Should Child Corporal Punishment Be Prohibited by Law? Psychological Research And Current US Policy

Submitted by Kimberly Dienes, guest blogger.

ss_101833846This week on Wednesday, the state Appellate Division of New York determined that open-hand spanking of an 8-year-old boy at a party was ‘a reasonable use of force.’ According to an article published on the case in the New York Daily News, the perspective that spanking does not constitute “excessive corporal punishment” is a common finding in courts across the country, regardless of the type of spanking (hand, spoon, or paddle), and the frequency and duration of spanking (several times a day, once a week, one spank, 37 spanks). After yet another case involving child corporal punishment has hit the courts, we must turn once again to the question of whether child corporal punishment should be regulated, or perhaps even prohibited, by law.

The moral issue of child corporal punishment has been hotly debated, with people on either side arguing on the basis of personal experience, race, religion and culture.  However, personal opinion aside, when we address this issue in our lives or in our laws it’s important to recognize several facts that have been well established in psychological research: a) spanking doesn’t work nearly as well as other behavioral techniques and b) it leads to immediate and long term negative consequences for the child.

Spanking is a form of behavioral modification called “positive punishment.” If you want to increase the frequency of behaviors you engage in reinforcement, positive or negative. If you want to decrease the frequency of behaviors you engage in punishment, positive or negative. Positive refers to adding a stimulus, negative to taking it away. Some examples are: giving gold stars in class for good behavior (positive reinforcement), cleaning your room to avoid mom’s nagging (negative reinforcement), spanking to reduce cursing (positive punishment), taking away allowance to reduce cursing (negative punishment). The majority of child psychological research suggests that reinforcement works better than punishment for learning. Punishment is moderately effective when employed immediately and consistently, but otherwise it just doesn’t work. Reinforcement is much stronger as a behavioral modification technique for children (interesting study on why).

Secondly, research has shown that spanking leads to a host of negative consequences. There is a wonderful meta-analysis by Gershoff (2002), where she summarizes the results from 88 studies on child corporal punishment and clearly supports point b. She reports that corporal punishment does result in immediate compliance (sometimes), but also immediate aggression. Corporal punishment actually reduces long-term compliance, and increases long-term aggression and antisocial behavior. There are a number of articles out there about the negative mental health effects of spanking as well.

Statements a and b are relatively well known and empirically supported, however the question remains whether the legislative branch of the United States should regulate child corporal punishment. 31 countries worldwide, with Sweden leading the way, have passed legislation to prohibit all child corporal punishment, with the US as a notable exception. The US is one of two countries along with Somalia that hasn’t ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child that recognizes the human rights of persons under 18. Approximately 90% of American parents have spanked their children according to polls from 1999 and 2005, and rates are relatively consistentNo US state prohibits corporal punishment, although 31 states and the District of Columbia do prohibit corporal punishment in schools. Most states do have statutes addressing child corporal punishment. Alaska has my favorite statute, because what on earth could constitute reasonable and appropriate non-deadly force (and incompetent people?! But that is another issue)?

“When and to the extent reasonably necessary and appropriate to promote the welfare of the child or incompetent person, a parent, guardian, or other person entrusted with the care and supervision of a child under 18 years of age or an incompetent person may use reasonable and appropriate non deadly force upon that child or incompetent person”

Most states have statutes against excessive corporal punishment of a child. This begs the question of what exactly is excessive corporal punishment? Straus and Gershoff provide reasonable definitions of corporal punishment:

“Corporal punishment is the use of physical force with the intention of causing a child to experience pain but not injury for the purposes of correction or control of the child’s behavior” (p. 4).

“Behaviors that do not result in significant physical injury (e.g., spank, slap) are considered corporal punishment, whereas behaviors that risk injury (e.g., punching, kicking, burning) are considered physical abuse.” (p. 564)

But a spank or a slap can result in significant physical injury depending on a number of factors. Further, it is almost impossible to determine cutoffs for mild, moderate, and excessive corporal punishment. In clinical practice, we are mandated to report anything that might leave a mark…but, for how long? How much of a mark? Is spanking once a week ok? What about spanking once a week, but with a wooden spoon, and lasting for an hour? The marks might be gone the next day and let’s face it, can be very well hidden. What about how hard the individual hits? I know that a wooden spoon in the hands of a heavy weight boxer intent on mayhem is a whole lot different than a wooden spoon in the hands of my 94-year-old grandma.

When a child has bruises and broken bones we are relatively certain excessive corporal punishment has occurred, but how do we determine what is acceptable when we get into the grey area where spanking resides? What about those mild and moderate corporal punishment categories where a child still suffers but isn’t going to the hospital? Who is going to take into account frequency, duration, strength of perpetrator, age of child, mechanism etc. of spanking and tell us that it is “acceptable?” I cannot conceive of a failsafe algorithm that would tell us whether a spanking is acceptable.

Therefore, based on the statements that spanking doesn’t work as a behavior technique, it leads to negative consequences for our children immediately and later on in life, countries who have banned it have shown very positive consequences, and that it is almost impossible to provide general criteria for excessive corporal punishment, why don’t we just prohibit spanking all together and create some legislation to that effect?

Sadly, realistically speaking, I don’t see us going black and white and banning all child corporal punishment any time soon on a countrywide basis. One argument against it is that we would be arresting 90% of parents. However, in Sweden, the social service representatives don’t immediately arrest parents for spanking their children, they will tell them it’s against the law and give them some support materials; and the transition to uphold the new legislation was moderate and smooth.   But we aren’t Sweden. Assuming, knowing the US, that we aren’t going the route of Sweden, we can start with good personal steps. Can’t we as individuals realize that irrespective of whether spanking is ethically unacceptable, it really doesn’t work? Research has shown that parents who read literature illustrating how useless spanking is a behavioral technique tend to stop doing it or at least reduce the frequency, so let’s start there. Then let’s get some state legislation going against child corporal punishment.

Take a look at the definition of child corporal punishment above. Corporal punishment involves causing a child pain. I bet we can think of something better to do to help our children learn.

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119 thoughts on “Should Child Corporal Punishment Be Prohibited by Law? Psychological Research And Current US Policy”

  1. Paul,
    I talk to teachers through the fire dept. and I always walk away thinking no way in hell I would ever become a teacher after listening to how we handcuff them.

    I think the elephant in the room is “fear”. For some reason we have evolved socially to think fear is bad. It is a core instinct though and protects us from doing things that usually have bad results. I feared my principles all through school. I didn’t know them, didn’t want too. I wanted to stay as far away from them as possible. Getting sent to the “office” was terrifying. When I lived out in CA for a bit it sickened me they way the principle in my sons elementary school felt she needed to be everyone’s friend. She had know authority and the kids pick up on this. Children and people need to know that no matter what they are doing there is someone better than them. Without that, there is now reason to grow.

    Annie, Teachers don’t necessarilly have to hit anyone. We had teachers that just had rumers of things that they supposedly did and that was enough to keep us in line. We also had a shop teacher who put the fear of God in you with his 6’5″ stance and military hair cut. But that’s what is needed when you have a bunch of hormone driven boys around dangerous saws. I had a 8th grade science (The first time we got to use open flame Bunsen burners) teacher who was a bulldog looking guy who would come up to you and just grab your neck, shoulder or elbow and just squeeze it until you fell to your knees for no reason other than to let you know, don’t screw around in my class.

    Kinda funny story…
    I once got sent to the office in elementary school. I’m sure I was scared to death and couldn’t think of what I had done. My fear even grew more when they handed me a note to bring home. I thought I was dead. I handed it to my mom where she opened it and proceeded to read it out load to me. It turned out I was going to get an award for some a story I wrote and it was supposed to be a secret. I went from thinking I was going to be destroyed to being on cloud 9.

  2. There are ways to deal with tantrums, bad behavior, dangerous behavior, defiance, etc. etc. without hitting a child. Seriously, hurting someone physically is teaching them something valuable? Spankings didn’t seem to teach myself and my siblings anything valuable, none of us ever spanked our children much and some not at all. Children and teens all go through rough patches, parents should be able to deal with them without resorting to striking a child, maybe hey need some parenting skills. A child can be reasoned with, a child can be punished, why is it so difficult to do for some folks without resorting to corporal punishment?

  3. Discipline is schools went downhill when corporal punishment was stopped. I do not know how many times some student said “You can’t do anything to me.”

  4. Jim, Teachers should use discipline in the class room but they shouldn’t be using physical punishment. I agree that sending a child to her room is probably not very productive but tantrums don’t belong around others. After the tantrum storm is over, other measures can be taken.

  5. “In his book Dobson glorified a sadomasochistic/spiritual ritual of “discipline.” He said he wanted to stop a “liberal” trend in America that was moving away from the godly thrashing of infants. He wanted to help “restore” America to God and the good old days of child hitting. This fit in well with God as Retributioner-in-Chief that evangelicals endorse.”

  6. As for my own experience with my two kids. Only on very rare occasions would they get the slap on the butt. I also never believed in sending them to their rooms. To me, that always seemed like what they would want and it sounded too anti-social. Instead when they would screw up, I would tell them to go get a school book and I would sit with them and do extra homework. I figured it was better to have them interact with someone and learn something plus, I could come up with math problems all day.

  7. My parents had eight kids. Yes, they were Irish Catholics. My dad used to spank us but only when we really did something bad. And thanks to my older brothers really screwing up once (They did some vandalizing of some farm equipment), my dad made his special paddle. My brothers room was right on next to the wood work shop and they always said that hearing dad sawing and rasping out the handle was more punishment then when he finally got to use it on their butts. That story was legend in our household and you knew you didn’t want to revisit that scenario. Like Squeeky, my parents are the two most amazing people I know and I have now doubt that they loved us all. Dad was a college teacher for 29 years and was an amazing one professionally and at home but he wasn’t going to have a free for all in his family life. He was methodical though about his punishment. Almost like serving your sentence. You knew you screwed up and you would have to pay for that. Mom was more reactionary. My parents never swore but there where two words my dad would use when things were going in the wrong direction. “Dammit all!” and then Dammit it all to Hell! That is when you knew the blank had hit the fan.

    My parents where strict but they raised 8 kids and all of us made it through the pressures of what the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s could provide to kids and we all have college degrees and are quite functional.

    I also disagree with most here that schools have no place in disciplining our kids. I think it is one of the issues we are seeing with youth today is that schools are too accommodating to kids. Whether teachers want to believe it or not, they are raising our kids. At least they are helping. How can they not? They have them for ~8 hours a day. The issue is, we are asking them to help raise our children but we handcuff them when it comes to discipline.

  8. Squeeky, The nanny govt. knows no bounds and never understand “The road to hell is paved w/ good intentions.” They also forgot about the Constitution after the 1960’s.

  9. Annie:

    ” I asked my parents why they used corporal punishment as young parents and they said it was stress, frustration and an accepted method of discipline, plus the fundamentalist church they belonged to preached to spare the rod was to spoil the child. ”


    Mespo: “Beating with divine sanction. Hard to fight against that.”

    “Somebody ought to make a historical study of – the relation between theology and corporal punishment in childhood. I have a theory that, wherever little boys and girls are systematically flagellated, the victims grow up to think of God as ‘wholly other’ – isn’t that the fashionable argot in your part of the world? Wherever, on the contrary, children are brought up without being subjected to physical violence, God is immanent. A people’s theology reflects the state of its children’s bottoms.”

    “Major premise: God is wholly other. Minor premise: man is totally depraved. Conclusion: Do to your children’s bottoms what was done to yours, what your Heavenly Father has been doing to the collective bottom of humanity ever since the fall: whip, whip, whip!

    —- Aldous Huxley, “Island”

  10. Squeeky, great find at the These activists must know how harmful their destructive impulses are. At least in the interest of children, you’d think they’d restrain themselves, like the werewolf who chains himself to the radiator before the moon comes out.

  11. JT, that’s fair enough. I am passionate about the First Amendment but I’m much more passionate about fairnes.

  12. Studies about the psychological effect of spanking are all fine and well, but the fact is that studies do not empower the Fed or the State to dictate how families shall condition their children.

    That’s because neither the Fed nor the State was ever empowered to dictate how families shall condition their children; and in a just society it never shall be so empowered.

    The magic words are “specifically enumerated powers.”

    The Framers did not draft “a constitution which has the regulation of every species of personal and private concerns.” (Hamilton, Fed 84)

    The reason Hamilton objected to a Bill of Rights is that “[t]hey would contain various exceptions to powers not granted; and, on this very account, would afford a colorable pretext to claim more than were granted. For why declare that things shall not be done which there is no power to do? Why, for instance, should it be said that the liberty of the press shall not be restrained, when no power is given by which restrictions may be imposed? I will not contend that such a provision would confer a regulating power; but it is evident that it would furnish, to men disposed to usurp, a plausible pretense for claiming that power.” (Hamilton, Fed 84)

    Again, neither the Fed, nor now the State via the 14th Amendment, was ever empowered to dictate how families shall condition their children; and in a just society it never shall be so empowered.

    Recall the warnings of Aldous Huxley in “Brave New World”

    “Till at last the child’s mind is these suggestions, and the sum of the suggestions is the child’s mind. And not the child’s mind only. The adult’s mind too—all his life long. The mind that judges and desires and decides—made up of these suggestions. But all these suggestions are our suggestions!”

    –Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning (DHC) for Central London

    “And home was as squalid psychically as physically. Psychically, it was a rabbit hole, a midden, hot with the frictions of tightly packed life, reeking with emotion. What suffocating intimacies, what dangerous, insane, obscene relationships between the members of the family group! Maniacally, the mother brooded over her children (her children) … brooded over them like a cat over its kittens; but a cat that could talk, a cat that could say, “My baby, my baby,” over and over again. “My baby, and oh, oh, at my breast, the little hands, the hunger, and that unspeakable agonizing pleasure! Till at last my baby sleeps, my baby sleeps with a bubble of white milk at the corner of his mouth. My little baby sleeps …”

    “Yes,” said Mustapha Mond, nodding his head, “you may well shudder.”

    “Mother, monogamy, romance. High spurts the fountain; fierce and foamy the wild jet. The urge has but a single outlet. My love, my baby. No wonder these poor pre-moderns were mad and wicked and miserable. Their world didn’t allow them to take things easily, didn’t allow them to be sane, virtuous, happy. What with mothers and lovers, what with the prohibitions they were not conditioned to obey, what with the temptations and the lonely remorses, what with all the diseases and the endless isolating pain, what with the uncertainties and the poverty–they were forced to feel strongly. And feeling strongly (and strongly, what was more, in solitude, in hopelessly individual isolation), how could they be stable?”

    “Stability,” said the Controller, “stability. No civilization without social stability. No social stability without individual stability.”

    — Aldous Huxley, “Brave New World”

  13. @nick spinelli: “If you do spank your children NEVER..NEVER should it be done in anger.”

    The great G.B. Shaw would disagree with you: “[If you should strike your child, it must be in anger (paraphrase)] A blow in cold blood neither can nor should be forgiven.”

    I agree with Shaw. But then, I no longer believe in striking in either anger or cold blood. I did it myself as a young parent, to my shame.

  14. I’m against corporal punishment, especially in schools. However. A new enthusiastic teacher is in a school with all very difficult children, it might be a juvenile detention center. Many (all?) the students live on campus. Physical restraints can be used. One male student, big enough to seriously hurt an adult, attacks the teacher, biting her. With the aid of an aide, the student is pulled off the teacher and removed from the room. Later the student hugs the teacher and apologizes. (Familar scenario? abuse, apologize) Days later the student assaults her again, taking her by surprise. His bite was deep and hurt, it was still pretty ugly days later. The teacher is surprised and hurting and reacts defensively, hitting the student one smack. He releases his bite, an aide finally is able to help. . The teacher is fired and can no longer find work as a teacher. She’s lucky. Another teacher, a man, is facing criminal charges based on an incident at the same school.


  15. I personally do not believe in corporal punishment, but I don’t have a wild child. I am aware that many people, the majority, in fact, do believe in it. I agree with Nick that corporal punishment should never be done when you’re angry, or you’re just an adult hitting because you’re mad.

    But, inevitably, anyone who does not have the “correct” opinion is attacked. There is an entrenched intolerance for different opinions.

    It would be nice if a miracle happened, and there could be calm and rational discussion about the pros and cons of discipline, kinds of discipline, the problems with overly permissive parenting or “buddy” parenting, etc.

    There are many different people in the world who spank – those who are abusive, those with anger management issues, those who calmly do a little tap on the wrist or fanny to get their point across. There actually is a range.

    This disagreement about what is best is the exact reason why we shouldn’t legislate parenting. Our kids belong to us. As long as a child is not physically or mentally abused or neglected, it’s not the government’s concern how we parent. Keep it to leaflets, websites, parenting classes, etc.

  16. I had a part time job while going to college. Residential house cleaning.

    Upper Saddle River, NJ where President Richard Nixon lived (was still alive too). Clients had big homes, 8000 – 10,000 sq ft. Typically, families of 5, mother, father, and children ages 5 – 16.

    The only client and family that was normal, owned several businesses, one was involved in building luxury ocean liners.

    All the others were crazy. The kids were fighting. Older kids bedrooms were a mess, beer bottles, dope, heavy metal posters, playboy mags. Went into the parents bedroom
    with the vacuum cleaner. The sweeper caught something under the master bed. I looked under the bed and was shocked. .38 caliber bullets all over the place & playgirl mags.
    A few homes had damaged doors and sheet rock…from someone’s fist. The house I stayed away from, belonged to “Tony The Pro’s” son.

    Anyone want to know about the bathrooms & kitchen? Where’s the paddle….for mom & dad?

  17. One small child in my care was always locking herself in her room or in the bathroom. She was too young to be doing this. I asked her not to lock the door. I told her not to lock the door. I explained why she shouldn’t lock the door. If the door is closed, I will knock first. Still she locked the door. I was extremely frustrated by her repeated disobedience. She was sensitive to what I wanted and a spanking would hurt her spirit and most likely would have made her behavior worse b/c she wouldn’t understand why I was hurting her. She, like all the children i’ve had around me, really wanted to please the adults around them, even me. What was going on with this child? Finally, I asked her why she locked the door. Nothing. She clearly didn’t know what I was talking about. The problem was resolved when I explained about the little button that was in the doorknob. Turns out the doors at home didn’t have locks. Lesson learned. Sometimes they just don’t know what it is you want them to do, nor not. The young ones want to please you. If you establish mutual respect then, it makes the later years much easier. Not easy, just easier.

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