Why do we still spank children? The usual answer is to get them to do what we think is best for them — i.e., to obtain behavioral compliance. And, yet, the answer is much more complicated. Dealing with children can stir up very charged and old feelings. The arguments and screaming of a child can push the same buttons that one's own parents or siblings pushed long ago. Or perhaps one does to one's child what was done to oneself: "I was spanked as a child, and I turned out all right." — Yes, but perhaps you turned out all right in spite of the spanking, not because of it … and perhaps things would have been even better if the effective alternatives to spanking which do exist had been utilized.
Overview of Physical Punishment
It turns out that physical punishment is a serious public health problem in the United States, and it profoundly affects the mental health of children and the society in which we live. Studies show that over 60% of families still use physical punishment to discipline children. Yet, the research shows that: physical punishment is associated with an increase in delinquency, antisocial behavior, and aggression in children; and physical punishment is associated with a decrease in the quality of the parent-child relationship, mental health, and the child's capacity to internalize socially acceptable behavior. Adults who have been subject to physical punishment as children are more likely to abuse their own child or spouse and to manifest criminal behavior (see Readings, 1).
Spanking is a euphemism for hitting. One is not permitted to hit one's spouse or a stranger; these actions are considered domestic violence and/or assault. Nor should one be permitted to hit a smaller and even more vulnerable child. Hitting a child elicits precisely the feelings one does not want to generate in a child: distress, anger, fear, shame, and disgust. Studies show that children who are hit will "identify with the aggressor," and they are more likely to become hitters themselves, i.e., bullies and future abusers of their children and spouses. They tend to learn to use violent behavior as a way to deal with disputes.
What Is Physical Punishment? What is Physical Abuse?
Physical punishment has been defined as "the use of physical force with the intention of causing a child to experience bodily pain or discomfort so as to correct or punish the child's behavior" (see Readings, 1, p. 9). This includes: spanking, hitting, pinching, squeezing, paddling, whipping/whupping, swatting, smacking, slapping, washing a child's mouth with soap, making a child kneel on painful objects, and forcing a child to stand or sit in painful positions for long periods of time. Physical abuse can be characterized by "the infliction of physical injury as a result of punching, beating, kicking, biting, burning, shaking, or otherwise harming a child" (see Readings, 5, as cited in 4, p 540). Behaviors which cause pain but not physical injury are considered physical punishment, whereas behaviors which risk physical injury are termed physical abuse. Both physical punishment and physical abuse should stop. Alternatives exist which are more effective in enhancing the healthy development of children.
Internationally, there is increasing consensus that physical punishment of children violates international human rights law. Significantly, 24 countries have prohibited physical punishment in all settings, including the home. Among these countries are Sweden, Germany, Spain, Greece, and Venezuela. More than 100 countries have banned physical punishment in the schools. The United States has not banned physical punishment, but approval of physical punishment in the United States has declined gradually and steadily over the past 40 years. The United States has signed, but not ratified, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), an international treaty which expressly prohibits all forms of physical or mental violence (see Readings, 1).
Effective Alternatives to Physical Punishment
The American Academy of Pediatrics concludes: "Corporal punishment is of limited effectiveness and has potentially deleterious side effects. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents be encouraged and assisted in the development of methods other than spanking for managing undesired behavior" (see Readings, 2, p. 723).
Effective alternatives to physical punishment exist to help children tolerate frustrations, regulate tension, behave in socially-acceptable ways, develop appropriate ethical and moral standards, and improve self-esteem. These alternatives will be the subject of the next article.
As Martin Luther King, Jr., stated:
"I'm sick and tired of violence … I'm tired of war and conflict in the world. I'm tired of shooting. I'm tired of hatred. I'm tired of selfishness. I'm tired of evil. I'm not going to use violence no matter who says it!"
(As quoted in At Canaan's Edge by Brandon Taylor).
If we truly want a less violent society, not hitting our children is a good place to start.
- Gershoff ET (2008). Report on Physical Punishment in the United States: What Research Tells Us About Its Effects on Children. Columbus OH: Center for Effective Discipline.
- American Academy of Pediatrics – Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health (1998). Guidance for Effective Discipline. Pediatrics 101: 723-728.
- Strauss MA (2001). Beating the Devil Out of Them: Physical Punishment in American Families (2nd Edition). Piscataway NJ: Transaction Publishers.
- Gershoff ET (2002). Physical punishment by parents and associated child behaviors and experiences: A meta-analytic and theoretical review. Psychological Bulletin 128: 539-579.
- National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect Information (2000). What Is Child Maltreatment?
Gershoff examined hundreds of studies and presented the results of meta-analyses of the association between parental physical punishment and child and adult outcomes. She found that in childhood physical punishment was positively associated with aggression, delinquent and antisocial behavior, and being the victim of physical abuse; it was negatively associated with the quality of the parent-child relationship, mental health, and moral internalization (child's internalizing of socially acceptable behavior); and associations with immediate compliance were mixed. When measured in adulthood, physical punishment was positively associated with aggression, criminal and antisocial behavior, and adult abuse of one's own child or spouse; physical punishment was negatively associated with mental health (Readings, 1, 4).
Gershoff also summarized the various demographic and risk factors which are more likely to be associated with use of physical punishment: being single, separated, or divorced; excessive stress from negative life events; maternal depression; lower income, education, and job status; southern part of the United States; and conservative religious beliefs and affiliation (Readings, 1, 4).