Spanking Decreases Intelligence?

By Danelle Frisbie © 2009

The topic of spanking is not one I have thought much about - after all, most of my research surrounds birth and babies, and who (heaven forbid!) spanks a baby?! But new research suggests there are parents out there who are in the habit of spanking their 2-year-olds -- and it may very well be impacting these little ones in detrimental neurological ways.

It makes sense - we know through ample research that the natural parenting techniques as old as humanity itself - such as babywearing and breastfeeding - dramatically increase neuro development and functioning, resulting in higher IQ, among other beneficial things. So it is not too shocking that the antithesis of peaceful parenting -- forthright aggression on babies and children -- may have just the opposite impact on their rapidly developing brains.

While completing graduate work in clinical psychology, I regularly administered personality inventories and IQ tests on 'troubled' children, and was then required to make recommendations per their treatment. Rarely was I afforded the opportunity to look into their home life -- or examine more closely how these children were treated by family members or raised by their parent(s). I was required to 'treat' the problem, while never fully getting to the root of the cause.

The latest research from the National Institute of Mental Health and the University of New Hampshire claims a discovery has been made into one (small?) component of mental health and human intelligence. The results are intriguing. Murray Straus, who led the last two studies, says that spanking actually decreases IQ, and to a significant degree. Yes, you read that right: Spanking your child impacts intelligence (at least that which we can measure using intelligence tests and methodological quotients).

Straus led two recent studies - one conducted on a national level in the United States, and one on an international level. Parents of 1,500 young American children participating in an IQ research project were asked how often they spanked their children. Responses were compared with IQ results.

Results showed that children (age 2-4) who were not spanked at all had IQs that were, on average, 5 points higher, (and stayed higher for the next 4 years over the course of the study), than children who were spanked. Children to the age of 10 were included in the study and the same trend was found for older children as well. The impact of spanking on IQ, however, was most pronounced in the younger children. I suspect this may be in part because the brain is most rapidly developing (and most significantly impacted) until the age of about 5 years old when it is 98% complete.

[Side note: This is also likely the reason that natural, child-led weaning occurs around the same time - around the age of 5 - in the majority of the world and throughout human history, when breastfeeding-phobic social pressures do not cut it short. The developing brain is supplied with just the right concoction of building blocks via mother's milk the entire time it is in rapid formation mode.]

Straus' results are being published in the Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment and Trauma. In addition, Straus and colleagues are presenting the findings of their second (international) study on spanking and intelligence at a San Diego based conference on abuse and trauma this week.

In the international study, Straus interviewed university students in an examination of corporal punishment and IQ. After conducting research across 32 countries around the world, results showed a lower national IQ in countries where corporal punishment is common.

In the U.S. study various factors (such as parental education level and economic status) were adjusted for. The negative correlation between spanking and IQ held true (the less spanking, the higher the IQ; the more spanking, the lower the IQ). In the international study, parent's education level and economic status were more difficult to adjust for.

Straus is a long time supporter of peaceful parenting and using multiple proactive strategies for discipline that do not include aggression or violence against babies and children. He has researched extensively on subjects such as aggression, violence, rape, and abuse within families.

These latest findings echo what we have seen in other studies: Peaceful Parenting (or Attachment Parenting) leads to lower stress hormones (such as cortisol) in babies and children, greater trust (in parents/each other/the world), secure attachment, and more complex neurological development and brain activity, among other things.

In the end, it may just be true that babies and children were born to be loved and tenderly, gently cared for - not physically acted upon in any form.

If you would like a pdf copy of these latest studies, message me and I will be happy to pass them along to you. A great deal of Straus and colleagues research on aggression and violence among children is available here.

Related Reading:

Why Love Matters: How Affection Shapes a Baby's Brain

The Science of Parenting: How today's brain research can help you raise healthy, emotionally balanced children

The No Spanking Page provides alternative ideas to spanking

How Spanking Changed My Life

Why Spanking is Never Okay

Top 10 Parenting Controversies of 2010

Discipline Books and Resource Collection 

Attachment Parenting International

Babywearing International

International Breastfeeding Journal


  1. there is always a better way than to HIT your child, and our goal is to teach them and to have them to make the decisions because they are the right decisions, not because of fear of what might happen to them.....

    Modeling the behavior we wish our children to exhibit is a wonderful way to teach.

    If we quit focusing on the behavior and focus on why the child is acting a certain way......usually it's because of being overtired or hungry, etc...

    I love Alfie Kohn and his book Unconditional Parenting as well as Naomi Aldort and her book Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves.

  2. Natural consequences are the key and knowing how to communicate with your child and knowing where your child is developmentally. If you start the sentence with "don't" you're setting up the child for disaster.

    "Please throw the ball at the tree instead of at me", rather than, "Don't you throw that ball at me again or I'll..."

    As adults there are natural consequences for our actions. If we're mean to someone, they probably will not want to be around us anymore. If we eat too much, we gain weight, etc.

  3. I agree w/Lisa. I was a police officer for 10 years before having my daughter. I always thought I would spank her. I have changed my philosophy. I do not think it is ok to hit a child. That only teaches hitting is ok in certain circumstances.

  4. Hitting, smacking, spanking, swatting all teach that violence against another human being is an acceptable way to solve problems. They all teach a child that if he/she does not do what someone wants or does something that someone doesn't like, that the other person has the right to lay their hands on him/her in a violent, aggressive manner. They learn that compliance to aggression is required of them in order to be "good". They learn to suppress whatever it was that caused them to be "bad". Spanking never gets down to WHY the child needed the spanking in the first place; it only addresses the "bad" behavior. Spanking stops "bad" behavior in the short term, it never stops the reasons why the child was "bad"... that is why spanking doesn't work.

  5. Hitting, spanking,etc. is disrespectful when done to anyone. AND against the law when done to an adult. I would never hit my husband nor he me so I wonder why it would be OK to hit my child ? This is something peaceful parents have known all along.

  6. Someone on FB said they smacked their 6-month-old baby's hand when he tried to stick a fork into an outlet. They also said another child they know was given 'time out' instead of spanking, and as a result never learned not to play with matches - and set his parent's house on fire. What do you all think?

  7. They HIT a 6 month old. What if you just covered your outlets? It is developmentally appropriate behavior for a 6 month old to explore. Or, you could just guide him/her to something appropriate to play with, something they could stick something in. In addition, why did a 6 month old have a fork? When babies go through their biting phase one could swat, or one could kiss and say 'kisses' only every time it happens. How would you rather be taught? Hitting a child is being a bully - using your size to control.

  8. I also agree that it is not kind to embarrass them either. I don't yell, use time outs, or talk down to them and my children still listen. Funny huh! No rewards and no punishments, just treating them like people too!

  9. Totally agree Lisa!

  10. I am not going to judge anyone, and how they "discipline" their children...but I came across this story at my Massage Therapist's office, hanging on their bulletin board. It is now hanging on my fridge. I think if you can't figure it out, how to get through to your kids without spanking or hitting, you need to work on your communication skills.

    Here's the story:

    "Above all, I believe that there should never be any violence." In 1978, Astrid Lindgren received the German Book Trade Peace Prize for her literary contributions. In acceptance, she told the following story.

    "When I was about 20 years old, I met an old pastor's wife who told me that when she was young and had her first child, she didn't believe in striking children, although spanking kids with a switch pulled from a tree was standard punishment at the time. But one day when her son was four or five, he did something that she felt warranted a spanking--the first of his life. And she told him that he would have to go outside and find a switch for her to hit him with. The boy was gone a long time. And when he came back in, he was crying. He said to her, "Mama, I couldn't find a switch, but here's a rock that you can throw at me."

    All of a sudden the mother understood how the situation felt from the child's point of view: that if my mother wants to hurt me, then it makes no difference what she does it with; she might as well do it with a stone. And the mother took the boy onto her lap and they both cried. Then she laid the rock on a shelf in the kitchen to remind herself forever: never violence. And that is something I think everyone should keep in mind. Because violence begins in the nursery--one can raise children into violence."

    I think that too often we fail to feel situations "from the child's point of view", and that failure leads us to teach our children other than what we think we're teaching them.

  11. I just read some of the comments on FB, and I find it absolutely asinine that a six month old would be playing with a fork. Or that a 9 year old had access to things to start fires with. Parental supervision? Anyone? Anyone? What about keeping our children safe? Isn't that part of parenting? You slap a 6 month old for playing with something an irresponsible adult left within his reach. Should have slapped yourself there, buddy. Sorry. But true.

  12. I was thinking the same thing...even at 15 months, my baby does not have free access to the silverware drawer, and the only outlet that is exposed to her, we have 'childproofed.' Oh, and by the way I also WATCH her so that if she is about to do something 'bad' I can PREVENT it rather than punish her for something she doesn't know is 'bad' in the first place.

    I read something recently along the lines of 'only kids do naughty things' (of course we know adults do naughty things too!) but that there are so many things that if a child does it, it is 'bad' but we may do it as 'normal.' The child sees us putting things into the outlet--granted, we are plugging things in, but they don't know that it's not fair game. Or they see us climbing on the couch to hang a picture, why can't they climb on the couch?

  13. Also, I LOVE the 'Love and Logic' concept from Jim and Charles Fay and Foster Cline. I haven't really done much of it with Camryn (other than the OK you threw your cup you must be done type stuff) but I have done it while babysitting and in daycare and it's almost fun and it works! There are so many facets to it but a lot of it is giving choices to avoid arguments (would you like to wear the red shirt or the blue shirt? Would you like me to put it on or do you want to do it? Do you want to put your pants on first or your shirt on first?) and it also gives you 'power' later when they cannot make a choice 'you have to sit in your carseat, there is no choice--didn't I give you LOTS of choices earlier?' And it also relies on LOGICAL consequences. They didn't wear a coat and were cold today? Oh, how sad (maybe next time they'll remember!) Really I could go on and on but really, just check them out yourselves! I totally recommend it. :)

  14. OR if you know it could get chilly out you could bring a coat along just in case.

  15. But that's not a logical consequence Julie--that's mommy rescuing you so you ALWAYS count on mommy to rescue you. You forget your homework because subconsciously (or consciously) you know it doesn't matter--mommy will bring it to school for you if you forget. And you don't have to think about what to wear because mommy will bring you a coat if it's cold. That's how we grow up to have so many adults who have no responsibility for their actions. Someone else will fix it. Really I'm simplifying it but it has great concepts.

    I forgot to mention too that the choices and 'consequences'...I forget how they word it but basically it should not affect anyone else. For example, you wouldn't let them drive drunk to learn the consequences in that they may be in an accident, but you would come up with a different consequence (in this case it would probably be similar to grounding 'ie. I see you can't behave appropriately when hanging out with those certain friends so you will not be able to go there for a month (or whatever).
    I really need to re-read some of their books now!

  16. Well I rescue when I can because I believe that's part of my job as a mother. If I happen to truly forget the jackets and we're cold then that would be a natural consequence.There have been times I have forgotten my sweater and my husband lovingly offered me his. No difference. I have forgotten some items at the grocery store so my husband has lovingly gone out of his way to get those for me when I know he is dog tired after a day at work but he loves me.

    The homework and grounding you speak of I can't relate to for we practice neither of those.

    I haven't heard of the books you mentioned but we are big Alfie Kohn fans here !

  17. Just to be clear, I'm not talking about a 2-year-old or something like that. I'm talking about an older child who doesn't want to wear a coat or KNOWS that every day when he goes to school it is warm but every day when he comes home it's cold yet always forgets it (totally random example).
    Yes it would be a natural consequence if YOU forget the jackets causing everyone to be cold. But perhaps if you weren't always 'rescuing' them in the first place, someone else might have thought to take jackets, you know?
    And I don't think you have to 'have' homework to understand the concept of forgetting your homework?
    The concept is 'let them learn the lessons now while the repurcussions are small.' I don't really think I need to give more examples but if you're going to 'save' them now, are you prepared to save them forever? I'm not saying be 'mean' but really even the examples you forgot stuff at the store, so what? Yes, it was nice that your husband got them for you but what if he didn't? Then maybe next time you would have taken a list or remembered better. And if not, so what, you make something else for dinner? Big deal.

    My baby loves to climb and I find myself hoping that she will fall off something very small so that maybe she will learn that she can get hurt if she is not careful. Last night she finally fell off this little thing that is about 6 inches off the ground, and I was glad! Of course I still comforted her but I was glad she fell off this small thing so hopefully when she is on a bigger thing, she will be more careful. Would I take her to the top of a huge slide and let her walk around? No...that would be akin to the drunk driving hope is that by falling off the small things, when she does go to the top of the slide, she will remember that falling isn't fun and be careful up there. I'm not saying accidents don't happen. I'm not saying if you were taking your kids on a surprise trip to Mt. Everest that you shouldn't pack coats for them yourself but when you can see it snowing outside and your kid doesn't take his coat and 10 minutes later says mommy I'm cold and you 'save' him what are you teaching him? At what point do you STOP 'saving' him? Hey, I'm an 'AP' mom too, I'm all for being there for your kids but I'm also for growing them into responsible adults.

    Has anyone else heard of Love and Logic? Am I just not explaining it well or what?

  18. I'm another Alfie Kohn fan here as well as Naomi Aldort!

  19. is also a great source under their gentle discipline forum

  20. Erin:Lisa I know you are not trying to be 'mean'. I'm not trying to 'save' my kids .I'm just being loving so they will have a loving model and can grow to be loving and caring adults. I don't feel like I always have to be 'teaching them lessons' because they learn by watching my husband and I.
    If my husband didn't go to the store for me ? Well, sometimes I don't ask him because I don't want to burden him but I know that he would. He wouldn't try to teach me a lesson by saying 'Too bad you left something off of your list so now you will have to do without it". He may say I am just too tired, I can't. That would be a natural consequence which differs immensely from a logical consequence.Believe me , I'm 44 and I still may forget something at the store and it will happen again. There is no lesson to be learned. I guess I'm trying natural consequences happen all the time- we don't have to give them.

    I have four kids, one grown ,and she is as responsible and maybe more so than most adults . I'm not worried.I see the same in my 3 other kids.

    I took my baby to the park today and I DID let him climb up on the big kid slide and I was by his side to catch him if he fell. I don't think a 2 or 3 year old is going to make a 6 inch fall and then a week later remember that and not do it again. I'm the parent and it's my job to make everything safe for him and help him explore.

    Lisa : I love all of those sites and books !

  21. I agree with all you've posted Julie. I like Kohn's example of forcing a child to clean his room. He said something like, it's the only 10x10 space they own and so what if it's a wreck. Maybe they'll marry someone who is neat and doesn't mind cleaning up after them.

  22. I have to say when my daughter was young I was a semi-punitive and authoritarian style parent (ugh) and made her clean her room. After homeschooling for a couple of years we became unschoolers and even radical unschoolers ! :). I never made her clean her room again and boy she didn't for maybe a year ! All of a sudden after a couple of years she totally deep cleaned it and has kept it mostly that way since. Just had to share that ! Even if she hadn't that would've been OK too.

  23. I guess I mis-spoke, as a child who forgets their coat and is cold WOULD be a natural consequence. As for the room thing, they actually see it as, it's not hurting anyone, as long as there's nothing growing in there, who cares.
    I guess I don't look at it as punitive, but just as the child taking responsibility for herself. If I say 'pick up the toys please' and she doesn't, what do I do? Pick them up myself? Repeat myself 100 times? Or pack them up after a certain amount of time and say 'how sad you didn't want to pick up your toys so I picked them up and now they're mine' ? Or something else? I will have to request those books you mentioned from the library--I'm always willing to learn new things! I just think maybe I am not explaining this well, even as the natural AP kind of parent I am, I cannot see how it is so horrible or really bad at all.

    Also, I think we underestimate our kids. Maybe a 2 or 3 years old won't remember a 6 inch fall a week later. But my 15 month old might remember it an hour later when she wants to climb on the couch, you know? If she can remember from a week ago that a dog comes up on the screen when the computer starts up, surely she can remember a fall from yesterday. Also, I am certainly not implying that since she's fallen 6 inches I would let her go to the top of a slide without me RIGHT THERE. But I will not be RIGHT THERE for the rest of her life and that, really is the whole point.

  24. Yes, I guess it would be natural but I would feel mean if I had more forethought than my 5 year old and didn't grab his jacket along with mine. I know when we are headed out the door he is so excited to do whatever it is we are doing that he isn't thinking he better grab his jacket because it could possibly be a 30 degrees cooler than it is now in two hours( we live in the desert so this really happens !) I think those are things we think about as we mature. Sure I could be a hard ass and make him learn real quick. The outside world does enough of that to us all . Somewhere along the path I stopped grabbing my oldest child's jacket and it was just natural. It isn't something I remember even thinking about !

    So anyway, it's so hard, for me anyway, to have a conversation in an email and come across the right way.

    Cheers to us AP mamas and our parenting journey !

  25. I don't necessarily think you're wrong Erin, it is hard to communicate via email while homeschooling and being mommy to three kids. I just would handle some of the situations differently. I think it's wonderful that you are communicating with your daughter with love and not violence. I think even in the AP world, there are different ways to handle situations.
    For me, it seems the more I read and the more I get into homeschooling, the more I take a step back and watch my children. If given the opportunity, they usually make the right decisions. Maybe they might hate to wear their coats at 2, so I would tell them, "I have it with me if you change
    your mind" just wouldn't be a problem by the time they were 4 or 5. They would get dressed and put their coats on because they understood.....without me having to say "see, I told you so a time or two". With the toy pick up, I
    just don't give power to cleaning...I say something like "lets clean this up before we do..., it's not a bid deal, it's just something that has to happen. I'll get down and help and sometimes I've cleaned it all by myself, and sometimes my son will clean up three rooms and fluff pillows or something
    without me even having to ask, so it balances out. I let
    them know that they are important to this family and it takes all of us to keep everything going.
    If you haven't subscribed to the daily groove, I think you'd enjoy it.

  26. there is a book about "training" (switching) babies... its called "To Train Up A Child" by Michael Pearl. It is the meanest thing I have ever read. Mostly starting once they are being "rebellious" and mobile, but also to start at birth with "teaching" them not to cry to be picked up. :(

  27. "The Whites" - yes, it is a scary book indeed! Dr. Sears released a statement not long ago about this 'style' of treating our babies in such a way (and promoting it through local churches - even more frightening). His article:

  28. Well I will preface this by saying that DH and I are 100% on board this gentle discipline, love-based method of parenting.

    But I think mothers who have spirited children feel that they have no choice. I've already felt perplexed several times over what to do. When you have a willfull or spirited child, it can be hard to believe all this talk about love, peace and gentle parenting.

    (I am not defending spanking sorry if it sounds that way).

    So far I have been lucky. We tried four varieties of outlet covers, including the special twist and lock kinds. We tried hiding her so she couldn't see how we did it but she still figured it out. I was at my wits end...until one day she was plugging in her laptop and it shocked her. Voila. Now she leaves the outlets alone.

    But what if she had been seriously hurt? I lucked out this time, what next? She's figured out how to open the fridge and freezer, she can pull open the drawers to climb onto them and get onto the counter, she can figure out any type of mechanical object...

    Now it's getting to the point where she will sneak out of the bed while we are sleeping. Forget the crib; she can crawl in and out of the crib. She can use items to climb into them and open the doors. And I don't want to lock the doors; I think that is a big fire hazard.

    Well, anyways, I guess this turned more into a pleading vent rather than anything really productive. The main thing is that I can't imagine any type of physical discipline will train her or even slow her down...short of perhaps beating her harshly. What a horrifying thought, of doing that. So I hope that as she grows, her trust in us and her intellect will both grow to accept reason. :) Hopefully.

    I'll breathe a sigh of relief when we both survive childhood....


  29. i've read a lot of comments about people completely turned off to spanking, and i understand. i just want to tell you our situation.

    spanking is ONE of the tools in my parenting tool box. we also do natural consequences and time outs.

    however, i never spank in anger. i remain in control of my emotions and do not raise my voice to our 2 year old daughter.

    and may i say, that because i do not spank with anger, my daughter is not afraid. we surround ANY discipline with kind, loving words and affirmation.

    because we "spanked" (swat on thigh) beginning around 12 months and were consistent with teaching her that when we say no, we mean no we now have a daughter who is a delight to be around. there are things that i have out that she knows she isn't allowed to play with. when we go to other people's houses, i don't have to ask them to move something or have a constant battle with her.

    also, because we spanked and taught her that we meant what we say we SO RARELY spank now. i don't remember the last time i spanked her. she understands what we expect.

    anything can become abusive. a mother who doesn't spank, but yells at her kids, speaks regretful words, and is frustrated can be just as abusive as a spanker. the potential is always there for all of us to become what we hate.

    having a child has changed ME tremendously. i am so much more the person i want to be because i am focusing on who i want her to be.

    just a thought. :)

  30. Em that is a really interesting perspective but begs the question b/c you began physical discipline so this a case of consistent physical discipline or is it personality, or other factors?

    For example, I have a sister who acts just like what you describe in your post. She has not been physically disciplined. Her behavior could just as easily be attributed to a no-spank policy.

    I've noticed that personality is a big factor in determining the child's response to any type of discipline. For example, you mention using time outs. For some people, isolation is akin to neglect. This is in fact, a very well though out argument that you can find online if you google.

    I also have another sister who is very sensitive to isolation. To send her to her room might as well be a death sentence. The deprivation of other people slices right to her core.

    But then for other kids, time outs do not work at all and simply become a power struggle between the parent and child.

    The particular problem with choleric children seems to be their stubborn attitude and their need for logic/reason. They won't be swayed unless you convince them. You absolutely will not win. You can do whatever you think might work...swat or smack or whatever the popular term is these days. If they reason it to be in their best interest they might follow along. But they sure won't be submitting to your authority even if it is seems that way on the surface.

    My brother is my fondest example of a choleric. He got into his older brother's personal belongings. Said older brother discovered this and promptly started wrassling with him, being rather mean to him. My little brother pushed him off, stood up and said, "HA! That didn't hurt! Try again!"

    I'm afraid I've ended up with such a child. :) The mental prowess is fascinating. The conversation is fun. But the discipline? Oh my. What a task!

    Anyways, I am glad to hear that you are spanking more rarely as she approaches 2 years of age. I wish you luck on your journey.

  31. For us, the "baby proofing" devices only ever served to engage my kids' curiosity. We soon ditched most of that and would act out the consequences of what would happen, or just simply tell them (kids understand language earlier than they can produce it). Our kids learned the "secrets" of the house--stairs, outlets, toilets, refrigerator, oven/stovetop etc. because in knowing the item, they no longer needed to explore the forbidden item (and for my guys, forbidden=interesting).

    For the stove and oven, I took them near it when it was hot and held their hand a safe distance so they could feel heat (but not get burned at all). Then I put my own hand a little closer and acted out getting burned, and told them it was hot and would burn them. Giving labels to dangers always helped too.

    Gates on stairs became climbing challenges, so they disappeared as a fall from ground level would be less dangerous than from the top of the gate--but we also showed them how to turn around and go down backwards. By the time they could crawl, they could also learn to deal with stairs.

    Sometimes it can be easy to rely on a gadget rather than to model caution with dangerous items. And sometimes the gadgets fail or become dangerous in their own rite.

    Babies and toddlers need to be able to explore, and learn about danger too, but also to be kept safe. It's a fine line between allowing them to learn and keeping them safe.

  32. um, am I the only person that thinks that not spanking in anger but in cold calculation is actually worse? like pre-meditated murder compared to a crime of passion?

    me and my son "time out" together, I don't use it as a humiliation but as an opportunity for us to sit quietly away from everything and talk about the situation and the rights and wrongs of it, it really works and I find there is ALWAYS an emotional reason for his behaviour and once we get to the bottom of it he is much happier and stops being anti social.

  33. Thank you Ella, I too have always been freaked out by people who say "Oh, I never spank in anger". What, you act out violently in a perfectly calm and reasonable state? That is, as you say, akin to premeditated murder. Frightening really.

    I find that "wait until your father gets home" just as bad. Firstly, is lashing out in anger a dish apparently best served by someone unconnected to the incident? Secondly, are women unable to punish or get angry? Thirdly, is that all you've got in your toolbox? Surely, waiting for the punishment is akin to being punished twice?

    I'd also like to add that you look absolutely ridiculous smacking a child, particularly when they can, and do, outrun you. I was not smacked as a child, my mother preferred more subtle and cold forms of discipline (she liked to make her love conditional on unrealistic expectations of behaviour), but I do remember going to a friend's house once and feeling extremely uncomfortable as her mother chased my friend and her sister around the house with a wooden spoon. This charade went on for an hour until it was time for me to go home.



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