. Lee wondered, “Hypothetically, if we applied the results to 1,000 families and stopped the occurrence of spanking, what would happen? The calculation suggested that ending spanking could result in a reduction in CPS involvement of 7 families per 1,000.”  Wow!  That is a lot of children.

There is ample evidence linking spanking to child abuse.  Consider Dr. Zolotor’s research that found that parents who believe in spanking are 4-9X more likely to engage in more serious abuse (hitting a child elsewhere than the buttocks, kicking, or shaking a baby). There is mounting awareness of the close link between spanking and overt child abuse, particularly in the field of child abuse and neglect.  Delaware modified the child abuse code to include “intent to cause pain,” essentially including spanking as child abuse.  Pennsylvania followed, by declaring forcefully shaking, slapping, or otherwise striking a child under 1 year of age as child abuse.

We know that spanking is a bad idea.  The research is so alarming that the Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry as well as the Academy of Pediatrics have made formal statements discouraging parents from ever spanking. “When we look at the research on the whole, we have a lot of evidence to show that spanking is not good for kids.  There is not one study that shows any long-term positive effects of spanking – not one.  Child pro-social behavior is never improved with spanking or linked to spanking,” says Lee.Screen Shot 2014-03-24 at 10.40.03 AM

Some parents heed the warning and find alternatives to spanking their children.  But many others do not.  In fact, many parents probably haven’t even heard the warnings.  After all, pediatricians and care providers are often unaware of the research themselves.  A survey conducted by the American Academy of Pediatrics found that 42% of pediatricians will actually recommend spanking and about as many believe there isn’t enough time to address discipline during a wellness visit!  The good news is, the majority of pediatricians would like additional training on how to help parents with discipline issues.

The issue of spanking is much greater than the argument about whether or not it works.  Clearly the research shows that it does not, regardless of cultural popularity.  At the root of the spanking debate is a much more serious issue – how to prevent child abuse itself. Here are some alarming facts:

  • Over 3,000,000 families become involved with CPS annually involving 6,000,000 children
  • Up to 68% of parents who become involved with CPS, have recurrent involvement
  • 20% of families, an astonishing number, become chronically involved with CPS

Screen Shot 2014-03-24 at 10.52.25 AMPhysical child abuse is a huge problem. This research on spanking babies suggests that early preventative measures can reduce spanking and CPS involvement. The fact is we have done nearly nothing to prevent spanking.  Little children are spanked most frequently and although spanking has become less popular, there is no significant decline in the frequency of spanking little children.

If we are going to get serious about ending child abuse, we need to directly address the risk factors.  Spanking is clearly a risk factor for criminal child abuse. We need to help parents stop spanking their children, and we need to prevent spanking before it starts.  The most important implication of this research is that early intervention to prevent spanking is key.


What Can We Do?

The study outlined several methods of intervening with parents that research has shown to be effective:

Screen Shot 2014-03-21 at 9.12.39 AM

  1. Provide multimedia educational programs like PLAY NICELY in the Pediatrician’s waiting area that show parents how to deal with toddler aggression, without spanking. Research showed that this program reduced parent support of spanking..

  2. Encourage parents to document developmental stages in baby books.  It increases parents’ knowledge of a child’s developmental needs.  Research showed parents were less likely to spank when they understood their child’s developmental needs via baby books.Screen Shot 2014-03-27 at 10.51.49 AM

  3. Launch a Facebook and Text campaign. Text messages and other social media resources such as Text4baby that provide new baby education reduces approval of spanking.  Parenting Beyond Punishment is launching a month long educational even to support parents who want to take the “No-Spank-Challenge

  4. Expose parents to the research Exposing parents to research about spanking reduces approval of spanking.

So you may be wondering, exactly what is the research? Click these links to learn more:

The bottom line is, we can end child abuse. The first step is to recognize that we’ve invented childrearing practices that are maladaptive to a peaceful society. If we want our young parents to understand how to treat their children, we need to give them the education and support they need to be successful.  We need a clear message that parents must never spank their children. If we intervene early, there is a greater chance that the baby will cope better throughout childhood.  Let’s help parents give their children a better chance.


Do You Need Help Talking to a Loved One About Spanking?

powerful-parenting-bannerThis “soft touch” pamphlet can help you raise the topic of spanking with your spouse, friend, family, and your clients in a respectful, supportive way. It is a fully illustrated story of loving parents, Betty and Al, discussing how they want to discipline their little boy. The parents discuss the usual issues concerning whether or not to spank and they come to the conclusion that it is just too risky, and there are much better alternatives.

Please contact us for a copy:

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