Spanking Your Children: an Expansion on the Psychology and Maths

I recently posted on an ongoing debate on the benefits of physical punishment for children, and thought the post would be most useful others if shared on a public domain. I will also use this opportunity to expand on what I have said and address critiques.

My friend Erin had spoken out about this image, which had been circulating around online.


Here’s a more in-depth article about this issue:

Met with much criticism and retaliation, I decided to shed some light on this issue using the scientific approach of Psychology:



What is best to encourage learning?

“Lots of conflicting testimony here. Let’s see what the science says. This all comes down in Psychology to Skinner’s argument of operant conditioning.

Positive Punishment (Spanking)
Theory states that positive punishment (adding an aversive stimuli) allows for instant learning. This however, has many consequences- psychologically, aggressiveness and fear occurs. In the relationship, this leads to a poorer parent-child relationship. Skinner himself states also that punishment is very temporary- and learning is extinguished the moment the punishment is withdrawn.

In laymen terms, punishment may look like it works instantly, but children will repeat behaviour when they know the punishment is unenforceable. This is unsustainable. The only time this should be used is in emergencies.


Negative punishment (No TV/Internet)
An alternative without these nasty side effects is negative punishment, which is the removal of a desirable stimuli. This not only allows illustration of consequences (if you mis-behave, you will lose your privilege to something) being more applicable to real-world situations, but also allows for pretty instant learning- and is more long term.

Positive reinforcement (Rewarding good behaviour)
The best alternative by far is the introduction of a reward. This is not only the longest term form of learning, it happens best when it is inconsistent/unpredictable. In spanking- if a child learns that it can sometimes get away with something without spanking, learning decreases. During rewarding, if a child learns that rewards are inconsistent and unpredictable- instead of decreasing behaviour, it increases! (See variable-ratio reinforcement schedules). Not only that, it builds self esteem, independence, creativity, and motivation (everything which positive punishment destroys).

Studies cited:
Gershoff, E. T. (2002). Corporal punishment by parents and associated child behavior and experiences: A meta-analysis and theoretical review. Psychological Bulletin, 128, 539-579.

Hockenbury, D., & Hockenbury, S. E. (2007). Discovering Psychology. New York, NY: Worth Publishers.

Taylor, C. A., Manganello, J. A., Lee, S. J., & Rice, J. C. (2010). Mothers’ spanking of 3-year-old children and subsequent risk of children’s aggressive behavior.. Pediatrics 125 (5): e1057–65.

Skinner, B. F. (1974). About Behaviorism. New York: Knopf.

Ferster, C.B., & Skinner, B.F. (1957). Schedules of reinforcement. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Spanking causes lots of bad side-effects, and when punishment does not occur, this learning is easily extinguished. While it is more effort, taking a privilege away and rewarding children are easily better forms of learning- as it is longer term, does not require strict consistency, and has lots of benefits.”



As informative as that may be, I would like to expand it a little and cover some rebuttals.

How do we explain the variation?

Firstly, there is the common “I got spanked, but I’m brilliant!” argument which needs to be addressed.

My good friend Khaya addressed this quite nicely with the use of statistics. We can infer from the data that “on average”, the effects of the independent factor (punishment vs other forms of teaching) causes a specific dependent factor (aggressiveness, lack of creativity, motivation, esteem, etc.) and still it is a distribution.

He correctly inferred that personality has a large part to play, and that it exists on a normal distribution. The independent factor of spanking may have shifted the mean, but there would still be lots of noise.

This means that while one child who got spanked may be better off than another which did not, we cannot infer that spanking does not harbour any negative outcomes from individual testimony itself.

Individual testimony (while attractively more relatable and understandable) is therefore not valuable in this discussion due to the noise factor in our dataset.



Individual Testimonies/Experiences: Why that is useless (An expansion of the previous section)

If you are going to tell me a little about your experiences, familiarize yourself with this section and the one before to save some embarrassment.

While Erin seems to imply causality in repeat-aggression and spanking: “they’ll only replicate the behaviour”. This is a little off, it is not that they WILL, but all we can say from statistics is “they are more likely to”.

So now there are lots of arguments using individual testimony. In case you still do not understand Khaya’s argument (as re-iterated by Sean’s comment “the plural of anecdote is not data”)- individual testimony is USELESS. Let me explain why again, using a pretty diagram.


This is a normal distribution. What you need to know, is that most things are distributed in this way- including personality.


Now consider these two curves (I made it myself, is it not very pretty?). Assume the X-axis shows (for illustration purposes) the mental health of children. Assume studies show that the situation with spanking is like this: there is a significant difference between the blue and red curves, where red is “corporal punishment used” and blue is “corporal punishment not used.”

Now, while the means are different, we can see that there is still noise- and data points are distributed normally around means x1 (red) and x2 (blue). So of course you will find that some points even in the red distribution are higher than other points in the blue distribution. To attempt to make a conclusion from any one or few of these points is completely invalid.

(See caption: P1 may see it is better off than P2, but that does not mean children who are spanked have better mental health).

Now assume that the x-axis represents pacifist attitudes in children, with children below the “A” line especially prone to aggressive behaviour. We can see that a majority of reds (spanked children) fall above this line, and some blue fall below the line. What this means is that even if the majority of people spanked does not become more aggressive, we cannot conclude that spanking does not create aggressive tendencies
(and lots of studies actually show they do!). And even if some people who were not spanked are aggressive, that does not render our data invalid.

The x-axis could be substituted with a myriad of factors such as creativity, motivation, openness, confidence, etc.- we only use mental health and pacifist tendencies as an illustration.


Next time you want to make this argument:

A: I was hit as a child and I am not psychotic.

B: I learned effectively from punishment.

C: I saw people who did not hit children, and their children behaved horribly!


IF A, B, and C is true (some people who are hit are good people, and some people who are not hit are bad people)
THEN that must mean punishment is good!

Stop yourself and consider this:

Many people who are not spanked are good people, and many people who are spanked also turn out to be bad people.


While not everyone spanked is bad, studies repeatedly show tendencies for bad traits in children who are spanked (aggression, fear, etc.)

Just because you are not one of those children does not mean science is wrong! Your personal experience is NOT a counter-example.


Psychological Criticisms

Some common criticisms with Skinner’s study is that it deals with animals (not humans) and it is too simplistic.

Here let me put these concerns to rest.

1)      While a study used animals for inspiration, one must not be too quick to discount the link to human beings. There has been much evidence to support operant conditioning linked to human learning as well- not limited to those which are cited in respect to the effects of punishment.

2)      Yes, lots of factors have a play. The presence of a support figure whilst this punishment is ongoing, support groups in schools, the nature of the punishment (is an explanation given?), even macro environmental factors such as community, culture, and government have a play. That said, the nature of scientific study is to average a response from the group on one independent factor and hope to filter this “noise” out, assuming the law of normal distributions hold true and noise is always equally distributed as N=number of studies and participants approach a large number.


Studies found this phenomenon very relevant to humans as well as animals, and while there are many factors, we have shown that one (ceteris paribus= all other things kept equal) there seems to be a relationship.




The fallacy of using majority support as proof


The final type of argument I will cover is the appeal to majority support. Simply put, people could say:

“But the fact that this image is so popular means lots of people support it.”


“the fact that people support it means it is true!”

The first statement is false, popularity does not imply support. It is merely a hot topic. Assume it is true though- what about the second statement?

This statement may seem true- majority wins, right? Wrong.

In Psychology, this is related to the “Forer Effect”. This basically shows that face validity is NOT actual validity, and that people will generally believe lots of things while they are completely wrong.

In logic, this fallacy in argument is called Argumentum ad populum. Simply put- just because lots of people believe in something does not make it true.

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