Does spanking increase childhood aggression?

Many new parents, who may recall being spanked when they were kids, are on the fence about whether to physically discipline their toddlers. In its 2018 policy statement on effective discipline, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) argues against spanking, noting that all forms of physical discipline and yelling or shaming are “minimally effective in the short-term” and “not effective in the long-term.” The AAP cited evidence linking spanking to a higher risk of negative behavioral, cognitive, psychosocial, and emotional outcomes in children.

Parents are responsible for teaching children about acceptable behavior. Such teaching can support children’s healthy development, when done in ways that are appropriate to the child’s age. Using positive discipline tactics, parents can teach kids how to regulate their own behavior, keep them from harm, enhance their skills (cognitive, socio-emotional, and executive functioning), and reinforce good behavior patterns. Good ideas for positive discipline can be found here.

The link between spanking of toddlers and future subsequent aggressive behavior comes from several studies, the largest of which followed 5000 children born in 20 large US cities between 1998 and 2000. In that study, data were collected at birth, and at ages 1, 3, 5, and 9. The researchers found that children who were spanked more than twice a month at age 3 were more aggressive at age 5. Those who were spanked at age 5 showed more negative behaviors and lower vocabulary skills at age 9.

Fortunately, survey data seems to suggest that support for spanking is on the decline in the US. This may be, in part, because research over the past 20 years has added to our understanding of the risks of spanking, including:

  • higher risk of aggressive behavior for children and altercations with parents
  • higher risk of aggression in preschool and school-aged children, including fighting and damaging objects
  • higher risk of problems with cognition and mental health

Studies agree that the negative effects of spanking last much longer than parents think. So, what can parents do?

Instead of spanking, experts recommend that parents give children a “time out,” which is most effective for children between the ages of 2 and 6. Withholding privileges, and calmly explaining and implementing natural consequences (such as taking away a toy that your child is throwing or breaking), are also methods recommended by the AAP. For more suggestions for appropriate discipline for toddlers and young children, visit the AAP’s parent-audience website,

For more about positive parenting, read this. For 10 positive discipline tactics that work, click here. For solutions for the most common discipline problems, read this.

Last updated October 17, 2020

Suggested Reads