I have always loved children’s sweet, enthusiastic, curious, and creative nature and have felt that it is our job, as a society, to nurture these qualities. The influence that we have on our youth should be positive. It is our job to treat these valuable young people with kindness, love, and respect and to do our best to protect them from harm from their innocent and impressionable beginnings. The way that we raise our children can greatly impact their well-being, making learning about the consequences of different parenting methods important for all people who are, or are considering becoming, parents.
Parenting methods and discipline strategies have an immense impact on children’s well-being and success throughout their lives and are a frequent topic of debate. One extremely controversial method of discipline is the use of corporal punishment. While parents all want what is best for their children, they have not yet reached an agreement on what that would be. While supporters of corporal punishment claim to want to help their children, they may be unaware of the important evidence that has shown that corporal punishment has the opposite effect. This paper combines information from many studies, meta-analyses, and personal accounts, aiming to resolve this controversy. It summarizes the extensive negative psychological and physical consequences that corporal punishment has on children. It discusses the ineffectiveness of corporal punishment in managing previous behaviors, the additional negative behaviors that it causes, and the reasoning behind these behavioral consequences. It then suggests several healthy, positive discipline strategies that have proven to be effective in regulating children’s behaviors while nurturing their development. It concludes that corporal punishment should not be used.
Keywords: corporal punishment, physical punishment, negative, discipline, parenting, children
Corporal Punishment: A Harmful and Ineffective Discipline Strategy
“It feels like someone banged you with a hammer.” “It hurts and it’s painful inside- it’s like breaking your bones.” “It hurts your feelings inside.” It makes you feel “sad,” “ashamed,” “upset,” “grumpy,” and “angry.” “It feels like [they] shouldn’t have done that, it hurts. It feels embarrassed, it feels like you are really sorry and it hurts.” “You want to run away because they’re… being mean to you and it hurts a lot” (Lonergan, 2014). These are the saddening but true thoughts and feelings of children whose parents use corporal punishment, claiming to want to better and help their children. Corporal punishment is defined by the American Academy of Pediatrics as “noninjurious, open-handed hitting with the intention of modifying child behavior” (Gershoff, 2010, p. 33). Its use is currently legal in the United States and people’s right to it continues to be exercised, as 50 percent of U.S. toddlers’ and 65 to 68 percent of U.S. preschoolers’ parents regularly use corporal punishment (Gershoff, 2010, p. 31). While some justify its use by claiming it is effective, the facts clearly state the opposite. In addition to not serving its purpose of leading children to become obedient and respectful, it further has a harmful impact on them. Parents should not use corporal punishment because it has many negative psychological, physical, and behavioral consequences and is not as effective as other methods of parenting and discipline.
Psychological Consequences of Corporal Punishment
Corporal punishment has both an immediate and lifelong hurtful mental impact on children. Interview studies in the United Kingdom and New Zealand with children whose parents were using corporal punishment at the time revealed that, in the moments of being physically punished and in the years when corporal punishment is being used, children experience feelings of sadness, embarrassment, anxiety, and anger (Gershoff, 2010, p. 44; Lonergan, 2014). They described themselves crying out of fear and pain as they are being spanked and “weep[ing]” from sadness, shame, anger, and confusion when it is over and they are alone (Lonergan, 2014). In one summary of twelve studies done, every one concluded that corporal punishment causes mental health problems (Gershoff, 2010, p. 43). They found that, as corporal punishment was used more often and became more severe, the probability of the children having depression and anxiety would become greater (Gershoff, 2010, p. 43). These children begin suffering from a young age and these feelings do not end when corporal punishment does.
Corporal punishment’s impact often lasts for the children’s lifetimes. Children who receive frequent corporal punishment are consistently receiving a message far from one of love and support. Senior Principal Psychologist of the Psychosocial Trauma Support Service at KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital, Lynn Soh, said, “The message sent to children through corporal punishment is one of aggression. It includes repeatedly telling a child that he is worthless, useless, unloved, or unwanted, and threatening to use physical or psychological violence on him” (as cited in Ng, 2016). This message becomes ingrained in the children’s brains every time physical punishment is used. They feel it frequently from a young age and by the people whose opinions mean the most to them at that time. This can lead to poor self-esteem and low self-confidence, which, in combination with the accumulated stress of constantly fearing corporal punishment, can cause many mental illnesses (Gershoff, 2010, p. 44; Ng, 2016). These include depression, anxiety, and many mood and personality disorders (Ng, 2016). These mental health issues are persistent. They are overwhelming, impacting daily life, causing pain, hopelessness, and loneliness, and sometimes leading to suicidal thoughts and actions. They are difficult and expensive to treat, often requiring some combination of therapies and medications.
Corporal punishment has also been linked to reducing children’s cognitive ability. Several studies have discovered a negative association between corporal punishment and various measures of cognitive ability. Children whose parents use corporal punishment may become the one-year-olds who score considerably lower in mental abilities, five-year-olds with less understanding of language, early elementary-schoolers with less school achievement, and middle-schoolers and young adults with lower IQs (American Academy of Pediatrics [AAP], 2018; Gershoff, 2010, p. 46). These children are more likely to be slower learners in school, and fewer of them attend college (Berger, 2014, p. 299). According to Soh, because the self-esteem and self-confidence of these children have been diminished, they can struggle to thrive socially in school. This, combined with the difficulty that these children have concentrating, can cause this low academic achievement (as cited in Ng, 2016).
Physical Consequences of Corporal Punishment
The use of corporal punishment can also be physically harmful to children. Since parents are bigger and stronger than their children and hit them until pain is felt, injury during physical punishment is a concern (AAP, 2018; Gershoff, 2010, p. 41). Parents can significantly damage their children’s bodies and brains (AAP, 2018). In addition to the temporary pain of being hit and injured, the physical effects of corporal punishment can last long-term. These children tend to have increased hormones that indicate toxic stress (AAP, 2018). This type of stress can damage neural connections, something especially concerning at these children’s ages. They are also more likely to grow up having a smaller gray matter part of the brain (AAP, 2018). This means that these children have less of an ability to have self-control (AAP, 2018). This lack of self-control, which is likely due in large part to the parents’ use of corporal punishment, can further anger the parents and lead to more corporal punishment, a cycle of violence initiated by the parents.
Effectiveness of Corporal Punishment
Despite all of these negative consequences of corporal punishment, parents continue to use it. Their intent is to immediately stop the problematic behaviors, avoid the child repeating those behaviors, and cause the child to act acceptably (Gershoff, 2010, p. 34). While supporters of physical punishment may believe that it is effective in accomplishing these goals and creating obedient and respectful individuals, studies have found that corporal punishment is generally not effective in achieving any of these goals (Gershoff, 2010, pp. 35-40). In a meta-analysis of fifteen studies, thirteen found that corporal punishment led to less moral and pro-social behaviors and less long-term compliance (Gershoff, 2010, p. 37). While parents try to show disapproval of aggressive behaviors, like hitting, and antisocial behaviors, like lying, by physically punishing their children, studies have discovered that this punishment actually worsens these behaviors (Gershoff, 2010, p. 38). Several theories discussed below help to explain the reason for this.
Beyond its ineffectiveness in managing previous bad behaviors, corporal punishment also leads to additional negative behaviors. Studies have found that corporal punishment can lead to aggressive and antisocial behaviors (Gershoff, 2010, p. 38). It also has been found to lead these children to be the ones who become bullies, delinquents, and substance abusers (Berger, 2014, p. 299; Ng, 2016). Studies have consistently found that it leads to violence towards family members, including children, spouses, and dating partners (Gershoff, 2010, p. 47).
There are several theories as to why behaviors of children worsen with corporal punishment, including the lack of theory of mind, the social-learning perspective, the social cognitive theory, and the attribution theory (Berger, 2014, p. 389; Gershoff, 2010, p. 38). Corporal punishment causes children to have a slowed development of the theory of mind (Berger, 2014, p. 299). The theory of mind is a term used to describe a person’s perception and understanding of others’ thoughts (Berger, 2014, p. 253). Children who have not developed theory of mind are less empathetic (Berger, 2014, p. 389). They struggle to understand the feelings of others without being able to speculate and understand their thoughts. These children then struggle with their morality (Berger, 2014, p. 389.) While they may be capable of making moral actions, this lack of theory of mind, empathy, and morality can make choosing to do so difficult for these children because they do not understand the purpose.
The social-learning perspective is another explanation for the behavioral consequences of corporal punishment that states that children imitate the violent model that their parents have demonstrated to be effective (Gershoff, 2010, p. 38). Observing the modeling of adults is one of children’s primary sources for learning. Two seven-year-old girls whose parents use corporal punishment said that children will “think it’s right to [spank] and go off and smack somebody else” and that children “are going to start smacking other people because they think grown ups do it” (Lonergan, 2014). These girls are two examples of the many children who have experienced their parents using physical punishment and learned that violence is an acceptable way to achieve their goals (Ng, 2016).
The social cognitive theory proposes that the belligerent behavior that the children have become accustomed to leads to more inappropriate social interactions (Gershoff, 2010, p. 38). These children are found to have “less ability to stop [themselves] from misbehaving,” as they aren’t taught how to act responsibly and have self-control (AAP, 2018; Ng, 2016). They have illogical understandings of the causes of events, actions, and behaviors (Gershoff, 2010, p. 38). These issues then trouble the children socially.
The attribution theory discusses how these children’s reasoning for behaving is to avoid corporal punishment rather than for moral reasons (Gershoff, 2010, p. 38). Children remember their parents being mad and the pain that they experienced when their parents hit them, but do not understand what caused it (Berger, 2014, p. 301). In her article “What I Was Really Thinking Every Time My Parents Spanked Me,” Brianna Cox (2016) wrote what she wished she could have told her parents who used corporal punishment to discipline her:
I wish you would talk to me. Even as an elementary school-age child, I found myself wishing you would use age-appropriate reason and logic rather than spankings to communicate what I had done wrong. The pain from the beating did not make me remember and learn my lesson. I have long since forgotten nearly all the things I was spanked for. But I remember the pain I felt, the anger that seemed to radiate from you while giving the spanking and the shame that I could not be better.
Children begin to fear punishment instead of internalizing the reason to behave (Ng, 2016). This leaves them without feeling the need to behave when the external source of their parents is not present (Gershoff, 2010, p. 38). They then are more likely to misbehave and make risky decisions.
Whether one or a combination of these theories explains the negative effects of corporal punishment, these negative effects are occurring. Parents should avoid using corporal punishment in order to avoid these negative results and the detrimental effects that they can have on their children’s well-being and success. Many other parenting methods have been identified that have proven to be equally as or more effective than corporal punishment without risking the negative psychological, physical, and behavioral consequences that corporal punishment has on children.
Recommended Parenting Methods and Discipline Strategies
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has studied the ways that children learn and the discipline strategies that are most effective and beneficial. In their article “What’s the Best Way to Discipline My Child?,” the AAP (2018) recommends ten healthy, positive discipline strategies and provides parents with several discipline tips specific to five different age stages. These strategies help regulate children’s behaviors while nurturing their development.
One strategy that they encourage is “show and tell.” This is where parents remain kind and collected in discussing and modeling what is and isn’t okay. This helps children to learn in a positive environment and can prevent bad behaviors before they become an issue. They also recommend parents practice “hearing [their children] out.” Rather than only telling children how to act, listening to children’s thoughts and feelings can help children to feel supported and parents to understand and help their children improve their actions. The show and tell and listening strategies connect in forming a method of parenting known as induction. Parents who use induction thoroughly explain to their children why certain behaviors are inappropriate, listen to their children’s thoughts and feelings, and help them to think of alternative actions that they could take (Berger, 2014, p. 300). This strategy helps children to understand the reasoning behind different rules and morals, helping to improve their long-term behavior.
Next, the AAP recommends being “prepared for trouble.” Planning for issues and discussing this plan, as well as emotional regulation, with children will help both parents and children remain calm and respectful when these situations arise, avoiding escalation. They recommend using positive language, which is saying what should be done rather than what shouldn’t and restricting the use of the word “no” to urgent situations. They encourage parents to “redirect bad behavior.” This is where parents give their children an alternative task to help them replace their behaviors with good ones. One of the most recommended strategies, because of its effectiveness, is for parents to “give [their children their] attention.” Children strongly value their parents’ attention. Because of this, they recommend “catch[ing] [children] being good.” Acknowledging and praising good behaviors will help children to feel encouraged and want to continue these behaviors. Along with that comes “know[ing] when not to respond.” Because children crave their parents’ attention, simply ignoring bad behaviors will discourage children from continuing or repeating them.
The AAP also recommends “set[ting] limits.” This means that parents should clearly communicate what rules are in place, make sure that their children understand these rules, and enforce them. They encourage parents to reasonably “give consequences.” Parents should be calm but firm in telling their children what consequences they will have and the reasoning for them and should be ready to carry out these consequences. One type of consequence that they encourage is “call[ing] a time-out.” Parents should tell a misbehaving child what they are doing wrong and that they will have a time-out if the behavior continues. If they continue, the child should be required to sit quietly for a short, predetermined amount of time. Alternatively, once the child is mature enough, the parents can tell the child that they can leave time-out when they feel they are ready, which can help children to develop self-management skills. With either application of the strategy, time-outs give children the time and space to reflect on their behavior and allow both children and parents to control their emotions.
These strategies have all proven to lead to much better results. They create children who are happy, healthy, and understand and choose appropriate behaviors. Corporal punishment only causes children and families pain and worsens children’s behavior. In any other context, hitting is considered abuse. Children do not deserve to be traumatized by such violence and should be no exception to this. Parents should not use corporal punishment to avoid its extensive harmful psychological, physical, and behavioral consequences.
American Academy of Pediatrics. (2018). What’s the best way to discipline my child? https://www.aap.org/
Berger, K. S. (2014). The developing person through the life span (9th ed.). Worth Publishers.
Cox, B. (2016, June 28). What I was really thinking every time my parents spanked me. https://www.sheknows.com
Gershoff, E. T. (2010). More harm than good: A summary of scientific research on the intended and unintended effects of corporal punishment on children. https://www.jstor.org
Lonergan, C. (2014, January 6). Children speak about how spanking feels to them [Blog post]. https://cthebean.wordpress.com/2014/01/06/children-speak-about-how-spanking-feels-to-them/
Ng, D. (2016). Child discipline: Physical punishment can leave psychological marks. https://www.healthxchange.sg