Early Childhood Education

Corporal Punishment


Corporal punishment is the use of physical force with the intention of causing a child to experience pain, but not injury, for the purpose of correction or control of the child’s behavior. Examples include slapping a child’s hand or buttocks, squeezing a child’s arm, and hitting the child on the buttocks with a belt or paddle. Until recently, in all nations except Sweden, parents and teachers were expected and sometimes required to use corporal punishment as a means of controlling and socializing children. In 1929, Sweden became the first to end corporal punishment in schools. Fifty years later, the law prohibiting corporal punishment was extended to parents. The Swedish no-spanking law did not include any criminal penalties. It was intended as a statement of national policy and to authorize funds for educational efforts to bring about the change. Since then, corporal punishment by parents has been banned in thirteen other countries. In June 2006, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child issued a policy statement declaring that it is “the obligation of all States parties to move quickly to prohibit and eliminate all corporal punishment and all other cruel or degrading forms of punishment of children by parents, teachers, and other caregivers.”


Prevalence and Chronicity of Corporal Punishment by Parents and Teachers

Corporal punishment of children has been the norm for thousands of years. According to Proverbs 13:24 “He that spareth his rod hateth his son; but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes.” According to Deuteronomy 22; 12, corporal punishment in childhood may avoid more serious consequences later. “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard. Then all the men of the town shall stone him to death.” In eighteenth-century England, Susanna Wesley wrote to her son John, the founder of the Methodist Church, about how he and his siblings were brought up: “When they turned a year old ..., they were taught to fear the rod and to cry softly        ”

Despite changing attitudes to corporal punishment, its use by parents continues to be prevalent. In modern America, a majority of parents believe that corporal punishment is sometimes necessary, and books that advise parents to spank, such as “To Spank or not to Spank” and “Dare to Discipline,” sell millions of copies. Recent research indicates that over a third of American parents hit infants, and over 90 percent hit toddlers, making this form of violent child rearing part of the socialization experience of almost all children, although the severity and frequency varies tremendously. Nevertheless, when corporal punishment is used as a parenting strategy, it is relatively frequent. For toddlers, several studies show an average of about three times a week. Corporal punishment is not limited to the infant-toddler period. To the contrary, children are typically hit by adults for many years. In the United States, corporal punishment continues until the early teens for about a third of children. Opponents of corporal punishment describe this as twelve years of violent socialization. A 2006 study of university students in nineteen nations found that 57 percent recalled frequent corporal punishment before age 12, but the rates varied widely from 13 percent (Leuven, Belgium) to 73 percent (Washington, DC, USA).

Research by Hyman found that corporal punishment by teachers was equally prevalent. In 1979, forty-six of the fifty American states, and almost all other countries, permitted teachers to hit children. Nine U. S states give teachers immunity from civil damages if a child is injured when they use corporal punishment. However, a provision giving such immunity in the federal No Child Left Behind legislation of 2001 was removed before passage despite strong pressure from the president.

Although the trend away from corporal punishment is strong and world-wide, it is controversial. The controversy occurs because, except for a small group of children’s rights activists, the majority of parents and the majority of child psychologists and parent educators, including those who think that corporal punishment should be avoided, are opposed to banning corporal punishment. This seeming contradiction occurs because they believe that punishment works when other methods do not, and therefore may sometimes be necessary. For example, a 2000 study of clinical child psychologists by Schencket al. (2000) found that although they were generally opposed to corporal punishment, two-thirds considered it ethical to advise corporal punishment under some circumstances. A 2006 study of university students in thirty-two countries by Straus found that only 26 percent of students in the median university strongly disagreed that “It is sometimes necessary to discipline a child with a good hard spanking.” Among American students, only 21 percent strongly disagreed. Only in Sweden did almost all university students (95%) reject the idea that corporal punishment is sometimes necessary. Many fundamentalist Christians believe they have a religious obligation to follow the Old Testament injunctions to use the “rod” to correct misbehavior. On the other hand, many liberal Christians believe “rod” refers to the staff used by shepherds to guide the flock, not to an instrument for hitting.


Research on Effectiveness of Corporal Punishment in U. S. Settings

One of the reasons why corporal punishment continues to be a common practice in many families is a deeply ingrained belief that corporal punishment is more effective than other methods of discipline. Even people who are opposed to using corporal punishment tend to believe it is sometimes necessary when other methods have failed. However, this belief is not supported by any empirical study that compared corporal and noncorporal punishment. A study by Larzelere and Miranda (1994) is particularly important, not only because it clearly shows that corporal punishment is not more effective than nonviolent methods of discipline in preventing repetition of the misbehavior but because it also shows the power of commitment to the presumed necessity of sometimes spanking. Despite his own research results, Larzelere continues to support use of corporal punishment, perhaps because studies showing that corporal punishment is not more effective in preventing repetition of the misbehavior can also be interpreted as showing that corporal punishment is just as effective as other methods. Therefore, why not spank? Critics of corporal punishment point to studies, including seven that were longitudinal, which have found that, although in the short run corporal punishment produces compliance by the child, it is counterproductive in the long run, i.e., it is less effective, and has harmful side effects. For a few children, one spanking may end that misbehavior once and for all; just as for a few children one verbal admonition may end the problem once and for all. But on average, although corporal punishment often stops the misbehavior in the immediate situation, the effect in the subsequent weeks and months is to increase the subsequent level of misbehavior. In addition, research has found that corporal punishment is associated with subsequent increase in many behavior problems such as antisocial behavior and slower cognitive development; and later in life, with problems such as depression, violence against dating and marital partners, and conviction for committing a serious crime.

A turning point in understanding the effects of corporal punishment occurred in 1997 with the publication of the first longitudinal study that obtained data on change in the child’s behavior subsequent to spanking. This was a crucial development because none of the previous research on the link between spanking and child behavior problems demonstrated that corporal punishment might actually contribute to the behavior problems. In fact, the pre-1997 research can just as plausibly be interpreted as showing that child behavior problems cause parents to spank. Subsequent longitudinal studies show that, although misbehavior serves as direct incentive for some parents to spank, it is a counterproductive method of correcting misbehavior and is psychologically dangerous to the child. The benefit of the longitudinal studies is associated with the opportunity to examine change in the child’s misbehavior subsequent to spanking, allowing determination of whether the spanking was followed by a decrease in misbehavior (as per the cultural belief system) or an increase in misbehavior and behavior problems. Each of these longitudinal studies had results that show spanking to be associated with an increase in antisocial behavior problems two years later.

It is important to acknowledge that the magnitude of the harmful effects of corporal punishment on an individual child is small compared to the effects of other kinds of violent victimization of children, such as physical and sexual abuse. However, the potential cumulative effect on the mental health of the population is significant, given that such a large percent of children experience corporal punishment and because of the high frequency during any one year and the repetition for many years.

These studies suggest three key conclusions: First, although corporal punishment usually “works,” it does not work any better than other methods of correction and control even in the immediate situation and, in subsequent months and years, it tends to be less effective. Second, corporal punishment has harmful side effects that other methods do not. Third, given these harmful side effects, standard medical practice requires advising parents to switch to a “medicine” that has the same effectiveness but not the harmful side effects; that is, to noncorporal modes of discipline. However, only a tiny percent of pediatricians and child psychologists follow this standard practice and advise parents to never spank. For example, a review of ten leading child psychology textbooks found none that recommended never spanking. Even Dr. Spook’s Book of Baby and Child Care, instead of advising parents to never spank, advises them to “avoid it if you can.” Ironically, that advice almost guarantees that parents will spank if their goal is to teach very young children to control their own behavior. Larzelere and Miranda’s study of two-year old children found that half repeated the misbehavior within two hours and 80 percent within the same day, and that this applied to all methods of correction. Thus, when parents follow the advice of “avoid it if you can” and the child repeats the misbehavior after noncorporal modes of correction, they are likely to conclude that they cannot avoid spanking. Thus, to end corporal punishment, the advice needs to be never spank.

Never-spanking is a message parents and professionals working with parents find difficult to accept because the belief that corporal punishment works when other methods do not is so firmly embedded in the culture of most societies. It is also hard to accept because it seems to be contradicted by the day-to-day experience of parents who have told a child “no,” reasoned or explained, or used time-out, only to have the child repeat the misbehavior. Parents and professionals advising parents do not point out to parents that this happens just as often when toddlers are spanked, and they also do not tell parents to never spank, as they would tell them to never let a child smoke.

An important difference between spanking and other modes of correction is that parents who spank are prepared to do it again and again until the child ceases the misbehavior. But when parents use noncorporal discipline and the child repeats the misbehavior, they are likely to fall back on corporal punishment— the method their culture incorrectly tells them works when other methods have failed. Parents who spank and repeat the spanking as needed are using the right strategy, but with the wrong method. If they were as persistent with noncorporal methods, they would be even more effective, and not put the child at risk of the harmful side effects.



Aside from legislative changes, there is data on trends for only a few countries, but in every case it reveals substantial decreases in corporal punishment by parents. Perhaps the most dramatic example is Sweden. A study of all children born in a district of Stockholm in 1955 found that at age three, 94 percent of the parents were still using corporal punishment, and a third of them did it “at least daily.” By 1994, the percent of parents who spank had dropped to 31 percent. The most complete data is for the United States, although it conveys a more mixed picture. About two thirds of a national sample of parents of thirteen-year-old children reported using corporal punishment in 1975. By 1995 that percentage had decreased to a third, suggesting changing attitudes and practices for older children and adolescents. However, for toddlers, there was no decrease from the over 90% of parents who spanked in 1975, suggesting a continued belief in the efficacy of physical means of socializing the very young child.

Perhaps the most important explanation for the decreasing use of corporal punishment is an acceleration of a centuries-long trend toward a less violent society. Violence, even for socially desirable ends, is becoming less and less acceptable. Sanctioned corporal punishment of wives and of members of the armed services ended in the last quarter of the nineteenth century The death penalty has ended in all countries of the European Union and in many other nations as well. Interwoven with the decrease in interpersonal violence is an expansion in the scope of human rights, as manifested in the end of slavery, voting rights for women, the right to a free public education, and the United Nations charter on human rights. In 1990, the United Nations adopted a Convention on the Rights of the Child, which prohibits inhumane treatment of children. As noted previously, the committee implementing the Convention has defined corporal punishment as inhumane and has called on all signatory nations to make it illegal. To date, the Convention has been signed by all nations except Somalia and the United States. These provisions of the Convention and other legal changes are part of what Norbert Elias calls a centuries-long “civilizing process.” Ending corporal punishment is one manifestation of that process.

Credit goes to Sweden for initiating this process in the 1920s and prohibiting corporal punishment by teachers, long before empirical evidence of harmful side effects became available. The end of corporal punishment in Swedish schools and the decrease in corporal punishment by Swedish parents thus reflects a change in moral standards more than a response to scientific evidence. Since the 1979 Swedish law, thirteen other countries have also banned sparking by parents. However, the educational effort to implement these laws has varied. Again, Sweden has done the most. For example, after the Swedish parenting law, all milk cartons carried the nonspanking message. A year later, over 90 percent of parents and children knew about it. In Germany, there was also a large educational effort after the legal change in 2000, but it was not specifically directed to children, and a year after the law, only about 30 percent of parents knew about it. Given the recency of most of the legislative changes and the variation in educational effort, the long term effects of prohibiting corporal punishment at this point are best evaluated for Sweden. The Swedish data show that, contrary to warnings that Sweden would become a country with children out of control, the opposite has happened. There have been substantial decreases in crime, drug use, and suicide by Swedish children and youth. There are many possible reasons for these decreases and they cannot be attributed to the ending corporal punishment. However, it can be concluded that the fear of uncontrollable children if corporal punishment ended has not been borne out by the change in Sweden to a less violent and more humane mode of child rearing.

Over the past several decades, there has been a world-wide movement to end corporal punishment in schools, and more recently in the home. In the United States, about half the states now prohibit corporal punishment by teachers, and most of the large cities in the remaining half have prohibited corporal punishment even though state legislation or rules permit it. Child psychologists and pediatricians discourage corporal punishment. However, only a small minority explicitly advises parents to never spank, but that group is growing. Early childhood professional organizations such as the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) also have a specific stance against any form of corporal punishment for young children. Globally, child advocates continue to seek means to ban corporal punishment of children. In addition to the United Nations charter on children’s rights, the European Union now requires member nations to end corporal punishment of children. Many child advocates look forward to an end to what some describe as a common and necessary socialization practice and others perceive as unnecessary and the “primordial violence against children.”

Further Readings: Elias, Norbert (1978). The civilizing process. Vol. 1 and 2. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press; Gershoff, Thompson Elizabeth (2002). Corporal punishment by parents and associated child behaviors and experiences: A meta-analytic and theoretical review. Psychological Bulletin 128, 539-579; Greven, Philip (1990). Spare the child: The religious roots of punishment and the psychological impact of physical abuse. New York: Alfred A. Knopf; Hyman, Irwin A. (1990). Reading, writing, and the hickory stick: The appalling story of physical and psychological abuse in American schools. Lexington, Massachusetts: D.C. Heath; Larzelere, Robert E. and Jack A. Mirenda (1994). The effectiveness of parental discipline for toddler misbehavior at different levels of child distress. Family Relations 43, 480-488; Sears, Robert R., Eleanor C. Maccoby, and Harry Levin (1957). Patterns of child rearing. New York: Harper & Row; Straus, Murray A. (2001). Beating the devil out of them: Corporal punishment in American families and its effects on children. 2nd ed. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction; Straus, Murray A. and Rose A. Medeiros (2007). The primordial violence: Corporal punishment by parents, cognitive development, and crime. Walnut Creek, CA: Alta Mira.

Murray A. Straus