The last two decades have seen a major international shift in the perspectives regarding physical punishment of children. Up until twenty years ago, physical punishment was considered a normal and popular disciplinary technique. Over the last several years, however, an abundance of research has revealed that not only is corporal punishment of children ineffective, it also causes many harmful side effects that continue into adulthood.
Physical punishment of children, also known as corporal punishment, is defined as "the use of physical force with the intention of causing a child to experience bodily pain or discomfort, so as to correct the child's behavior" (Gershoff 9). This may include spanking and whipping, as well as washing a child's mouth out with soap or making him stand in an uncomfortable position for prolonged periods of time. Physical punishment is different than physical abuse because physical punishment is intended to cause pain but not injury, whereas physical abuse causes injury. Unfortunately, however, physical punishment can often lead to unintentional physical abuse (Gershoff 9).
In the last two decades, more than one-hundred countries have outlawed physical punishment of children in schools, and twenty-four have banned it in all settings, including homes. In addition, there is growing consensus that physical punishment of children violates international human rights law (Gershoff 23). It is therefore astonishing, that in the United States, physical punishment is legal in the home in forty-nine states, and is legal in schools in nineteen states. In addition, surveys reveal that 50 -60% of Americans use and approve of physical punishment by parents (APSA.org). These findings are shocking. If one would hit a spouse or stranger, it could be considered criminal assault, yet if one spanks a vulnerable child there are practically no legal ramifications in the United States (APSA.org).
The American Academy of Pediatrics asserts that "corporal punishment is of limited effectiveness" (Durrant and Ensom 1375). Research shows that while physical punishment does indeed produce immediate compliance, it does not improve long-term behavior. In fact, studies reveal that physical punishment is associated with less internalization of proper behavior and an increase in defiance (Gershoff 13). Parents often use physical punishment when a child hits a younger sibling or steals money, therefore, several studies specifically examined if physical punishment minimized these particular behaviors. A comprehensive analysis examining forty studies revealed that physical punishment does not improve these activities and actually has the reverse effect; it increases both aggression and anti-social behavior (Gershoff 13).
There are many theories that explain why physical punishment is ineffective in improving behavior. First of all, physical punishment does not teach the child why his behavior was wrong and what he should have done instead. It simply creates a fear in the child that he should behave properly when the parent is present so he shouldn't get punished. This supports the finding that short-term compliance improves with physical punishment but long-term behavior does not (Gershoff 18). Furthermore, physical punishment models for children that it is acceptable to use aggression to get your way, especially if you are bigger and stronger (Gershoff 18). If a child hits a younger sibling and then the parent hits the child as punishment, what lesson is he teaching, if not "might makes right." Lastly, physical punishment reinforces rebellion and causes children to feel angry and unjustly treated. Therefore, instead of the child thinking about what he did wrong, he focuses on how the adult wronged him (Durrant and Ensom 1374).
The American Academy of Pediatrics further goes on to state that "corporal punishment…..has potentially deleterious side effects" (Durrant and Ensom 1375). A comprehensive analysis performed by psychologist Elizabeth Gershoff looked at the association between physical punishment and several childhood behaviors and emotions. Results showed a direct impact on behavior and emotion as a result of physical punishment (15).
Physical punishment had a strong influence on the quality of the parent-child relationship. Parents who think they are doing a service to their children by disciplining them with a spanking, are actually alienating them. This parental avoidance can lead to a development of mistrust of adult figures (16).
Furthermore, as previously discussed, physical punishment increases aggression and anti-social activity. Children carry into adulthood the lessons they learned as children, therefore, many of these children abuse their own spouses and children when they grow up. In addition, children who were physically punished exhibit more incidences of criminal behavior and delinquency (16). These findings are ironic, as the physical punishment actually exacerbates the behaviors it is intended to eliminate.
Skeptics have argued that it is not the physical punishment that causes the aggression, but rather that aggressive children provoke more physical punishment (14). This hypothesis has been examined in multiple studies, and findings do confirm that more aggressive children do indeed elicit more physical punishment (14). However, study findings also reveal that the more children are exposed to aggression, the more aggressive they can become; in other words, aggressive children can become even more aggressive with physical punishment (Durrant and Ensom 1373).
One study looked at the behaviors of first grade boys. The boys were divided into two groups; one group watched a video of a child being yelled at and spanked, and the second group watched a non-violent video clip. Afterwards, the group that had watched the spanking video exhibited much more aggression during playtime than the control group (Durrant and Ensom 1373). Furthermore, data from over five-hundred families revealed a significant reduction in aggression as a direct result of decreases in physical punishment (Durrant and Ensom 1374). Taken together, these findings substantiate the original position that there is a direct link between physical punishment and aggression.
Finally, physical punishment has been found to lead to multiple mental health problems that persist into adulthood. These include depression, anxiety, alcoholism, and drug abuse. Research also reveals slower cognitive development in younger children who were physically punished (Durrant and Ensom 1375).
What then should a parent do when his child misbehaves? This is a valid question, and the American Psychoanalytic Association (APSA) has presented several alternative approaches. Most important, is that parents must learn to use words instead of actions. Parents should talk to their children, explain to them what they did wrong, and discuss alternative responses for the future. This will enhance moral internalization and future decision-making skills. Parents should also listen to their children and validate their feelings. This will allow children to feel understood and less resentful of a punishment. Parents should use positive reinforcement and reward good behavior. Follow the motto "catch them doing something good," rather than always punishing them for doing something bad. Parents also need to lead by example. Children want to emulate their parents and will model a parent's good behavior. Finally, parents need to take care of themselves. A stressed-out or over-burdened parent is less patient and more likely to use physical punishment. In addition, the American Academy of Pediatrics encourages the use of time-outs and removal of privileges (726).
For cynics who think that these recommendations are naïve or misguided, studies evaluating these techniques reveal positive outcomes regarding the effectiveness of the approach and the improved behavior of the children (Durrant and Ensom 1375). The American Academy of Pediatrics states that "spanking is a less effective strategy than time-out or removal of privileges for reducing undesired behavior in children" (726).
In summation, physical punishment is illegal in numerous countries and is considered a violation of human rights. The American Academy of Pediatrics has emphasized the ineffectiveness of physical punishment in improving behavior and numerous studies point to its deleterious side effects. Physical punishment seems to exacerbate the very actions it is trying to eliminate. Parents must be educated regarding these serious findings and must be taught alternative disciplinary approaches. The philosophy must change. It can no longer be "spare the rod and spoil the child." Instead, it must be "spare the rod and save the child!"
"American Academy of Pediatrics- Guidance for Effective Discipline." Pediatrics 101.4 (1998): 723-728. Web. 18 Nov. 2013. APSA.org. Position Statement on Physical/Corporal Punishment, 2013. Web. 18 Nov. 2013. Durrant, Joan, and Ron Ensom. "Physical Punishment of Children: Lessons from 20 Years of Research." Canadian Medical Association Journal 184.12 (2013): 1373-1377. Web. 18 Nov. 2013. Gershoff, Elizabeth T. Report on Physical Punishment in the United States: What Research Tells Us About its Effects on Children. Columbus: Center for Effective Discipline, 2008. Web. 18 Nov. 2013.