Corporal punishment is a punitive act that inflicts pain. This includes hitting, slapping, spanking, or forcing a child to maintain an uncomfortable position. Most children have been spanked. The use of corporal punishment declines as children reach adolescence.
Frequently a punishment has more to do with a parent’s frustration level than with the child's misbehaviour. Many cases of child abuse result from an escalation of what starts off as "low level" hitting or spanking. Most child welfare organizations have policies opposing the use of corporal punishment. Many child advocates are against corporal punishment because of the affront to the child's dignity. Others oppose it because of the unfairness of an adult using physical force on a much smaller child. For others still, the issue has been one of justice. If we are legally prohibited from striking other adults, why is it okay to strike a child? Research indicates there are more reasons to oppose the use of corporal punishment and to support alternative disciplinary methods.
Does spanking work?
Studies indicate that physical punishment does temporarily produce the desired results. But in the long term, spanking not only does not work, it carries with it many negative effects. The long-term use of corporal punishment tends to increase the probability of deviant and antisocial behaviours, such as aggression, adolescent delinquency and violent acts inside and outside the family as an adult. One explanation is that after living with violence that is considered “legitimate”, people expand this to accept violence that is not considered legitimate. For example, violent acts that are considered legitimate include maintaining order in schools by punishing children, deterring criminals and defending one’s country against foreign enemies. The “cultural spillover” theory proposes that the more a society uses force for socially legitimate ends, the greater the tendency for those engaged in illegitimate behaviours to also use force to attain their own ends. Corporal punishment has been associated with a variety of psychological and behavioral disorders of children and adults, including anxiety, alcohol abuse, depression, withdrawal, low self-esteem, impulsiveness, delinquency and substance abuse.
The emotional climate
It seems that mild physical punishment will have some effect on aggression and delinquency if the punishment is administered in an atmosphere of warmth, reasoning, and acceptance. However, studies indicate that few children are spanked in this type of rational and warm emotional environment. Punishment is usually administered in the heat of the moment, when anger is the strongest emotional influence. Children tend to perceive corporal punishments administered in anger as rejection by the punisher “usually a parent or other person important to the child. The strength of this perception is determined by the severity and frequency of punishments received. The more rejected children feel, the more impaired their psychological adjustment tends to be. Perceived rejection and physical punishment each negatively affect the child's emotional and psychological development. Together, the effects are compounded. Corporal punishment is usually predicated by an adult’s frustration level, rather than by the child's misbehaviour. Most physical punishments are imposed on children to "teach them a lesson," and are usually in response to a perceived misbehaviour. These punishments do teach lessons “but not the intended ones. Corporal punishments teach children to consider consequences of their actions in terms of what will or won’t "earn" them a punishment. The children are usually not taught to consider others or the consequences of their acts on others. This is a superficial morality, based on the probability of getting caught. There is no development of moral judgment or self-control. When children are physically punished by adults, they are shown that one need not consider the well-being of others. This modelling of violence may be the most damaging effect of all.
Natural vs. artificial consequences
The consequences of a child staying up past bedtime may include not being able to get up on time the next day, being tired and cranky, and/or missing the school bus. The natural consequence is what occurs without adult intervention. When children are helped to recognize the natural consequences of their actions, they can learn to predict these consequences and develop their own judgment based on real situations. A punishment is an artificially imposed consequence. When a parent steps in with artificially imposed consequences, such as punishment for staying up late, the child learns to predict and plan for the punishment. The child learns to focus on how to not get caught, rather than on how to not be tired the next day. The overall result is more likely to be a child who focuses on the rules and how to get around them, rather than on the reasons behind the rules.
Punishment or protection
The use of force with children is not always corporal punishment. There are times when an adult has to prevent a negative, natural consequence from occurring. While children do learn from experiencing the natural consequences of their actions, there are times, such as when a child runs into the street or is about to touch a hot stove, that the price of the lesson is too high to pay. Stopping children from fighting also falls into this category. Restraint prevents potentially serious injury. Physical restraint to prevent something from occurring may be force, but it is not corporal punishment. Restraint precedes and precludes undesirable or dangerous behaviour. Restraint becomes corporal punishment when it exceeds the degree of force necessary to restrain. Spanking a child provides an emotional release for the person administering the punishment, but it comes at the expense of a child's well-being. The temporary stopping of the undesired activity and the emotional release for the punisher are all that can be said for corporal punishment.
Graziano, Anthony M., and Kunce, Linda J., "Effects of Corporal Punishment on Children" in Violence Update (July, 1992).
Graziano, Anthony M. and Namaste, Karen A., "Parental Use of Physical Force in Child Discipline “A Survey of 679 Students" in Journal of Interpersonal Violence Vol 5 No. 4., 1990).
McCord, Joan, "Questioning the Value of Punishment" in Social Problems,Vol. 38, No. 2, May, 1991.
Rohner, Ronald P., Kean, Kevin J., and Cournoyer, David, "Effects of Corporal Punishment, Perceived Caretaker Warmth, and Cultural Beliefs on the Psychological Adjustment of Children in St. Kitts,West Indies" in Journal of Marriage and the Family (August, 1991).
Straus, Murray A., "Discipline and Deviance: Physical Punishment of Children and Violence and Other Crime in Adulthood" in Social Problems Vol. 38, No. 2, May, 1991).
Reprinted from Canada’s Children. Brenlee Robinson is an independent consultant in child care, early education and other issues confronting families.