In the United States, corporal punishment is still a contentious issue. Many different groups have done research on the subject, and the issue has been thoroughly investigated from a variety of different angles. Corporal punishment is generally considered to be acceptable in the United States, although in other countries it may be more acceptable or less. For instance, in Europe, some regions still have cultural mores that accept corporal punishment of children by their parents or guardians as acceptable; others, like the Scandinavian countries, for instance, have a nearly zero-tolerance policy insofar as corporal punishment of children is concerned (Gershoff, 2002). Social and cultural differences are often cited as reasons given by parents regarding their personal choice to use corporal punishment against children; however, those who decry the practice note that physical punishment can do lasting harm to children who are at the receiving end of it.
Before beginning the discussion of spanking and corporal punishment, it is important to examine the framework that exists when discussing these topics. While the debate between those who advocate for the use of spanking and those who advocate against the use of spanking rages on, it is important to first distinguish what spanking means in the context of child-rearing. According to Gershoff (2002), the United Nations defines “corporal punishment” against a child as, “any punishment in which physical force is used and intended to cause some degree of pain or discomfort, however light” (Gershoff, 2002). While this definition may serve the purposes of the United Nations, it is far too strictly legalistic and overarching to serve the purposes of this discussion. To discuss corporal punishment and spanking as a parenting tool, there must be a distinction drawn between corporal punishment and physical abuse of a child.
II. Distinctions between physical abuse and corporal punishment
Physical abuse is defined by child psychologists and sociologists as any act that “is an act of another party involving contact intended to cause feelings of physical pain, injury, or other physical suffering or bodily harm” (Straus and Kantor, 1991). Clearly, there is an overlap between the previous definition of corporal punishment and the definition given for physical abuse; under the United Nations definition, any physical punishment inflicted on a child constitutes physical abuse (Gershoff, 2002). However, there is a distinction to be drawn between physical abuse and spanking for the purposes of discussion. For the purposes of discussion here, “corporal punishment” and will be used to define physical punishment that meets the following requirements:
a) does no lasting, long-term physical damage to the child;
b) is done by a parent or guardian as the result of some infraction on the part of the child;
c) does not utilize tools as a method for exacting more pain on the child;
d) is done as a punishment, rather than out of anger on the part of the parent or guardian.
While tools like a paddle or hairbrush may be used for spanking, for the action to constitute punishment rather than abuse, the tools must not be used merely to inflict more pain on the child (Gershoff, 2002).
In the United States, spanking and corporal punishment are quite common methods for punishment, particularly within certain communities. Straus and Stewart (1999) write:
We present data on a nationally representative sample of 991 American parents interviewed in 1995 The overall prevalence rate was 35% for infants and reached a peak of 94% at ages 3 and 4. Despite rapid decline after age 5, just over half of American parents hit children at age 12, a third at age 14, and 13% at age 17. Analysis of chronicity found that parents who hit teenage children did so an average of about six times during the year. Severity, as measured by hitting the child with a belt or paddle, was greatest for children age 5–12 (28% of such children). CP was more prevalent among African American and low socioeconomic status parents, in the South, for boys, and by mothers (Straus and Stewart, 1999).
While this data is out-of-date, there is no evidence given in any other publication that suggests that rates of corporal punishment for children in the United States has declined in recent years. As a result, the conclusion must be reached that there are still many individuals who are proponents of corporal punishment for children, and that there are certainly reasons why parents choose to use corporal punishment against their children, despite what the evidence suggests is good for a child’s development.
III. Arguments given by proponents of the use of corporal punishment
One of the primary reasons given for the use of corporal punishment and spanking of children is a sociocultural reason. In the United States, many households that participate in corporal punishment of children do so because if religious beliefs. According to Crouch and Behl (2001), many parents surveyed give Biblical justifications for their use of corporal punishment and spanking. Because the Bible refers many times to the use of corporal punishment against children to teach them the proper way to behave, some individuals theorize that this is the proper way to raise a child that is unspoiled and obedient.
Straus and Stewart (1999) note that many of the families that utilize corporal punishment most frequently and with the most severity fall within racial and cultural groups that have a tendency to live deep within America’s southern “Bible Belt,” indicating that there may well be a very real connection between religious fervor and the use of spanking and corporal punishment against children (Straus and Stewart, 1999). If this is the case, it does not automatically follow that corporal punishment has any kind of negative effect on children; however, Straus and Kantor (1991) discover in their study that there are indeed negative effects that adolescents can feel as a result of corporal punishment (Straus and Kantor, 1991).
Another argument often given by those who support the use of corporal punishment is that many children-- particularly toddlers-- do not have the cognitive reasoning skills necessary to understand when a parent tries to “talk through” an issue with the toddler (Gershoff, 2002). When a parent uses corporal punishment like spanking against a toddler, they are teaching the toddler a lesson that the toddler is incapable of learning otherwise, according to proponents of spanking and corporal punishment. Similarly, parents who utilize corporal punishment may note that their children are much better-behaved because they understand punishment more readily than children whose parents do not utilize corporal punishment against their children (Gershoff, 2002).
In some communities, Straus and Kantor (1991) note, there are historical and cultural supports in place that support the use of corporal punishment. Many of these communities are steeped in tradition-- in the same way that the previously-discussed religion plays a role in people’s thinking about corporal punishment, so too does community support. In the Straus and Stewart (1997) study, Straus and Stewart note that parents who were spanked themselves are far more likely to engage in the practice, often stating that their parents spanked them, and they became functional adults; their children would likewise become better individuals as a result of their corporal punishment.
IV. Arguments given by those against the use of corporal punishment
Unfortunately for those proponents of corporal punishment, the research does not support the vague, anecdotal reasoning that is often used to support the pro-spanking stance. While many child psychologists have stated that spanking, as a form of punishment when used as a last resort can be effective as a deterrent for a child, all current research suggests that spanking children does more harm to their development than good. Straus and Kantor (1991) write, “the results of [this] study suggest that the use of physical punishment by parents is a risk factor for depression, suicide, alcohol abuse, physical abuse of children, and physical assaults on wives. The social-psychological processes which produced these effects need to be determined to provide a basis for treating persons suffering these consequences Another possibility, and one which is suggested by a recent study, is that physical punishment tends to create a feeling of helplessness and powerlessness” (Straus and Kantor, 1991). In short, research shows that there is a large overlap between issues that present themselves later in life and corporal punishment inflicted upon children at a young age.
One of the downsides of many of these studies is that they do not draw the same distinction between abuse and spanking that are drawn here. This is a definite weakness for these studies; without this distinction, it is difficult to know if children who are subject to corporal punishment without unnecessary violence suffer the same fate as those who are abused. Looking at parent involvement in the punishment process is important for considering the outcome for the child. One thing that parents must consider when it comes to corporal punishment is the issue of control.
Straus and Mouradian (1998) do make a very keen distinction, however, between the issue of corporal punishment and the much different process of what they call “impulsive” corporal punishment. “Impulsive” corporal punishment often overlaps with abuse, according to Straus and Mouradian (1998). When a parent strikes a child in a way that is considered impulsive and in the heat of the moment, Strays and Mouradian suggest that the only thing that the child learns from the encounter is that lashing out in anger has a quelling effect on behavior that they disagree with or dislike. Children whose parents involve themselves with impulsive corporal punishment often find their children acting out frequently in school against other children. Most proponents of corporal punishment agree that impulsive corporal punishment-- punishment done quickly, without thought, and out of anger-- is inappropriate for use as a type of discipline. However, Straus and Mouradian (1998) write:
Although both proponents of CP and opponents agree that ICP is harmful to children, the pro-CP side implies that most parents spank when under control. Our study of a sample of mothers of 2 to 14 year old children in two small Minnesota cities found that, of the mothers who used CP during the previous six months, 51% had done so when out of control on at least one occasion. Only 11% of this 51% said that ICP characterized half or more of the instances of CP, but we believe the percent of mothers who reported ICP and the proportion of impulsive instances were seriously underestimated by the data available for this research. (Straus and Mouradian, 1998).
The research, then, seems to indicate that regardless of what proponents may say regarding the prevalence of impulsive corporal punishment, it is much easier to begin to use impulsive corporal punishment against children when corporal punishment in general is already accepted behavior in a household. In addition, Straus and Mouradian (1998) note that the bridge between impulsive corporal punishment and full-fledged abuse is much shorter than the bridge between other types of punishment for children and physical abuse.
Those who support the use of corporal punishment may believe that their children are better-behaved as a result of their punishment, but in reality, children who are subject to corporal punishment often suffer long-term effects from the punishment they have faced. They are more likely to act out against other children, and more likely to become the victims of bullies-- or to become bullies themselves (Gershoff, 2002). Arguments for cultural relativity are void in the case of behaviors that put children in danger, and all evidence seems to suggests that spanking and corporal punishment as a whole puts children in danger.
V. Corporal punishment in schools
In the United States, it is still legal in many places for teachers and school administrators to utilize corporal punishment against students under their care. Although there may be an argument for the use of corporal punishment by parents or guardians, however weak, there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that the use of public corporal punishment in schools has any benefit to the school, the behavior of students within the school, or the overall academic achievement of the school.
In no other realm of existence in American life is the use of corporal punishment against another being allowed; corporal punishment in the form of spanking, caning, paddling, and so on has long been considered to be cruel and unusual punishment of one human by another human under American law (Straus and Kantor, 1991). Indeed, public punishments of any kind-- especially those involving humiliation-- have not been allowed in the United States for some time. However, it is still legal in some places for non-custodial guardians and employees of the state like teachers and administrators to utilize this potentially risky form of punishment against students.
The use of corporal punishment is, sadly, still common in many places in the world. Unfortunately, the rights of children are limited, and it is still seen as the parents’ right to discipline their child as they see fit, as long as the discipline does not cross the line from discipline to abuse. However, children can suffer severe and long-term consequences as a result of corporal punishment. It seems that with so many alternative disciplinary options, resorting to an option as cruel as corporal punishment against a child smaller and weaker than the adult is merely asking for the child to develop psychological issues in the future.
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Straus, M. & Kantor, G. (1991). Corporal punishment of adolescents by parents: a risk factor in the epidemiology of depression, suicide, alcohol abuse, child abuse, and wife beating..Adolescence.
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