As every parent (and many children) know, one of the great dilemmas of parenting is whether or not spanking is a good means of disciplining a child.
New research that examines all the studies done on spanking over the past six decades concludes that children who are regularly spanked are more prone to aggression, antisocial behavior and abuse of their own children or spouse later in life.
They are also more defiant of their parents, not less, the study found.
"It does get children to obey you on the spot, but the problem is that it doesn't teach right from wrong," says study author Elizabeth Gershoff. "You really want your children to internalize the lesson, rather than learn the idea that if they don't share or if they hit people, 'Mommy will hit you.' "
Another problem is that children have no incentive to do the right thing once parents are not around and the threat of spanking disappears, the study finds.
Gershoff, who is a researcher at Columbia University's National Center for Children in Poverty, spent five years on the project, analyzing 88 corporal punishment studies conducted since 1938. Those studies tracked both the short- and long-term effects of spanking on children.
Parents as Role Models
Scott and Tamra Lichtman of Stamford, Conn., have two children: 5-year-old Eli and 3-year-old Kayla. They say the were not spanked as children, and do not believe in spanking their own kids.
"There are other ways to discipline," Scott told ABCNEWS' Good Morning America. Spanking a child teaches them that physical aggression is OK, he said.
His wife agreed, noting that she finds spanking can make a bad situation worse.
"I think my role is to model the behavior I want my children to use," said Tamra. "Spanking them only escalates the situation and makes it worse."
Not all parents — or experts — agree, however.
Spanking With Discretion
Experts critical of Gershoff's findings say that mild, non-abusive spanking can be an effective reinforcement of discipline, particularly with defiant 2- to 6-year-olds. But many do share concerns about spanking that is too severe or too frequent.
Jim and Becky Kronk of Columbus, Ohio, who have three children — C.J., 7, Ryan, 5, and Rachel, 3 — support spanking, as long as it is done after using careful judgment. Both parents say they were spanked when they were children.
"It was the threat of getting in trouble that scared me," said Jim. He acknowleges that violence begets violence and says he spanks his own children infrequently, in cases where they might harm themselves or one another. He says it is worse not to intervene at all.
Becky Kronk says that she feels guilty about spanking the children, but sometimes finds it is necessary to at least squeeze the children's arm when they do wrong.
"I'm embarrassed to do it," she said. "But I do in the heat of the moment."
Legal Ban on Spanking?
Gershoff says that one positive result of spanking is that children quickly comply with parental demands. And she cautions that her findings do not imply all children who are spanked turn out to be aggressive or delinquent.
Several major national organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, have taken an official stand against corporal punishment.
Gershoff stopped short of endorsing a legal ban on parental corporal punishment, saying the United States was unlikely to emulate a group of European countries in taking that step. Eleven countries, including Sweden, Italy, Israel and Germany, ban spanking.
"I think instead of banning spanking in the U.S., we should focus on what parents should be doing," she said.