The Legal Status of Corporal Punishment
Violence Against Women
Years ago, it was acceptable for a husband in the United States to beat his wife in order to get her to do what he wanted or to punish her. His asserting his authority through corporal punishment was accepted as a social norm.
Due to dedicated and determined activists working to improve the status and safety of women, violence against women by their husbands is now punishable in courts of law and is considered by the general population to be assault and a criminal behavior.
Violence Against Children
In contrast, today in our country, a parent’s right to discipline his children with physical force remains a deeply held belief. Just as it used to be considered government interference in a man’s right to hit his wife, so now there is a similar attitude when it comes to parents’ rights to discipline their children, specifically using physical force.
Even states that distinguish between legal and “reasonable” forms of corporal punishment and illegal forms that are considered abusive, the definition of what separates the two is subjective and exists in a gray area.
This article uses the dictionary to define corporal punishment: legal, educational, and psychological definitions of corporal punishment involve the purposeful infliction of pain on the human body as a penalty for an offense.
Rather than using the term “spanking,” which covers up the hard truth about what spanking really is – hitting a child – and allows parents to deny the reality of what they are actually doing to their children, this article will refer to physical force to discipline a child as “corporal punishment.”
This term has come to include not just hitting, but:
- pulling hair
- twisting arms
- painful confinement in a restricted space
- forcing a child to assume a fixed posture for a long time
- excessive drills and exercise
- forced ingestion of noxious substances
- exposure to painful environments (Hyman, p.9).
This article presents the case against using corporal punishment as a means for disciplining children.
According to the Global Initiative to End all Corporal Punishment of Children,
“It is paradoxical and an affront to humanity that the smallest and most vulnerable of people should have less protection from assault than adults.”
Additionally, the UN Convention on the Rights of Children, currently ratified by 194 countries specifically states that children have the right to be free from “all forms of physical and mental violence, injury, or abuse.”
Only three countries have not signed on to protect children; these countries are South Sudan, Somalia, and the United States.
The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child actively works to end the use of corporal punishment and defines it as “any punishment in which physical force is used and intended to cause some degree of pain or discomfort, however light.”
Honoring the rights of children is a human rights movement, one which sets out to protect children who are dependent on their parents and other adults to provide them with a safe and secure environment.
Nonetheless, regardless of the rest of the world’s view about corporal punishment and all the research that has been conducted suggesting its harmful effects, American parents frequently resort to physical force when disciplining their children.
Frequent Use of Physical Punishment Leads to Violence
Irwin Hyman, in his book The Case Against Spanking, states that America is “one of the most punitive of Western democracies in regard to children, misbehavior, and defiance.” And this proclivity to use physical punishment, the archetype of many other forms of assault and battery, has made our country one of the most violent in the world (Greven, p. 8).
Children are more likely to be assaulted and injured within their own families than in any other group they are a part of, mainly because of our society’s belief that corporal punishment can be used in controlling children’s behavior and because we believe that parents should have the freedom to discipline their children however they see fit.
The Violence Continuum
Hitting is the gateway to child abuse; with our society’s acceptance of it as a form of discipline, it has the effect of increasing the incidence of child abuse in our culture. Corporal punishment and child abuse are both on the same violence continuum. Many parents don’t know when to stop and corporal punishment can and does slip into child abuse.
The child abuse rate of parents who approve of physical punishment is four times higher than that of parents who do not approve of physical punishment. “The National Family Violence Surveys show that parents severely assault at least 1.7 million children each year. It is estimated that 60% of child abuse cases began as physical punishment” (Marshall, p. 10-13).
The Incidence of Corporal Punishment
According to an NBC poll conducted in 2013, 50% of parents admit to using corporal punishment at some point.
Other surveys indicate the number may be as high as 80%. According to a 2002 study published by “Child Abuse Review,” 80% of American preschool children are spanked.
A University of Michigan study found that 30% of babies under one year of age were spanked at least once in the month prior to the study; according to the Michigan professors, “spanking babies is particularly misguided.” The incidence of spanking was found across all socio-economic and educational levels (Glenn).
Despite a great deal of research indicating that hitting children is harmful to the child’s development and to the parent/child relationship, so many parents in our culture continue to use corporal punishment as a discipline tool. There are a number of reasons why this is so.
These parents may:
not be aware of or do not believe the experts who say that corporal punishment is harmful.
erroneously believe that hitting is an effective way to raise well-behaved children. Here is where the phrase “I’m doing it for your own good” comes in as a rationalization.
believe that children are best motivated by fear and that children should be reflexively obedient to their parents.
believe that children who are not punished by physical force are not being disciplined. They may not be aware of alternative, more effective forms of discipline.
believe religious interpretations/dictums which teach that children are inherently bad and that they need to use physical force to mold their children into acceptable human beings.
believe that since their parents hit them and “they turned out alright,” then it will “work” when they use it on their children. Violence begets violence.
feel they are being disloyal to their own parents if they use different child-rearing practices than their parents used with them.
have difficulties in controlling their angry impulses. They lash out without thinking first about what else they could do.
live in a culture in which it is an acceptable form of discipline. It is easier to hit a child if you see it being done all around you.
not understand facts about normal child development. Consequently, they expect their children to act more maturely than they are capable of behaving. These unrealistic expectations can lead to frustration and anger.
When parents hit their children, they are usually responding impulsively and in anger, using the primitive part of their brain, rather than engaging the more advanced part of the brain where restraint and judgment occur.
When they get upset or frustrated, their response is “knee-jerk” and often reflects the flight or fight survival mode of our ancient ancestors. Most parents do not hit their children when they are calm and have rationally thought through how best to respond.
Michael Marshall, in his book Why Spanking Doesn’t Work, says:
“Whatever a parent’s parenting goals are, they can be achieved much better without spanking. Spanking will only serve to strongly interfere with any possible desirable parenting goals you may have. It will create many more problems than it will ever solve!”
Parents may try to justify physical punishment by saying that what they do is not severe. However, there is really no way to distinguish between “legitimate violence” toward children from abuse, which is excessive and inappropriate (Greven p. 9).
All levels of violence against children, including all the varied forms of corporal punishment, are hurtful and harmful.
What the Research Shows
So what are the specific implications of disciplining children by physically assaulting them, whether gently or moderately or severely or brutally? Read on.
In 2012, the Canadian Medical Journal Association published an analysis of over 80 studies documenting the effects of corporal punishment on children; not one found any positive long-term effect, and there were many detrimental effects (Glenn).
Children whose parents use corporal punishment are more likely to engage in future domestic violence and to perpetuate the cycle in their families by hitting their own children because that was what was taught to them. Once again, violence begets violence (Marshall 38, 39).
In 2012, The American Academy of Pediatrics strongly opposed the use of physical punishment to discipline children and recommends that parents develop methods other than corporal punishment in response to undesired behavior, adding:
“Even in the absence of ‘severe child mistreatment’ – such as sexual abuse or neglect – physical punishments such as ‘pushing, grabbing, shoving, slapping, or hitting’ are by nature violent acts and lead to a statistically observable increase in mental disorders.” (Glenn).
Children who are hit as toddlers have a lower IQ than children who are not spanked.
According to Murray Straus, a professor at the University of New Hampshire and Director of the Family Research Lab there, children who were spanked or slapped averaged a five-point drop in IQ.
The strongest link between corporal punishment and IQ occurs when parents continue to hit their children into their teen years. Yet, “even small amounts of spanking make a difference,” according to Straus. (Glenn).
Hitting a child puts him at greater risk of developing depression, substance abuse, and aggressiveness. (Glenn).
In another study, it was found that delinquent youth were invariably harshly disciplined (Marshall, 14).
Many parents who “punished their children to death” did not mean to kill them.
One study found that of 201 cases of caretakers charged with murdering their children, two-thirds of them did not set out to impose severe forms of corporal punishment; yet their actions ultimately killed the children (Hyman p. 31-32).
Although parents may defend their use of corporal punishment by stating that it “works” in stopping the unwanted behavior, studies have shown that such compliance is in fact short-lived.
Research conducted at Southern Methodist University shows that in most cases, the offending behavior resumed within ten minutes of spanking, which is why spanking has to be repeated so often – the children are not learning the lessons the parents want them to learn.
In fact, one survey conducted by Public Agenda, a non-partisan think tank, found that only 34% of parents who use corporal punishment said they have been successful at teaching their children self-control (Glenn).
Following are a few studies that reflect this lack of internal controls among children who are victims of corporal punishment (Hyman p. 59 – 60):
Preschoolers who are hit by their parents are more likely to be impulsive and aggressive than those who are not.
Frequent and harsh corporal punishment is consistently found to be present in the lives of boys who are aggressive, disobedient, lie, cheat, are destructive with their own and others’ belongings, and associate with friends prone to delinquency.
Frequent and harsh corporal punishment can also cause young children to bottle up their feelings of fear, anger, and hostility; in later life, these children are unusually prone to aggressive behavior or suicidal thoughts, suicide, and depression.
The negative results of using corporal punishment indicate that any short-term benefit in temporary compliance that comes from frightening a child with the threat or act of being hit carries too high an emotional price.
Following is a summary of the negative effects of corporal punishment on children:
Corporal punishment shames the child.
Hitting and other forms of corporal punishment cause the child to feel that there is inherently something wrong with him, rather than understanding that it was his behavior that was wrong. Instead of focusing on the mistakes he might have made, he is filled with shame.
Corporal punishment undermines the development of trust.
A sense of security in the parent/child relationship is essential for healthy development. Children need their parents’ guidance but may resist admitting to mistakes out of concern that there will be “a price to be paid.”
Children do not learn constructive ways to resolve differences.
It teaches children that hitting is an acceptable response when angry and models violence as an acceptable way of solving problems.
Children learn that a stronger person can hit a weaker person.
Later on, in trying to cope with the complexities of human relationships, they resort to some of their earliest, most powerful and profound lessons from childhood: that “might makes right.”
Children learn that the people who love them also will hurt them.
This causes confusion and anxiety for them and can ultimately lead to their becoming involved in abusive relationships with peers and other close relationships throughout their childhood, adolescence, and adulthood.
Children do not learn right from wrong.
They don’t develop their own internal controls. If children whose parents hit them can get away with something or if someone isn’t nearby to monitor their behavior, they will do what they can get away with. In their mind, that becomes what is “right.”
They do not learn self-control and do not learn to monitor their own behavior. It actually makes children more likely to engage in the forbidden behaviors when they think they won’t get caught.
Children can become fearful of their parents.
If corporal punishment is used, children may obey out of fear, not out of an understanding of the limits set. Levels of anxiety and depression are also higher among these children.
Children often end up feeling angry at their parents.
When spanked, they don’t think about what they did wrong; they think about what their parents did wrong to them. In other words, they externalize the responsibility for their behavior rather than feel accountable for it.
For example, a child whose mother hit him for breaking a vase may think, “I can’t believe she did that to me,” rather than owning up to what he did by thinking “I shouldn’t have been throwing the ball in the house.”
Children may become more aggressive.
Children whose parents use corporal punishment are more likely to be aggressive with peers and even to become bullies. Violence has been modeled for them and is spread throughout their social circles.
Corporal punishment contributes to lowered self-esteem.
This can result in poor academic performance, a lack of resiliency, and poor social skills. (Hyman, p. 59) These children are less spontaneous, have difficulty concentrating, and are afraid to try new things out of fear that it will result in more punishment (Marshall, p.24).
No matter how infrequently a child is hit, this form of discipline will undermine to some extent the parent-child relationship and the level of trust the child places in the parents and the child’s belief in his worth and abilities.
Parents who hit frequently and harshly often have not learned self-control themselves. It is ironic that in some cases, the parent who is using physical force is often more out of control than the misbehaving child.
“Violent behavior is learned,” says Emily Friedan, Chief of the Division of Community Pediatricians of Western New York. “It can be prevented from the very beginning, and prevention must start with the adults who fill children’s lives.”
On spanking, her advice is straightforward: Don’t discipline with physical punishment. “Doing so teaches children that the people who love them are the ones most likely to hurt them, that physical force is justified, and that violence is an acceptable way of solving problems.”
It’s Never Too Late
Not all children whose parents use corporal punishment will have problems or become a menace to society; the damaging effects of hitting fall on a continuum – the more severely corporal punishment is used, the greater will be the damaging effects (Marshall, p.7).
These negative effects can be mitigated by other conditions in the household, like the amount of nurturing a child receives. Children who are raised by supportive and caring parents will generally exhibit fewer negative consequences and have a greater chance of growing up to become successful members of society, in spite of the fact that they were hit as children.
Practice Self-Awareness and Learn New Skills
Manage your own Anger
Before parents can stop hitting, they have to acknowledge that they may be striking out at their children because of their own frustrations and lack of ability to manage their own feelings. They may be having a terrible day and end up taking it out on their child.
So when it comes to learning alternative forms of discipline, first and foremost, parents need to find ways to control their own anger. This is no easy task, especially if the parent has had a lifetime of responding automatically in rage to frustrations without taking the time to think first.
Learn Other Discipline Tools
Learning and practicing alternative discipline tools will give parents the skills they need to respond in a calm way to their children’s misbehavior so they don’t feel so helpless and out-of-control. There are many ways parents can discipline their children without hitting them and scaring them into submission.
A general principle in all of psychology is that the results are far superior when behavior is managed by using a positive approach, such as rewarding a desirable behavior, rather than when a negative approach such as punishment, is used.
It makes more sense for discipline to be used as a way to help children learn rather than to hurt them into learning (Marshall p.19).
Develop Techniques that Work as Children Grow
What will parents do as their children become older and larger if their only means of control is physical intimidation? How will they be able to influence their children’s choices in the future? Parents can practice using other healthier means of discipline while their children are still young.
By building a more harmonious parent-child relationship before the children become adolescents, it is more likely that when the children are teens they will listen to their parents and accept their guidance.
Consider your own family legacy.
Think about how your parents used corporal punishment and decide what you want to pass on to your children and what you want to change.
Learn anger management techniques.
Count to ten, take deep breaths, remove yourself from the situation until you are calm (assuming the child is safe), even if you have to leave the child in his crib. Repeat a “mantra” such as ‘this will pass,’ ‘I can handle this,’ ‘my child is not doing this to drive me crazy.’ You can be a role model for impulse control and self-control.
Reward and encourage positive behavior.
Catching your children doing something “right” will lead them to repeat it.
Adjust your expectations.
If you find yourself frequently frustrated, consider whether you are expecting too much from your children. Learn about typical child development – some of their challenging behavior may be developmentally appropriate even though it is frustrating.
Let go of an issue when you can.
If the issue is not that important and the struggle is harming your relationship with your children, you can choose to let it go for a while. Pick your battles!
Establish clear rules.
Set your standards in advance so your children know what appropriate behavior is and what you expect of them.
Instead of physical punishment, you can get your children’s attention by using age-appropriate consequences, such as taking away certain privileges.
Take a break to help your children and you to calm down.
You can revisit the issue when cooler heads prevail. Once calm, parents can use more thoughtful means to teach their children what they need to learn and to guide them to more appropriate behavior.
Discuss with your children ways to deal with a problem.
Children are more cooperative when they have a say in setting the rules and coming up with solutions. This tool is especially helpful with children older than four years of age.
Teach your children to express their emotions.
Encourage them to use their words rather than acting out their feelings. You can be a model for this behavior by expressing your emotions verbally.
These alternative methods for handling anger and discipline require effort on the parents’ part. All forms of corporal punishment are quick, knee-jerk reactions, while thinking about discipline takes time and can be difficult.
But it is worth the effort: effective discipline encourages a healthy relationship between parents and children, which is what parents want and children need. Without resorting to corporal punishment, parents can discipline in such a way that they can raise children who can “balance obedience with independence, conformity with self-expression, and respect for authority with healthy questioning of authority” (Hyman, p. 81).
Parents can learn to discipline within the context of a warm and loving relationship so that their children will thrive and so that they remain the safe and trusting secure base to which their children will turn when they need support and encouragement.
Parenting is the hardest job in the world and there are no quick fixes. It is a 24/7 endeavor requiring tremendous patience and constant giving of yourself. There are no perfect parents, and there is no need to be perfect in order to raise healthy, well-adjusted children. All parents make mistakes, but they can learn from those mistakes, strive to do better next time, and aim to do the right thing.
Children deserve parents who vow not to let corporal punishment become an established method of discipline and who are willing to learn how to model patience, caring, kindness, and reason to help them grow to become all that they are capable of. They deserve nothing less, and so does our society.
- Glenn, Amy Wright, Ending Corporal Punishment: Why you Should Never Spank a Child, Blog on Philly.com, May 2014
- Grever, Phillip, Spare the Child: The Religious Roots of Punishment and the Psychological Impact of Physical Abuse
- Hyman, Irwin, The Case Against Spanking: How to Discipline Your Child Without Hitting
- Marshall, Michael, Why Spanking Doesn’t Work: Stopping This Bad Habit and Getting the Upper Hand on Effective Discipline
For more information about why not to use corporal punishment as a discipline tool, check out the following books. Purchasing from Amazon.com through our website supports the work we do to help parents do the best job they can to raise their children.
For information about what you can do as an alternative to using corporal punishment, preview or purchase the following books.