Corporal punishment in the home

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Legality of corporal punishment of minors in Europe
  Corporal punishment banned in schools
  Corporal punishment banned in schools and the home

Domestic corporal punishment (also referred to as corporal punishment in the home or parental corporal punishment) refers to the use of physical force by parents or other adult guardians for purposes of punishment of their minor children. Corporal punishment of children may take the form of spanking or slapping the child with an open hand or striking with an implement such as a belt, slipper, cane, hairbrush or paddle, shaking, pinching, forced ingestion of substances, or forcing children to stay in uncomfortable positions. It also includes more violent acts such as kicking, biting, scalding, and burning. Severe forms of corporal punishment can constitute unlawful child abuse.

In most cultures, parents have historically been regarded as having the duty of punishing their children, as well as having the right to use physical force in doing so. Social acceptance of corporal punishment is high in countries where it remains lawful, particularly among some religious groups. Portions of the Christian Bible have often been used in support of the right of parents and other guardians to employ corporal punishment when dealing with children.

During the 20th century, many statutes regarding criminal battery and child abuse were written to include exceptions for "reasonable" physical punishment by parents. Some countries began to take the opposite approach, removing legal defenses for adult guardians' use of corporal punishment and then banning the practice outright, although such bans often do not carry criminal penalties. Since Sweden's 1979 ban on all corporal punishment of children, an increasing number of countries have enacted similar laws, particularly following international adoption of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.[1] However, as of January 2015, domestic corporal punishment of children is still legal in most of the world.

Many professional and human-rights groups oppose any form of physical punishment of children. Researchers have observed that spanking and other physical punishments, while nominally for the purpose of discipline, are more often used when parents are angry or under stress. Most research on the topic has found corporal punishment to be ineffective in promoting desirable behaviours, and numerous adverse effects, such as increased aggression, mental illness, and crime, have been linked to the use of corporal punishment by parents.

Where outlawed[edit]

  Countries as of January 2015 where all forms of corporal punishment are outlawed

As of January 2015, corporal punishment of children by parents (or other adults) is banned in 46 countries. The Supreme Court of Italy has also ruled that corporal punishment is not a defensible form of correction, but legislation in Italy has yet to reflect this change.[2] The following countries have enacted laws banning all corporal punishment of children:[3]

By year By country
2010 Albania Albania
2014 Andorra Andorra
2014 [a]  Argentina
1989 Austria Austria
2015 Benin Benin
2014  Bolivia
2014  Brazil
2000 Bulgaria Bulgaria
2014  Cape Verde
2010[5] Republic of the Congo Congo, Republic of
2008 Costa Rica Costa Rica
1999 Croatia Croatia
1994 Cyprus Cyprus
1997 Denmark Denmark
2014 Estonia Estonia
1983  Finland
2000  Germany
2006 Greece Greece
2013[6] Honduras Honduras
2004 Hungary Hungary
2003 Iceland Iceland
2000 [b] Israel Israel
2010 Kenya Kenya
1998 Latvia Latvia
2008 Liechtenstein Liechtenstein
2008 Luxembourg Luxembourg
2013 Republic of Macedonia Macedonia
2014 Malta Malta
2008 Moldova Moldova
2007 Netherlands Netherlands
2007 New Zealand New Zealand
2014 Nicaragua Nicaragua
1987[8][c] Norway Norway
2010 Poland Poland
2007 Portugal Portugal
2004 Romania Romania
2014 San Marino San Marino
2015[11] South Korea South Korea
2011[12] South Sudan South Sudan
2007  Spain
1979[d]  Sweden
2007 Togo Togo
2010[14] Tunisia Tunisia
2002 Turkmenistan Turkmenistan
2004 Ukraine Ukraine
2007 Uruguay Uruguay
2007 Venezuela Venezuela

Table notes[edit]

  1. ^ The Civil and Commercial Code 2014 will come into force in January 2016.[4]
  2. ^ In 2000, the Supreme Court of Israel ruled that corporal punishment violated children's right to dignity and bodily integrity.[7]
  3. ^ The Norwegian Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that a light "careful slap" applied immediately after the "offence" was still allowed.[9] Legislature abolished this in 2010, and the current law is that any violence against children, including careful slaps, is prohibited.[10]
  4. ^ Parents' right to spank their children was removed in 1966,[13] and it became explicitly prohibited by law in July 1979.

The penalties vary by country. In Sweden, for example, corporal punishment does not necessarily carry a criminal penalty unless it meets the criteria for assault.[13]

Where lawful[edit]

By implication and tradition, corporal punishment of minor children is legal where it is not explicitly proscribed. According to a 2014 estimate by the organization Human Rights Watch, "Ninety percent of the world’s children live in countries where corporal punishment and other physical violence against children is still legal".[1]


In Australia, corporal punishment of children in the home is currently legal provided it is "reasonable".[15][16] Parents who act unreasonably may be committing an assault.[17][18] The Australian state of Tasmania is continuing to review the state's laws on the matter, and may seek to ban the use of corporal punishment by parents. The matter is also under review in other Australian states. A 2002 public opinion survey suggested the majority view was in support of retaining parents' right to smack with the open hand but not with an implement,[19] although as of 2010, there are no laws against using an implement in any state or territory. In New South Wales, S61AA of the Crimes Act (1900) allows a parent a defense of lawful correction.[20]


In Canada, parents may spank their children, but there are several restrictions.

In Canadian Foundation for Children, Youth and the Law v. Canada (2004) the Supreme Court upheld, in a 6-3 decision, the use of "reasonable" force to discipline children, rejecting claims that moderate spanking violated children's rights. However, it stipulated that the person administering the punishment must be a parent or legal guardian, and not a school teacher or other person (i.e. non-parental relatives such as grandparents, aunts, or uncles, as well as babysitters and other caretakers, are banned from spanking); that the force must be used "by way of correction" (sober, reasoned uses of force that address the actual behaviour of the child and are designed to restrain, control or express some symbolic disapproval of his or her behaviour), that the child must be capable of benefiting from the correction (i.e. not under the age of 2 or over 12, etc.), and that the use of force must be "reasonable under the circumstances", meaning that it results neither in harm nor in the prospect of bodily harm. Punishment involving slaps or blows to the head is harmful, the Court held.[21] Use of any implement other than a bare hand is illegal and hitting a child in anger or in retaliation for something a child did is not considered reasonable and is against the law. In section 43 the Supreme Court of Canada defined "reasonable" as force that would have a "transitory and trifling" impact on the child. For example, spanking or slapping a child so hard that it leaves a mark that lasts for several hours would not be considered "transitory and trifling".[22]


In Ireland, the Children Act, 2001 repealed the Children's Act, 1908, which permitted "reasonable and moderate chastisement" for parents and those in loco parentis.[23][24] However, such persons retain under common law a limited defence of "reasonable chastisement" if charged with assault of their child.[25] Section 246 of the 2001 Act makes it an offence to assault, ill-treat, neglect, abandon or expose a child in a manner likely to cause unnecessary suffering or injury to the child's health or seriously affect his or her wellbeing,[26] and parents have been successfully prosecuted for "excessive or unreasonable force in disciplining children".[25] The Children’s Rights Alliance, a coalition of charity and advocacy groups, complained to the Council of Europe that the state was in violation of the European Social Charter.[24] As of September 2013, Frances Fitzgerald, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, is formulating an official response and reviewing the law.[25]

South Africa[edit]

Common-law precedent in South Africa holds that a parent may "inflict moderate and reasonable chastisement" on a child.[27] As of 2013 the Department of Social Development is preparing legislation to prohibit corporal punishment in the home;[28] it is already illegal in schools and the penal system.[27]

United Kingdom[edit]

In the UK, corporal punishment is generally legal but with several limitations. Criminal law has a general prohibition against common assault and battery, but there is a common law defense to such charges for parents striking their children in the context of "reasonable punishment." While never explicitly defined, the Children Act 2004 banned this defense for any instance of punishment beyond common assault/battery where there is any wounding, actual bodily harm, or any act considered "cruelty to persons under sixteen" in violation of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933.[29] The Director of Public Prosecutions has produced a charging standard[30] that indicates there where there are persistent marks on the skin, including cuts, scratches, bruises or anything more than temporary reddening of the skin, the offence charged will usually be assault occasioning actual bodily harm rather than common assault. The total abolition of corporal punishment has been discussed.[31] In a 2004 poll by the advocacy group Children are Unbeatable!, 71% of respondents supported giving children the same protection against battery as adults.[32] In a 2006 survey, 80% of the population said they believed in smacking, and 73% said that they believed that any ban would cause a sharp deterioration in children's behaviour. Seven out of ten parents said they themselves use corporal punishment.[33] In a 2012 poll conducted by Angus Reid Public Opinion, 63 per cent of Britons voiced opposition to banning parents in the UK from smacking their children.[34]

United States[edit]

Despite some opposition to corporal punishment in the United States, the spanking of children is legal in all states. Bans on the corporal punishment of children have been proposed in Massachusetts[35] and California[36][37] but have failed to secure passage.[38][39]

Public support for corporal punishment began to decline somewhat following the 1960s, possibly as a result of the shift from an industrial to a post-industrial economic system.[40] Despite the decline, most Americans (70% in 2012) continue to be in favor of spanking, according to the University of Chicago's General Social Survey.[41] Elizabeth T. Gershoff at the University of Texas has posited that corporal punishment in the United States is largely supported by "a constellation of beliefs about family and child rearing, namely that children are property, that children do not have the right to negotiate their treatment by parents, and that behaviors within families are private".[42]

George Holden at Southern Methodist University has estimated that 70 to 90 percent of parents in the U.S. spank their children.[43] A 2014 study by Holden using audio recording found that nearly half of the parents who volunteered to be monitored used some form of corporal punishment during the duration of the study. These tended to spank their children, of varying ages, an average of 18 times per week, compared to other estimates—from studies using self-reporting—of 18 times per year. Contrary to common guidelines, the parents also tended to use spanking when angry and for minor infractions. They also tended to rely on spanking as a standard punishment rather than as a "last resort".[44] According to Holden, “The recordings show that most parents responded either impulsively or emotionally, rather than being intentional with their discipline”.[45] An earlier study by Murray A. Straus found that more than a third of parents reported using corporal punishment on children less than a year old, often with a slap on the hand. Corporal punishment was most frequent for toddler-age children and continued into children's adolescence.[46] These age patterns have held in more recent research as well.[47][48]

Race, gender, and social class appear to be significant factors in U.S. domestic corporal punishment patterns. Boys are more likely than girls to be spanked at home,[49] and corporal punishment of boys tends to be more severe and more aggressive than that of girls[50] despite some research suggesting that corporal punishment is more counterproductive for boys than girls.[51] Affluent families at the upper end of the socioeconomic scale tend to spank the least often; middle‑class parents tend to administer corporal punishment in greater numbers, and lower‑class parents tend to do so with still greater frequency.[52] Black families are more likely to practice corporal punishment than white ones.[53]

In the majority of states, physical punishment by a parent remains legal under statutes making exceptions to the state's law on the crimes of assault, criminal battery, domestic violence and/or child abuse. These exceptions usually establish that no crime has been committed when certain actions are applied to a minor by that child's parent or legal caregiver. However, the line between permitted corporal punishment and punishment legally defined as abuse varies by state and is not always clear (laws typically allow "reasonable force" and "non-excessive corporal punishment"). Such language is often vague and is necessarily subjective and fact-driven, so that most cases present a fact issue for trial as to reasonableness or non-excessiveness. Examples of law permitting bodily punishment of children include two different articles of the Minnesota Legislature allow parents and teachers to use corporal punishment as a form of discipline by creating explicit exceptions to the state's child abuse statutes for "reasonable and moderate physical discipline."[54][55] Application of exceptions for physical punishment raise legal issues as well. In 2008 the Minnesota Supreme Court considered a case involved a man who had struck his 12-year-old son 36 blows with a maple paddle. The trial court held that this constituted abuse, but was reversed on appeal. In affirming the reversal, the Minnesota Supreme Court stated that "We are unwilling to establish a bright-line rule that the infliction of any pain constitutes either physical injury or physical abuse, because to do so would effectively prohibit all corporal punishment of children by their parents" and "it is clear to us that the Legislature did not intend to ban corporal punishment".[56][57]

Administrative actions for the protection of the child may be initiated by child protection workers who become aware of corporal punishment that may endanger a child. The protection of such administrative actions is typically provided in the form of health department regulations, including Child Protective Services (CPS) rules or rules on Mandated reporting. Mandatory reporting laws require that persons witnessing certain visible injuries along with reports by a child of abuse to make report to the local CPS or equivalent agency charged with the protection of the child. Such agencies operate on definitions of child abuse provided by the state's health department (which are often very different from the exceptions provided in the criminal code). Child protection agencies typically have the duty and authority to investigate cases with their own agents, such as social workers. If the agency determines abuse has occurred, some administrative actions can be taken immediately without the involvement of the police or the courts. These can include warning the parent, referring the parent to counseling, flagging the parent's name in the agency database,[58] or, in egregious cases, even immediate removal of the child or children from the parent's home.[59]

Social acceptance[edit]

Opinions are divided on whether spanking and other forms of physical punishment are appropriate techniques for child-rearing, and vary a great deal by nation and region. For example, in the United States and United Kingdom, social acceptance of spanking children maintains a majority position, from approximately 61% to 80%.[60][61] In Sweden, before the 1979 ban, more than half of the population considered corporal punishment a necessary part of child rearing. By 1996, the rate was 11%,[62] and less than 34% considered it acceptable in a national survey.[63]

Social psychologists posit that the sharp divergence in popular opinion vs. scientific findings is rooted in cognitive dissonance.[64][65][66] In countries such as the US and UK, spanking is legal but overt child abuse is both illegal and highly stigmatized socially. Because of this, any parent who has ever spanked a child would find it extremely difficult to accept the research findings. If they did acknowledge, even in the smallest way, that spanking was harmful, they would likely feel they are admitting they harmed their own child and thus are a child abuser. Similarly, adults who were spanked as children often face similar cognitive dissonance, because admitting it is harmful might be perceived as accusing their parents of abuse and might also be admitting to having been victimized in a situation where they were helpless to stop it. Such feelings would cause intense emotional discomfort, driving them to dismiss the scientific evidence in favor of weak anecdotal evidence and distorted self-reflection.[65] This is commonly expressed as "I spanked my children and they all turned out fine" or "I was spanked and I turned out fine."[66]

Religious views[edit]

Encouragement for corporal punishment can be found in the Old Testament book of Proverbs:

He that spareth the rod, hateth his son; but he that loveth him, chasteneth him betimes. (Proverbs, XIII, 24)

A fool's lips enter into contention, and his mouth calleth for strokes. (Proverbs, XVIII, 6) Chasten thy son while there is hope, and let not thy soul spare for his crying. (Proverbs, XIX, 18) Judgements are prepared for scorners, and stripes for the backs of fools. (Proverbs, XIX, 29) Foolishness is bound in the heart of a child; but the rod of correction shall drive it from him. (Proverbs, XXII, 15) Withhold not correction from the child; for if thou beatest him with a rod, thou shalt deliver his soul from hell. (Proverbs, XXIII, 13-14)

A whip for a horse, a bridle for an ass, and a rod for a fool's back. (Proverbs, XXIX, 15)[67]

Robert McCole Wilson has argued, "Probably this attitude comes, at least in part, from the desire in the patriarchal society for the elder to maintain his authority, where that authority was the main agent for social stability. But these are the words that not only justified the use of physical punishment on children for over a thousand years in Christian communities, but ordered it to be used. The words were accepted with but few exceptions; it is only in the last two hundred years that there has been a growing body of opinion that differed". He notes: "Curiously, the gentleness of Christ towards children (Mark, X) was usually ignored".[67]

Pope Francis has declared his approval of the use of corporal punishment by parents, as long as punishments do not "demean" children. The Vatican commission appointed to advise the Pope on sexual abuse within the church criticized the Pope for his statement, contending that physical punishments and the infliction of pain were inappropriate methods for disciplining children.[68]

The Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe maintains that "Mainstream faith communities and respected leaders are now supporting moves to prohibit and eliminate all violence against children", including corporal punishment.[69] Indeed, in 2006, a group of 800 religious leaders at the World Assembly of Religions for Peace in Kyoto, Japan endorsed a statement urging governments to adopt legislation banning all corporal punishment of children.[70]

Reasons for use[edit]

Uncontrolled anger is often the reason for parents' use of corporal punishment. The American Academy of Pediatrics has noted that "Parents are more likely to use aversive techniques of discipline when they are angry or irritable, depressed, fatigued, and stressed", estimating that the release of anger obtained by using corporal punishment increases the likelihood of parents hitting or spanking their children in the future.[71] Parents commonly resort to spanking after losing their temper, and most parents surveyed expressed significant feelings of anger, remorse, and agitation while corporally punishing their children.[72] According to the AAP, "These findings challenge most the notion that parents can spank in a calm, planned manner".[71]

Professional opinion[edit]


The Australian Psychological Society holds that corporal punishment of children is an ineffective method of deterring unwanted behavior, promotes undesirable behaviors and fails to demonstrate an alternative desirable behavior. They assert that corporal punishment often promotes further undesirable behaviors such as defiance and attachment to "delinquent" peer groups, and encourages an acceptance of aggression and violence as acceptable responses to conflicts and problems.[73]


The Canadian Paediatric Society reviewed research on spanking and concluded that it was associated with negative outcomes, and recommended against spanking. Their policy on corporal punishment states "The Psychosocial Paediatrics Committee of the Canadian Paediatric Society has carefully reviewed the available research in the controversial area of disciplinary spanking (7-15)... The research that is available supports the position that spanking and other forms of physical punishment are associated with negative child outcomes. The Canadian Paediatric Society, therefore, recommends that physicians strongly discourage disciplinary spanking and all other forms of physical punishment".[74]

United Kingdom[edit]

The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health opposes the striking of children in all circumstances.[75] They state, "Corporal punishment [of] children has both short term and long term adverse effects and in principle should not be used since it models an approach which is discouraged between adults". The College advocates legal reform to change parental views of corporal punishment.[76] They have advocated banning corporal punishment altogether, stating "We believe it is both wrong and impracticable to seek to define acceptable forms of corporal punishment of children. Such an exercise is unjust. Hitting children is a lesson in bad behaviour"[77] and that "it is never appropriate to hit or beat children".[75]

The Royal College of Psychiatrists also takes the position that corporal punishment is unacceptable in all circumstances.[78]

United States[edit]

The National Association of Social Workers "opposes the use of physical punishment in homes, schools, and all other institutions where children are cared for and educated."[79]

The American Academy of Pediatrics has stated that "Corporal punishment is of limited effectiveness and has potentially deleterious side effects". They recommend that parents be "encouraged and assisted in the development of methods other than spanking for managing undesired behavior". In particular, the AAP believes that any corporal punishment methods other than open-hand spanking on the buttocks or extremities, including striking with an object, striking which leaves marks lasting longer than a few minutes, pulling by the hair, jerking a child's arm, and shaking a child, "should never be used".

In the AAP's opinion, such punishments, as well as "physical punishment delivered in anger with intent to cause pain", are "unacceptable and may be dangerous to the health and well-being of the child." They also point out that "The more children are spanked, the more anger they report as adults, the more likely they are to spank their own children, the more likely they are to approve of hitting a spouse, and the more marital conflict they experience as adults" and that "spanking has been associated with higher rates of physical aggression, more substance abuse, and increased risk of crime and violence when used with older children and adolescents".[71]

The AAP believes that corporal punishment polarizes the parent-child relationship, reducing the amount of spontaneous cooperation on the part of the child. In their words, "[R]eliance on spanking as a discipline approach makes other discipline strategies less effective to use". The AAP believes that spanking as a form of discipline can easily lead to abuse, noting also that spanking children younger than 18 months of age increases the chance of physical injury.[71]

Human rights arguments[edit]

In 1982, the European Commission of Human Rights rejected an application by Swedish parents alleging that Sweden’s 1979 ban on parental physical punishment breached their right to respect for family life and religious freedom.[80] A statement issued by the office of the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe remarked that:

Vocal opposition to banning all corporal punishment comes in some countries from minority religious groups, quoting texts which, they believe, give them a right or even a duty to discipline their children with violence. While freedom of religious belief should be respected, such beliefs cannot justify practices which breach the rights of others, including children’s rights to respect for their physical integrity and human dignity.[69]

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child remarked in 2006 that all forms of corporal punishment, along with non-physical punishment which "belittles, humiliates, denigrates, scapegoats, threatens, scares or ridicules" children were found to be "cruel and degrading" and therefore incompatible with the Convention on the Rights of the Child. They defined "corporal punishment" as

any punishment in which physical force is used and intended to cause some degree of pain or discomfort, however light. Most involves hitting ("smacking", "slapping", "spanking") children, with the hand or with an implement – whip, stick, belt, shoe, wooden spoon, etc. But it can also involve, for example, kicking, shaking or throwing children, scratching, pinching, biting, pulling hair or boxing ears, forcing children to stay in uncomfortable positions, burning, scalding or forced ingestion.[81]

In the Committee's view, "Addressing the widespread acceptance or tolerance of corporal punishment of children and eliminating it, in the family, schools and other settings, is not only an obligation of States parties under the Convention. It is also a key strategy for reducing and preventing all forms of violence in societies".[81]

The office of the Commissioner for Human Rights maintains that corporal punishment of children is "a breach of fundamental human rights", including the right to physical integrity, remarking that legal exceptions regarding "reasonable chastisement" stem from a view of children as property, drawing a comparison between such laws and those which once authorized the beating of servants and wives. The Commissioner's statement stresses that ethical considerations were the primary reason for advocating an end to corporal punishment:

The imperative for removing adults’ assumed rights to hit children is that of human rights principles. It should therefore not be necessary to prove that alternative and positive means of socializing children are more effective. However, research into the harmful physical and psychological effects of corporal punishment in childhood and later life and into the links with other forms of violence do indeed add further compelling arguments for banning the practice and thereby breaking the cycle of violence.[69]

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe noted in 2004 that member states must ban "all forms of corporal punishment and any other forms of degrading punishment or treatment of children" as a requirement of the European Social Charter. They further noted that the European Court of Human Rights had found corporal punishment in violation of children's rights under the European Convention on Human Rights, and that bans on corporal punishment did not violate religious freedom or the right to private or family life.[82]

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights concluded in 2009 that corporal punishment "constitutes a form of violence against children that wounds their dignity and hence their human rights", asserting that "the member states of the Organization of American States are obliged to guarantee children and adolescents special protection against the use of corporal punishment".[83]

Save the Children opposes all use of corporal punishment on children as a breach of children's rights under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.[84]

UNESCO also recommends that corporal punishment be prohibited in schools, homes and institutions as a form of discipline, and contends that it is a violation of human rights as well as counterproductive, ineffective, dangerous and harmful to children.[85]

Relationship to child abuse[edit]

According to Joan Durrant at the University of Manitoba, physical punishment of children had been considered "conceptually distinct from physical abuse" before studies began to emerge in the 1990s which demonstrated links between ordinary, accepted physical punishment and children's aggression, delinquency, and later domestic assaults.[86]

The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health of the United Kingdom remarked in a 2009 policy statement that "corporal punishment of children in the home is of importance to paediatricians because of its connection with child abuse...all paediatricians will have seen children who have been injured as a result of parental chastisement. It is not possible logically to differentiate between a smack and a physical assault since both are forms of violence. The motivation behind the smack cannot reduce the hurtful impact it has on the child". They assert that preventing child maltreatment is of "vital importance", and advocate a change in the laws concerning corporal punishment. In their words, "Societies which promote the needs and rights of children have a low incidence of child maltreatment, and this includes a societal rejection of physical punishment of children".[76]

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, "Corporal punishment ranges from slapping the hand of a child about to touch a hot stove to identifiable child abuse, such as beatings, scaldings, and burnings. Because of this range in the form and severity of punishment, its use as a discipline strategy is controversial". In their words, "The only way to maintain the initial effect of spanking is to systematically increase the intensity with which it is delivered, which can quickly escalate into abuse". They further note: "Parents who spank their children are more likely to use other unacceptable forms of corporal punishment".[71]

In Elizabeth Gershoff's words, "[B]oth parental acts involve hitting, and purposefully hurting, children. The difference between the two is often degree (duration, amount of force, object used) rather than intent, as most documented cases of physical abuse begin with parents physically punishing their children for a perceived misdeed".[87] A 2010 review by Gershoff of the scientific literature on corporal punishment noted: "Interviews with physically abusive parents about the abusive events for which they were referred to child-protective services expose a startling and compelling theme: Nearly two-thirds of the abusive incidents began as acts of corporal punishment meant to correct a child's behavior."[88]

Canadian estimates are even higher; the first two cycles of the Canadian Incidence Study of Reported Child Abuse and Neglect showed that three quarters of substantiated physical abuse of children occurred within the context of physical punishment.[86]

A 2008 study at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that mothers who reported spanking their children were three times more likely to also report using forms of punishment considered abusive to the researchers "such as beating, burning, kicking, hitting with an object somewhere other than the buttocks, or shaking a child less than 2 years old" than mothers who did not report spanking.[89] The authors found that any spanking was associated with increased risk of abuse, and that there were strong associations between abuse and spanking with an object. Adam Zolotor, the study's lead author, noted that "increases in the frequency of spanking are associated with increased odds of abuse, and mothers who report spanking on the buttocks with an object–such as a belt or a switch–are nine times more likely to report abuse".[90]

A 2006 retrospective report study in New Zealand showed that physical punishment of children was quite common in the 1970s and 80s, with 80% of the sample reporting some kind of corporal punishment from parents at some time during childhood. Among this sample, 29% reported being hit with an empty hand, 45% with an object, and 6% were subjected to serious physical abuse. The study noted that abusive physical punishment tended to be given by fathers and often involved striking the child's head or torso instead of the buttocks or limbs.[91]

One study reported by Murray Straus in 2001 found that 40% of 111 mothers surveyed were worried that they could possibly hurt their children by using corporal punishment.[92]

Effects in childhood and later life[edit]

In reporting to the UN General Assembly on his study on violence against children—including corporal punishment—UN Assistant Secretary-General Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro wrote in 2006: "Children testify to the hurt—not only physical, but 'the hurt inside'."[93] In another 2006 study, children whose parents spanked them commonly reported feelings of fear, anger, and sadness as a result.[94]  Young children aged between five and seven in a UK study said of being smacked by their parents, “it feels like someone banged you with a hammer” and “it hurts and it’s painful inside—it’s like breaking your bones”.[95]

In the late 20th century, sociologists and psychologists began performing methodical studies of the effects of corporal punishment on children and society. In recent years, several large-scale analyses of the results of many such studies have shown that corporal punishment mainly produces adverse effects ranging from increased aggression in children to mental illness and crime. Despite a small minority of researchers' doubts as to the significance of these harmful effects and the reliability of the causal link to corporal punishment, most researchers agree that corporal punishment is at least potentially harmful, while possessing no demonstrated benefit to children or families.

Research: early 2000s-present[edit]

In a systematic review of two decades of research on physical punishment published in 2012, Joan Durrant with the University of Manitoba and Ron Ensom with the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario outlined the numerous research findings which have linked corporal punishment in childhood, including spanking, yelling, slapping or shaking, to a range of adverse effects, including increased aggression, mental health problems, impaired cognitive development, and drug and alcohol abuse.[96] Among the key points of their review were that: "Numerous studies have found that physical punishment increases the risk of broad and enduring negative developmental outcomes", "No study has found that physical punishment enhances developmental health" and "Most child physical abuse occurs in the context of punishment".[86]

The authors noted that studies which controlled for variables such as socioeconomic status, race, emotional support, or parental age provided the strongest evidence that corporal punishment puts children at risk for increased aggression and antisocial behavior.[86] According to Joan Durrant, the review's lead author, "more than 100" studies have shown the risks of physically punishing children. In her words, "We're really past the point of calling this a controversy. That's a word that's used and I don't know why, because in the research there really is no controversy".[97] Alan Kazdin, psychology professor at Yale University and former president of the American Psychological Association, echoed Durrant's assertion in 2012, saying, "There is no need for corporal punishment based on the research. We are not giving up an effective technique. We are saying this is a horrible thing that does not work".[98]

Since the early 2000s, according to Durrant and Ensom's review, the consistent findings linking ordinary corporal punishment to adverse effects such as mental health problems and cognitive impairment have been based on "large longitudinal studies that control for a wide range of potential confounders". In their words, "results consistently suggest that physical punishment has a direct causal effect on externalizing behaviour" such as child aggression. Durrant and Ensom point out that randomized controlled trials, the benchmark for establishing causality, are impractical for studying physical punishment since it would be unethical to deliberately inflict pain on study participants. However, they note that one randomized controlled trial did demonstrate that a reduction in harsh physical punishment "was followed by significant reductions in [children's] aggression". They further note that "The few existing randomized controlled trials showed that physical punishment was no more effective than other methods in eliciting compliance".[86]

A 2002 meta-analytic review by Elizabeth Gershoff, then at Columbia University, had found that spanking increased children's immediate compliance with parents' commands.[99] However, when Gershoff and Andrew Grogan-Kaylor at the University of Michigan re-analyzed the data in 2013, they found that spanking children was not more effective than giving children time-outs in eliciting immediate compliance. They further found that spanking led to a reduction in long‑term compliance.[87] According to Gershoff, the belief that spanking increased immediate compliance was "overly influenced by one study".[100] In examining several longitudinal studies that investigated the path from spanking to aggression in children from preschool age through adolescence, Gershoff concluded: "In none of these longitudinal studies did spanking predict reductions in children’s aggression...Spanking consistently predicted increases in children’s aggression over time, regardless of how aggressive children were when the spanking occurred".[87]

Murray Straus at the University of New Hampshire published a study in 2013 which found that children across numerous cultures who were spanked committed more crimes as adults than children who were not spanked, regardless of the quality of their relationship to their parents. He noted, "So many parents and child psychologists believe that if spanking is done by loving and helpful parents, it has no harmful effect...This study and only one other study I know of that empirically investigated this belief found that it is not true. Spanking seems to be associated with an increased probability of subsequent child behavior problems regardless of culture and, regardless of whether it [is] done by loving and helpful parents".[101]

A longitudinal study by Tulane University in 2010 found a 50% greater risk of aggressive behavior two years later in young children who were spanked more than twice in the month before the study began.[102] The study controlled for a wide variety of confounding variables, including initial levels of aggression in the children. According to the study's leader, Catherine Taylor, this suggests that "it's not just that children who are more aggressive are more likely to be spanked."[103]

Tracie Afifi and colleagues at the University of Manitoba published a study in 2012 showing that people who reported being "pushed, grabbed, shoved, slapped or hit" even "sometimes" as children suffered more depression, anxiety, mania, and dependence on drugs or alcohol in adulthood. Those who reported experiencing "severe physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, physical neglect, emotional neglect, or exposure to intimate partner violence" were not included in the results. According to the researchers, the findings "provide evidence that harsh physical punishment independent of child maltreatment is related to mental disorders".[104]

A 2009 study showed MRI evidence that children subjected to harsh corporal punishment had reduced gray matter when aged 18–25 in their prefrontal lobe. These reductions in gray matter were in areas linked to reduced performance IQ on the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale.[105]

A 2003 review of available research into parental punishment concluded that "strong evidence exists that the use of physical punishment has a number of inherent risks regarding the physical and mental health and well-being of children".[106]

2002 meta-analyses, criticism, and response[edit]

A 2002 meta-analytic study by Elizabeth Gershoff that combined 60 years of research on corporal punishment found that the only positive outcome of corporal punishment was immediate compliance; however, corporal punishment was associated with less long-term compliance. Corporal punishment was linked with nine other negative outcomes in children, including increased rates of aggression, delinquency, mental health problems, problems in relationships with parents, and likelihood of being physically abused. Her report concluded that corporal punishment of children is "associated with all child constructs, including higher levels of immediate compliance and aggression and lower levels of moral internalization and mental health."[99]

Diana Baumrind and colleagues questioned the methods and conclusions of the studies included in Gershoff's review. They suggested that corporal punishment be defined for purposes of study as "the more moderate application of normative spanking within the context of a generally supportive parent-child relationship", concluding that the majority of the studies used in Gershoff's meta-analysis included "overly severe" forms of punishment and therefore did not sufficiently distinguish corporal punishment from abuse.[107] In response, Gershoff argued that "aspects of parenting style have not been found to moderate the association between corporal punishment and children's behaviors or well-being", and that "Baumrind et al.'s (2002) assumption that only spanks or slaps using an open hand are normative is erroneous. According to the results of a 1995 Gallup survey of more than 900 parents reported by Straus and Stewart (1999)...more than one in four parents admit to using an object to hit their children". According to Gershoff, this was partly to account for the discrepancy in including what Baumrind and colleagues termed "overly severe" punishment; another factor was the inclusion of studies which also measured more severe techniques on the Conflict Tactics Scale, in addition to spanking and slapping. According to Gershoff, the CTS is "the closest thing to a standard measure of corporal punishment; to omit it would mean to eliminate a large number of studies across the 11 meta-analyses". Gershoff also argued that the line between corporal punishment and abuse is necessarily arbitrary, stating that "the same dimensions that characterize 'normative' corporal punishment can, when taken to extremes, make hitting a child look much more like abuse than punishment...Unfortunately, child protective services workers and judges in family courts across the country must make such distinctions on a daily basis". She remarked that "parents who are fearful of being reported to child protection authorities may underreport their use of harsh techniques rather than risk identification as an abusive parent...Research is needed to address the question of whether mandated reporting [of suspected abuse] affects parents' willingness to report corporal punishment".[42]

Baumrind and colleagues noted that the studies included in Gershoff's review could not answer the question of direction of effect, asserting that "it is arbitrary to treat corporal punishment as the independent variable and child aggression as the dependent variable...without first establishing temporal order".[107] In reply, Gershoff emphasized that "The main rationale parents have for using corporal punishment is that it will have an effect on their is facile to suggest that parents are powerless to resist using corporal punishment in the face of their children's noxious behaviors".[42]

Baumrind and colleagues proposed that parents who are easily frustrated or inclined toward controlling behavior "should not spank", but that the results of Gershoff's review did not support a "blanket injunction" against spanking.[107] Gershoff, however, called Baumrind et al.'s solution "both unrealistic and unimplementable as public policy", insofar as it would likely require potentially abusive parents to police themselves. Gershoff argued that given the number of apparent adverse effects, including the possible link to actual child abuse, "the burden of proof should be high" in favor of corporal punishment. She asserted that "unless and until researchers, clinicians, and parents can definitively demonstrate the presence of [beneficial] effects of corporal punishment [and] not just the absence of negative effects, we as psychologists cannot responsibly recommend its use".[42]

Earlier studies[edit]

A 1999 Canadian survey found that people who reported having been slapped or spanked by their parents in childhood experienced elevated rates of anxiety disorder, alcohol abuse or dependence and externalizing problems as adults.[108]

A 1996 study by Straus suggested that children subjected to physical punishment were more likely to be angry as adults, use spanking as a form of discipline, approve of striking a spouse, and experience marital discord.[109] According to a 1996 study by P. Cohen, older children subjected to corporal punishment may resort to more physical aggression, substance abuse, crime and violence.[110] A 1997 study by Straus, Sugarman and Giles-Sims found detrimental child outcomes from nonabusive or customary physical punishment by parents using a design that would not also tend to find detrimental outcomes of most alternative discipline responses.[111] Its findings were criticised by Robert Larzelere, who argued that the new study did not support a blanket ban on corporal punishment. Larzelere granted that frequent and severe corporal punishment carried with it an increased risk for detrimental effects, but saw no proof that an occasional swat could harm a child in the long run.[112]

A 1996 literature review by Larzelere suggested that, in some circumstances, corporal punishment of children could increase short-term compliance with parental commands. Examples of such circumstances were that no implements should be used, that the child is between ages 2 and 6, that the punishment be carried out in private, and that it should occur less than once per week. However, comparisons in the same study with alternative punishments such as one-minute time-outs did not establish that corporal punishment was more effective. This paper also did not measure long term outcomes.[113]

See also[edit]


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