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Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?
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Thursday, May 31, 2012

Spanking, Aggression, and the Claims of Alice Miller

Of all the posts I’ve ever done on this blog, the ones most likely to be commented on have been those dealing with the claim that spanking children causes them to be violently aggressive, either then or in later life. This idea received much elaboration from the late Alice Miller, a strongly psychoanalytically-oriented scholar and popular author, and her fans continue to pursue the same way of thinking. (I must say I give credit to both Miller and her followers for their wish to find ways to moderate human violence--  at the same time that I am compelled to say that they are wrong in their understanding of aggressive behavior.)

I am bringing up this topic again today because of an interesting issue of the magazine Science, the house organ of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. This issue (18 May 2012) focuses on the topic of human conflict. In a special section, authors discuss the aggressive behavior of our pre-human ancestors, issues about ethnic and cultural conflict and racism, the evolution of empathy, the treatment of PTSD among veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the possibility of life without war as modeled by societies in the past and present. Does anyone notice what topic is not here? That’s right--  there is no discussion of the origins of human aggression in childhood experience. A group of authors examining various aspects of human conflict did not look to spanking as a cause of violence. Instead, they assumed that aggressive behavior is one aspect of human life, just as it is a natural aspect for all our primate relatives.

Humans are able to be aggressive in various ways, as is the case for all mammals, however peaceful and long-suffering they may be. Like other mammals, humans can show aggression impulsively and under the motivation of anger or fear. They can also show instrumental aggression, by harming or distressing other creatures without being angry or afraid, but instead motivated by the wish to create a desirable outcome. Organized societies use instrumental aggression for various reasons. They appoint soldiers to aggress against other people with whom they may not be angry (as Muhammad Ali famously said when refusing induction into the army, “I ain’t got nothing against them Viet Congs”) but who may pose some imminent or remote threat to the group. They choose police officers to arrest and incarcerate people who have harmed or threatened others, usually not the police themselves. They employ judges to decide what punishment should be received by convicted criminals who generally are no threat to the judges.

Spanking or other physical punishments of children can be matters of impulsive, angry, or fearful emotionally-driven behavior--  and when they are of this type, they may or may not cause serious physical harm. They may also be instrumental aggression, designed to bring about a desired result such as changes in child behavior. Followers of Alice Miller tend to emphasize repressed motives of pleasure in causing pain to a child--  and obviously these can be present and guide the adult’s actions--  but it is also possible that physical punishment is considered by the adult as simply a means to an end, no more associated with anger or fear than is the prick of the vaccination needle intended to protect the child from disease.

But if everyone shares a human capacity to behave aggressively, why is it that some are so much more aggressive than others? In a recent paper, the well-known developmental psychologist Theodore Beauchaine discussed how genetic predispositions interact with family behavior to create problem outcomes in the form of externalizing disorders--  emotional disturbances that lead to unjustified attacks on other people. (Beauchaine’s paper, “Physiological markers of emotion and behavior dysregulation in externalizing psychopathology”, is in a monograph of the Society for Research on Child Development, Physiological measures of emotion from a developmental perspective: State of the science, 2012; edited by T.A. Dennis, K.A. Buss, and P.D. Hastings.) Beauchaine suggested that neither a genetic tendency toward impulsiveness nor poor family experiences created a strong tendency toward delinquent or aggressive behavior--  but a combination of the two is necessary before externalizing problems are likely to develop. Children who are constitutionally impulsive learn in their families good or poor ways to regulate themselves emotionally, and those whose emotional regulation is poor are likely to be inappropriately aggressive as they suffer for long periods from sadness, fear, or anger that they have not learned to cope with.

Beauchaine’s work shows how other issues connected with physical punishment could be causes of  later aggressive behavior--  parents who rely primarily on spanking to control child behavior may not supply any help in learning emotional regulation, whereas those who spank less or not at all  may offer guidance in emotional regulation. For example, the non-spankers may do more talking about emotion, offer words to describe emotions, and point out how they or others are made to feel if the child misbehaves. The child in turn can use self-talk about emotion to reduce persistent and uncomfortable negative feelings—a strategy that would not be learned in a family that depended on physical punishment for discipline.

Following this line of thought, we seem to arrive at the idea that basic human characteristics cause aggression, but that appropriate family experiences can modulate aggressive tendencies and guide them along appropriate pathways. The issue may not be whether or not to spank children, but instead what positive and helpful experiences children need in order to develop good self-regulation and control over aggressive impulses. Prohibiting spanking may not be an effective strategy after all.  Our efforts may best be put into offering parents guidance about supporting their children’s development of emotional regulation.


  1. Hi, Just wanted to say I'm enjoying your blog. Got here looking for adoption information, but like the critical thinking approach and diversity of topics. Thanks

  2. Thanks, and welcome! If you want good adoption info, try, and the Brown University Child and Adolescent Behavior Letter, both very reliable sources. Also, Tufts University has a web site that suggests good child development sites. It can be hard to separate the wheat from the chaff when you just Google "adoption", as so much is based on the goals of this industry.