Study Finds Spanked Children Are More Likely To Have Developmental Delays


Robin Andrews

Science & Policy Writer

Corporal punishment is increasingly being made illegal across the world. Africa Studio/Shutterstock

Do you spank your child to discipline them, or were you spanked as a child yourself? It may be a controversial subject to talk about, but an increasing amount of evidence suggests that it’s unwise and dangerous.

Now, as spotted by salud movil, a new study – this time by a team led by the Donald and Barbara Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell – appears to have found another negative association between childhood spanking and later development. Specifically, the more a child was physically punished in this way, the more likely they were to experience developmental delays.


Developmental delays are when children do not reach specific milestones as they grow up, including the ability to walk, talk, write, think critically, reason well, socialize, and emotionally express themselves with clarity.

Although it’s a little vague, milestones in terms of time are determined by what most children can do by that age. For example, by 12 months, a child should be able to sit up without assistance, walk holding on to furniture, and respond to “no” – just to name a few.

This paper is suggesting that physical punishment seems to delay the onset of these, so let’s look at how the study, published in the Annals of Global Health, was carried out.

It’s actually a fairly small study, one that focused on 74 pairs of caregivers and their associated children, all of whom attended a growth-monitoring clinic in La Romana, a city in the Dominican Republic. They were then assessed using the relatively new Malawi Development Assessment Tool, or MDAT, a comprehensive tool designed to assess child development in developing, non-Western nations.


The team found that at least two-thirds of children – aged five or under – had at least one delay in one developmental area, be that social, cognitive, motor skills, and so on. When asked about the forms of punishment and discipline they engaged in, about 44 percent of those said they used spanking; 43.2 percent said that they used scolding.

Intriguingly, the team found that both seemed to be associated with a detrimental developmental effect. “In our research, language delays and sociocognitive delays were more prevalent among children who were disciplined for bad behavior by being spanked or scolded,” the authors note in their study.

The connection between language and spanking appeared to be particularly strong; children punished by spanking were five times more likely to experience some sort of language delay.

“These findings add to the mounting evidence that harsh parenting, including spanking, is potentially harmful,” Professor Jeff Temple, the director of Behavioral Health and Research at the University of Texas Medical Branch – who was not involved with this study – told IFLScience.


“The methodology makes it difficult to disentangle the chicken from the egg,” he added, noting that a “third variable” may have “contributed to both spanking and the developmental delay.” Nevertheless, the study’s findings are still “consistent with the literature, in that spanking is linked to negative outcomes – and moreover, we know that spanking does not work.”

This really is just one study among a mountain of similar papers. A few years back, a comprehensive review of four decades of research on the subject found that spanking slows cognitive development, leads to antisocial behaviors, and more. One 2009 study even linked harsh corporal punishment in young adults to a reduced amount of gray matter.

If this counterproductive measure is almost consistently found to cause developmental damage to children, then perhaps it should be consigned to the past.

By the way, anecdotal evidence doesn't count here. You may say that you were spanked as a child and you turned out fine, but that's not how science works.


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