Spanking and Later Alcohol Abuse

Research connecting both spanking and early experimentation with alcohol to alcohol abuse and other problems later in adulthood needs to be evaluated.

A study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal has concluded that children who are spanked are twice as likely to develop alcohol abuse problems and to engage in anti-social behavior as adults. Such children are also reported to have a higher rate of anxiety disorders in adulthood. 1

The authors claim that spanking causes subsequent alcohol abuse and other problems. But does spanking really lead to alcohol abuse? There are good reasons to think not. For example, it is known that children with impulsive personalities are more likely to receive physical punishment. 2 And impulsive people may well be more likely to experience problems associated with alcohol, such as fighting and drinking while intoxicated.

FamilyIf it is not impulsivity, it may be sensation-seeking, aggression, or any of a large number of other personality characteristics that is associated with both being spanked and abusing alcohol.

Other research has suggested that having a drink at an early age causes later drinking problems. But does that early drink really cause drinking problems in adulthood?

Again, sensation-seeking, impulsivity, or any of a large number of other personal characteristics might lead to both trying alcohol at an early age and having drinking problems later in life. And the research has many other serious weaknesses such as asking adults to remembers specific events of their early childhood. And it fails account for the fact that parents and their children share numerous genes in common. The list of weaknesses goes on and on. 3

So it's not likely that either spanking or early experimentation with alcohol actually causes drinking problems among adults. But in spite of this, the spanking study has led to demands in Canada that spanking be outlawed because it supposedly causes alcohol abuse. Similarly, the questionable belief that experimenting with alcohol at an early age causes later drinking problems is a basis for public policy regarding underage drinking, including "zero tolerance," in the United States.

On the other hand, there is much evidence from around the world that alcohol abuse is lower when young people learn about drinking in moderation from an early age.

Flawed research and faulty logic form a very weak foundation on which to build alcohol policy.


  • 1. MacMillan, H., et. al. Slapping and spanking in childhood and its association with lifelong prevalence of psychiatric disorders in a general population sample. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 1999, 161(7), 805-809.
  • 2. Rutter, M., et al. Integrating nature and nurture: implications for person-environment correlations and interactions for developmental psychopathology. Development Psychopathology, 1997, 9, 335-364.
  • 3. Paris, J. Heat and light in the childhood spanking debate. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 2000, 102, 756-757; Schacter, D. L. Searching for Meaning: the Brain, the Mind, the Past. New York: Basic Books, 1996.