Spanking is a common form of corporal punishment involving the act of striking the buttocks of another person to cause physical pain, generally with an open hand. More severe forms of spanking, such as switching, paddling, belting, caning, whipping, and birching, involve the use of an implement instead of a hand.
Parents commonly spank children or adolescents in response to undesired behavior. Boys are more frequently spanked than girls, both at home and in school. Some countries have outlawed the spanking of children in every setting, including homes, schools, and penal institutions, but most allow it when done by a parent or guardian.
In North America, the word "spanking" has often been used as a synonym for an official paddling in school, and sometimes even as a euphemism for the formal corporal punishment of adults in an institution.
In American English, dictionaries define spanking as being administered with either the open hand or an implement such as a paddle. Thus, the standard form of corporal punishment in US schools (use of a paddle) is often referred to as a spanking, whereas its pre-1997 English equivalent (strokes of the cane) would never have been so described.
In the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand, the word "smacking" is generally used in preference to "spanking" when describing striking with an open hand, rather than with an implement. Whereas a spanking is invariably administered to the bottom, "smacking" is less specific and may refer to slapping the child's hands, arms or legs as well as its bottom.
Parents commonly spank their children as a form of corporal punishment in the United States. It is normally done with one or more slaps on the child's buttocks with a bare hand, although, not uncommonly, various objects are used to spank children. Historically, boys have been spanked more than girls. In the United States, the spanking of infants is common, with toddler-age children being spanked the most. The main reasons parents give for spanking children are to make children more compliant and to promote better behavior, especially to put a stop to children's aggressive behaviors.
Research shows, however, that spanking, or indeed any form of corporal punishment, tends to have the opposite effect. Children who are physically punished more often tend to obey parents less with time, and to develop more aggressive behaviors, including toward other children. This increase in aggressive behavior is thought to reflect the child's perception that hitting is the way to deal with anger and frustration. There are also a number of documented adverse physical, mental, and emotional effects of spanking and other forms of corporal punishment, including various physical injuries, increased anxiety, depression, and antisocial behavior. Children who were spanked during childhood are more likely to abuse their own children and spouse.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) states no child under the age of two should be spanked. Additionally, the AAP recommends that primary care providers (e.g., pediatricians and family medicine physicians) begin to discuss parents' discipline methods no later than 9 months of age and consider initiating such discussions by age 3-4 months. By 8 months of age, 5% of parents report spanking and 5% report starting to spank by age 3 months. Primary care providers may recommend that a parent never spank their child; however, since spanking is a highly prevalent form of child discipline, this approach may lead parents to disregard a health care professional's advice and interfere with educational efforts to discuss alternative forms of discipline.
Although parents and other advocates of spanking often say that it is necessary to promote child discipline, studies have shown that parents tend to apply physical punishment inconsistently, spanking more often when angry or under stress. The use of corporal punishment by parents increases the likelihood that children will suffer physical abuse, and most documented cases of physical abuse in Canada and the United States begin as disciplinary spankings. If a child is frequently spanked, this form of corporal punishment tends to become less effective at modifying behavior over time (also known as extinction). In response to decreased effectiveness of spanking, some parents increase the frequency or severity of spanking or use an object.
There are many effective alternatives to spanking and other forms of corporal punishment. For example, such techniques include time-ins (increasing attention, praise, and special time to promote desired behaviors), time outs (taking a break from escalating misbehavior), positive reinforcement (rewarding desirable behavior (e.g., with a star, sticker, or treat)), non-physical negative reinforcement (an unpleasant consequence follows misbehavior (e.g., replying with a sharp "no" expressing disapproval for a specific action or taking away a privilege)), passive inattention (ignoring low-level misbehaviors and prioritizing attention for more significant forms of misbehavior appropriate for a child's developmental level), and avoidance (avoid the opportunity for the misbehavior to occur and thus the need for corrective discipline).
Corporal punishment, usually delivered with an implement (such as a paddle or cane) rather than with the open hand, used to be a common form of school discipline in many countries, but it is now banned in most of the western world. These bans have been controversial, and in many cultures opinion remains sharply divided as to the efficacy or suitability of spanking as a punishment for misbehaviour by school students.
Formal caning, notably for teenage boys, remains a common form of discipline in schools in several Asian and African countries, especially those with a British heritage; in these cultures it is referred to as "caning" and not "spanking".
The Supreme Court of the United States in 1977 held that the paddling of school students was not per se unlawful. However, 31 states have now banned paddling in public schools. It is still common in some schools in the South, and more than 167,000 students were paddled in the 2011-2012 school year in American public schools. Students can be physically punished from kindergarten to the end of high school, meaning that even adults who have reached the age of majority are sometimes spanked by school officials.
Spanking of a wife by her husband as a punishment also occurs in some instances, often based on a literalist interpretation of the Bible. Men spanking their wives and girlfriends was often seen as an acceptable form of domestic discipline in the early 20th century as a way to correct behavior, maintain male dominance, and enforce gender norms. It was a common trope in American movies. The legality of spanking of women in the United States varied by jurisdiction, largely dependent on individual judges. Some adults choose to engage in erotic spanking.
There are some rituals or traditions which involve spanking. For example, on the first day of the lunar Chinese new year holidays, a week-long 'Spring Festival', the most important festival for Chinese people all over the world, thousands of Chinese visit the Taoist Dong Lung Gong temple in Tungkang to go through the century-old ritual to get rid of bad luck, men by receiving spankings and women by being whipped, with the number of strokes to be administered (always lightly) by the temple staff being decided in either case by the god Wang Ye and by burning incense and tossing two pieces of wood, after which all go home happily, believing their luck will improve.
According to Ovid's Fasti (ii.305), during the ancient Roman festival of the Lupercalia naked men ran through the streets of the city, carrying straps with which they swatted the outstretched palms of the hands of women lining the racecourse who wished to become pregnant.
Figure 1. Corporal Punishment Begins With Infants, Is Highest For Toddlers, And Continues Into The Teen Years For Many Children