Is it, when used sparingly, a necessary and effective way to discipline a child?
Or is it a violation of the rights of the child and the first treacherous step toward abuse?
Parents in the United States are divided on the issue. About 65 percent approve of spanking, according to a recent ABC News poll of 1,015 adults nationwide.
Such high numbers in favor of spanking make many child development experts and spanking researchers wince. Spanking, they say, is an act of violence against society's most vulnerable members.
"It seems morally reprehensible that we allow by law parents and caretakers to hit the most vulnerable group in our society," says Nadine Block, executive director of the Center for Effective Discipline in Columbus, Ohio. "Remember, 100 years ago we were having this discussion about whether it's OK to hit one's wife."
Anti-spanking advocates have lots of research to back up their position.
Elizabeth Gershoff, a developmental psychologist with Columbia University's National Center for Children in Poverty, conducted what many researchers consider the most comprehensive study on spanking.
For her study, published in the July issue of Psychological Bulletin, Gershoff analyzed more than 80 studies on spanking spanning 60 years. She slotted the 36,000 children, ages one to 17, on a continuum ranging from those who were never spanked to those who were spanked most frequently.
The study found children who were spanked most often were the most likely to exhibit one or more of 11 negative psychological behaviors, which included everything from depression to later abuse of one's own child or spouse.
"The more children are spanked the more likely they are to be aggressive, delinquent, defiant, to have mental health issues in the future and to have more relationship issues with the parent," Gershoff says.
However, mild, very occasional spankings pose no threat to a child's development, she says.
Gershoff acknowledges her study has a shortcoming -- she wasn't able to define exactly how much spanking puts kids at risk. Still, she remains a critic of corporal punishment.
But she is not without her critics.
They include Robert E. Larzelere, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. "How parents use spanking is more important than whether they use it -- as with any other disciplinary methods."
Larzelere says the few studies in Gershoff's analysis that explicitly ruled out abusive or violent parenting showed beneficial results for the child as often as not.
"While it is clear that severe or frequent spanking can be harmful to children," Larzelere says, "the best research shows that non-abusive spanking is effective with 2- to 6-year-old children when used to back up milder disciplinary methods, such as reasoning and time out."
Those words will be welcome news to parents who know all about "time outs" but are spanking their kids.
According to the ABC News poll, about 50 percent of the parents surveyed admit to sometimes spanking their children.
Region and education play a role in how likely parents are to spank. Seventy-three percent of parents from the southern United States approve of spanking, compared to 60 percent elsewhere in the country. And 38 percent of parents with college degrees endorse spanking, compared to 55 percent of less educated parents, the poll found.
Gershoff says there's one caveat to her study: In each of the 88 studies she reviewed, the question about spanking was asked differently. Therefore, the original researchers used different scales to determine if a child was hit rarely or often.
For example, some studies asked how often a parent hit a child in the last year, some studies asked how hard the parents hit, others asked if the parents hit with an object.
So it's impossible to say how much spanking will lead to lasting psychological damage. But it's safe to say one or two mild spankings aren't going to do it, Gershoff says.
"Not all children who are spanked will have these negative outcomes," Gershoff says. "Most of us are evidence of that. Most of us were spanked and were fine."
So does that mean a little corporal punishment is OK?
Not according to Gershoff and other spanking researchers. The occasional spanking might not leave lasting psychological damage, but that doesn't mean it's a good thing to do, they say.
Spanking is aggressive behavior, Gershoff says, and children learn by example. "It teaches the child that using aggression and force is an OK way to get something," she says.
"What we want to teach kids is to make appropriate decisions when we're not around and spanking doesn't help with that," Gershoff says.
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