Humanity’s Paradox: Corporal Punishment of Children

Every parent is faced with innumerable decisions on how to raise their children. One very controversial area parents must make decisions on is parental discipline. Spanking, in particular, is a topic of considerable—and often contentious—debate among parents, practitioners and scientists. While many American parents do not hesitate to punish their child physically, it is clear that spanking is harmful, is often ineffective and has many negative side effects as a result.

The definition of spanking is,

“striking the child on the buttocks or extremities with an open hand without inflicting physical injury with the intent to modify behavior.”

Studies to date have indicated that both spanking and verbal punishment are common disciplinary practices among American parents of toddlers. For example, in a study based on face-to-face interviews with a racially diverse group of 182 mothers of toddlers, 54 percent reported spanking in the past three months. In the United States corporal punishment of children by their parents is exempt from prosecution under the criminal code.

While spanking is generally a common practice in the United States, this does not necessarily mean it is the best way to discipline children.

According to Belsky’s ecological model of parenting, parental characteristics such as maturity, support and mental health influence childbearing. Consistent with this model, a large body of studies have indicated that spanking is more likely to be used by parents who are younger, less educated, of lower income, single, and/or more depressed and stressed. This study proves spanking is used as a quick and easy way to discipline a child of someone inexperienced, uneducated and unaware of the myriad of negative effects corporal punishment can have on children.

Alice Park wrote in an article that researchers at Tulane University provided as evidence that children’s short-term response to spanking may increase misbehaviors over time. Of the 2,500 children in the study, those who were spanked more frequently at age three were much more likely to be aggressive by age five.

The study, led by community health sciences professor Catherine Taylor, concluded spanking is a strong predictor of violent behavior. The odds of a child being more aggressive at age five increased by 50 percent if they had been spanked more than twice in the month before the study began.

The children who had been spanked were also found to be more defiant, demand immediate satisfaction of their wants and needs, become frustrated easily, have temper tantrums and lash out physically against other people or animals.

There are many reasons corporal punishment is not an effective way of punishing a child. It instills fear rather than understanding. Even if children stop tantrums when spanked, that does not mean they understand why they should not have been misbehaving in the first place. Furthermore, corporal punishment sets a bad example—it teaches children that aggressive behavior is a legitimate solution to their parents’ problems.

One study conducted by Murray Straus of the Family Research Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire found that children who are not spanked tend to be better behaved and have enhanced performance in school, grow up to have better marriages, earn more money and live better lives. Straus stated,

“Although spanking works, it does not work better than other methods of correcting and teaching kids.”

Toddlers and young children who are not spanked tend to have faster mental development and have an increased chance of graduating from college. They also hit other children less and grow up to be parents who tend not to spank.

Straus clarified,

“Lots of people are worried that if parents never spanked, the result would be kids running wild, higher rates of delinquency, and when they grow up, more crime. Actually, what the research shows is just the opposite.”

The study also revealed the harmful side effects of spanking—the chance that a child will become rebellious or depressed is increased, and may take years to show up.

Eugene Walker, a psychologist at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, explains,

“When you use physical punishment, you don’t really teach [kids] very much except that you are bigger and stronger than they are.”

If the punishment and correction are more constructive, a child will lean faster and their behavior will improve. Spanking only tells the child, “That’s wrong,” without going further and explaining what is right.

Violence also begets violence.  If a parent hits a child, the message is that their parents solve problems by physically attacking the other person, which perpetuates violence. Spanking is also a humiliating experience for children. If a child is taught a better way to behave through more discipline, he or she will feel better because of having learned a lesson. Walker states,

“The question is, do you want to approach your child as some sort of enemy that you have to get even with every time he or she does something wrong? Or, do you approach your child as someone you love and care about, who needs to learn and develop in a non-threatening environment?”

In 1979, Sweden enacted legislation prohibiting the use of physical punishment by parents. The law carries no penalty, as its primary purpose is to establish a cultural norm against spanking. Deley compared the experiences with the attitudes toward spanking of American college students with college students in Sweden. In addition to receiving corporal punishment more frequently than Swedes, Americans were more likely to believe in spanking than their Swedish counterparts—62.3% compared with 28.6% for males and 60.4% compared with 18.9% for females. Furthermore, 75.4% of Swedish men and 76.9% of Swedish women stated that they agree with their country’s law. In contrast, when asked if they would support a law similar to the one in Sweden, that would prohibit parents from hitting children at all, only 22.2% of American males and 30.8% of females indicated their agreement.

This study proves that despite strong evidence that spanking may be harmful, it will be difficult to stop the practice in the United States. While spanking has declined over the years in America, a majority of parents still practice corporal punishment on their children.  US national surveys of parents in 1975, 1985 and 1995 found little change in the proportion who reported hitting their toddlers—from 97% in 1975 to 94% in 1995.

How will the rampant corporal punishment on children end?

Straus believes that physicians can make an important contribution. This will not be easy because many physicians believe that spanking is sometimes necessary. Consequently, medical societies and medical schools must inform physicians about the evidence of serious lifetime side effects of being spanked as a child. Straus explains,

“There is definitive experimental evidence that non-corporal disciplinary strategies are as effective in the immediate situation and longitudinal evidence of greater effectiveness in the long run.”

Thus, when parents avoid corporal punishment this does not mean they are giving up a necessary mode of discipline.

As societies progress, cultural norms must progress as well. The United States has emerged into a post-industrial economy, and therefore there is less demand for people with the traits taught by spanking, such as unquestioned obedience. There is now less need for unskilled manual workers whose market value is primarily a willingness to do as they are told. Employers are seeking workers who can think for themselves, reason and negotiate.

Straus confirmed,

“These abilities are modeled by alternative modes of discipline, not by spanking.”

This means a shift away from corporal punishment will benefit America’s society.

By the 1870’s in the United States, judges no longer recognized the common-law right of husbands to use corporal punishment on wives. Why is it still okay to hit a child? Ending corporal punishment on children is long overdue. There is countless evidence proving spanking is ineffective and can result in many negative side effects.

But scientific data aside, using corporal punishment on any living being is fundamentally immoral.

Hitting a naïve three-year-old until they cry because they are not behaving the way a parent approves of—even if it seems to stop them from behaving badly—is barbaric, cruel, unethical and unnecessary.

Corporal punishment of children breaches their fundamental human rights of respect for human dignity and physical integrity. All children should have the right to be treated in a manner consistent with the promotion of the child’s sense of dignity and worth.

In previous centuries, special defenses existed in legislation in many countries to justify corporal punishment of wives, servants, slaves and apprentices. Violence against women remains far too prevalent, but at least in the United States it is no longer defended in legislation. It is paradoxical and an insult to humanity that the smallest and most vulnerable of people should have less protection from assault than adults.

In plain English: Hitting people is wrong and children are people too.


This essay was written by Zoë Biehl in 2012 for a psychology class at Green Mountain College.



Berlin, Lisa J., Ispa, Jean M., Fine, Mark A., Malone, Patrick S., Brooks-Gunn, Jeanne, Brady-Smith, Christy, Ayoud, Catherine, Bai, Yu. (2009, September/October). Correlates and Consequences of Spanking and Verbal Punishment for Low-Income White, African American, and Mexican American Toddlers. Child Development, 80, 1403-1420.

Flynn, Clifton P. (1994, May). Regional Differences in Attitudes toward Corporal Punishment.National Council on Family Relations, 56, 314-324.

Park, Alice. (2010, May 3). The Long-Term Effects of Spanking. Time, 175, 51.

Peterson, Karen S. (2002, July 8). Study: Spare the Rod, Improve the Child. USA Today, 7.

Straus, Murray A. (1999, October 5). Is It Time to Ban Corporal Punishment of Children?Canadian Medical Association, 7, 161.

Walker, Eugene. (1993, August). Spanking Sends the Wrong Signal. USA Today, 122, 8.


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