In Brief

University of California, Berkley, psychologists Diana Baumrind, PhD, and Elizabeth Owens, PhD, made national headlines in the New York Times, USA Today and other major media outlets after presenting findings at APA's 2001 Annual Convention showing that occasional mild spanking does not harm a child's social and emotional development.

Baumrind cautioned those attending that she did not advocate spanking and warned that regular and intense spanking could cause great mental strain in children.

Her longitudinal study focused on 168 white, middle-class families who were assessed by Berkley in 1968, when the children were preschoolers, to 1980 when the children were 14. Baumrind defined spanking as striking on the hands, buttocks or legs with an open hand, without inflicting physical injury and with the intention of modifying the child's behavior.

Unlike past studies investigating spanking, Baumrind used the Parent Disciplinary Scale, a tool she created to rate parents on their strategies for using discipline. She tracked each child's development through adolescence and classified families in four color zones based on how often and with how much intensity parents spanked:

  • Parents of children in the "red" zone were more likely to spank, often with greater intensity and usually a paddle.

  • "Orange" parents spanked often but with little or no intensity.

  • In the "yellow" zone, parents spanked occasionally with little or no intensity.

  • Parents in the "green" zone spanked with no intensity or not at all.

Researchers then controlled for several factors that have prevented previous studies from identifying a clear link between physical punishment and adverse child outcomes. For example, a child may grow up to be emotionally unstable due to a particularly difficult relationship with a stepparent or due to a lack of affection from parents, and not specifically due to physical punishment.

Baumrind found that there was "no significant differences between children of parents who spanked seldom [green] and those who spanked moderately [yellow]."

"I don't advocate spanking," says Baumrind, "but a blanket injunction against its use isn't warranted by the evidence. It is reliance on physical punishment, not whether or not it's used at all, that is associated with harm to the child."

Though she concedes that moderate spanking can be an effective method to stop a child from misbehaving, Baumrind noted that "authoritative and somewhat democratic parents were optimally efficacious" in raising emotionally healthy children, regardless of whether they used spanking.

She added that when parents are loving and firm, and communicate well with a child, "the child is exceptionally competent and well-adjusted, whether or not their parents spanked them as preschoolers."