Facts About Corporal Punishment

It's important to educate yourself about the facts on corporal punishment.
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Corporal punishment is a hot topic that is widely debated by parenting experts, psychologists, and parents. Fueled by news stories about child abuse, many of those opposed to corporal punishment question whether or not it should remain legal and what steps could be taken to reduce incidents of physical abuse to children.

Corporal punishment encompasses all types of physical punishment, including spanking, slapping, pinching, pulling, twisting, and hitting with an object. It also may include forcing a child to consume unpleasant substances such as soap, hot sauce, or hot pepper.

In the United States, corporal punishment is legal on a federal level, but state laws vary on what types of physical punishments are allowed.

What Pediatricians Say

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has taken a firm stance against any type of corporal punishment. Its policy on corporal punishment, published in 2018, encourages parents and caregivers to use healthy forms of discipline when correcting their children and to refrain from using corporal punishment. Here is an excerpt from their policy.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends healthy forms of discipline, such as positive reinforcement of appropriate behaviors, limit setting, redirecting, and setting future expectations. The AAP recommends that parents do not use spanking, hitting, slapping, threatening, insulting, humiliating, or shaming.

The AAP recommends that parents, schools, and caregivers refrain from using any type of physical punishment with children, including spanking and paddling in schools. The AAP policy also indicates that corporal punishment is ineffective over the long-term and leads to negative outcomes.

Despite the AAP's position, paddling is still allowed in public schools in 19 U.S. states. Yet states with stricter laws regarding corporal punishment consider hitting children with a wooden paddle child abuse. A study conducted by the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch in 2015 found that Black students and disabled students were paddled most often.

Many countries have banned any type of corporal punishment, including spanking. Sweden became the first country to ban corporal punishment in 1979. Since then, other countries such as Germany and Brazil also have made spanking children illegal.

In 2006, the Committee on the Rights of the Child released a statement declaring that corporal punishment is a form of violence that should be banned in all contexts. Other human rights organizations have issued similar warnings about spanking.

Consequences

Teaching children acceptable behaviors, including how to make good choices and exercise self-control, is an integral part of child-rearing. But many parents rely on physical punishments to accomplish these goals.

These parents do not intend to harm their children when using corporal punishment; but instead, believe it is an effective discipline strategy. The issue is that corporal punishment is generally more harmful than it is helpful.

It Makes Behavior Worse

While corporal punishment may lead to immediate compliance, researchers have found that the changes in behavior may only be short-term. Studies consistently show that over the long term, corporal punishment is ineffective and may even cause behavior problems to worsen over time.

For instance, spanking children increases aggressive behavior. A multitude of research studies has found that kids who are spanked are more likely to hit other people.

The reason behind this is simple. Corporal punishment models aggressive behavior, which teaches children to solve problems with violence. It also can lead to bullying, dating violence, and other problem behaviors that rely on having power over someone else.

It Is Ineffective

Spanking is not any more effective than time-out. Research shows that spanking quickly loses effectiveness over time. When children are spanked, they don’t learn how to make better choices. And eventually, spanking stops being a deterrent. 

It Hurts Relationships

Spanking and other physical punishments damage the relationship between kids and their parents or caregivers. Trust, stability, safety, and security are the keys to helping children develop the skills they need to manage their behavior. Corporal punishment erodes that relationship.

It Is Linked to Mental Illness

Research has shown that children who are subjected to corporal punishment, such as spanking, pushing, grabbing, and paddling, are more likely to develop mental health disorders. One study reported that harsh physical punishment was associated with increased odds of mood disorders, anxiety disorders, substance abuse, and personality disorders. 

Even when physical punishment wasn't considered child abuse, researchers found that corporal punishment placed children at a higher risk of developing almost every type of mental illness.

What Parents Believe

Despite public opposition to spanking, a survey conducted by the Harris Poll in 2013 discovered that 81% of Americans privately support spanking children. The poll found that older generations are more accepting of spanking, with 88% of mature parents, 85% of baby boomers, 82% of Gen X parents, and 72% of Millennial parents approving of corporal punishment.

Of course, there are a number of different ways in which parents define corporal punishment. Some parents consider spanking with an open hand on a child's bottom acceptable but believe that all other forms of physical punishment are unacceptable.

Others believe that any type of physical punishment is appropriate, including taking a switch to a child, slapping a child's mouth, twisting an ear, pinching an arm, and so on.

Once implemented in a family, corporal punishment can be a difficult cycle to break. Many parents who experienced corporal punishment in their childhood will default to that discipline strategy when faced with misbehavior from their kids, rather than trying other methods like redirection, timeouts, and the removal of privileges.

Alternatives

Discipline shouldn't be about controlling kids. Instead, it should be about teaching them to control themselves. As a result, it is best to use strategies that will help your children learn from their mistakes while also cultivating better decision-making skills. These skills will help them make better choices in the future.

If you currently use corporal punishment with your child, you may want to consider the potential long-term consequences this could have on your child's well-being. Instead, consider alternative discipline strategies that could be more effective.

  • Take away certain privileges, such as electronics, for 24 hours. That will hurt more than a spanking will.
  • Place a younger child in time-out. If your child refuses to go to time-out, take away a privilege.
  • Use restitution if your children's behavior hurts someone else. Assign an extra chore or have them perform a duty that will help make amends.
  • Implement logical consequences that teach life lessons. If your kids break something, make them do chores to earn money to fix it.
  • Use positive reinforcement to encourage good behavior too. For instance, establish a reward system or a token economy system to help your child address specific behavior problems.

A Word From Verywell

If you have concerns about your children's behavior or if they don't seem to be responding to your discipline strategies, seek professional help. Talk to your pediatrician about what steps you can take to address misbehavior in a healthy way.

8 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Gershoff ET, Font SA. Corporal punishment in U.S. public schools: Prevalence, disparities in use, and status in state and federal policy. Soc Policy Rep. 2016;30:1.

  3. World Health Organization. Prohibiting and eliminating corporal punishment: A key health issue in addressing violence against children.

  4. Gershoff ET, Sattler KMP, Ansari A. Strengthening causal estimates for links between spanking and children’s externalizing behavior problems. Psychol Sci. 2018;29(1):110-120. doi:10.1177/0956797617729816

  5. Durrant J, Ensom R. Physical punishment of children: Lessons from 20 years of researchCMAJ. 2012;184(12):1373-1377. doi:10.1503/cmaj.101314

  6. Gershoff ET. Spanking and child development: We know enough now to stop hitting our childrenChild Dev Perspect. 2013;7(3):133-137. doi:10.1111/cdep.12038

  7. Afifi T, Mota N, Dasiewicz P, MacMillan H, Sareen J. Physical punishment and mental disorders: Results from a nationally representative US sample. Pediatrics. 2012;130(2):184-192. doi:10.1542/peds.2011-2947

  8. The Harris Poll. Four in five Americans believe parents spanking their children is sometimes appropriate.

By Amy Morin, LCSW
Amy Morin, LCSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. She's also a psychotherapist, an international bestselling author of books on mental strength and host of The Verywell Mind Podcast. She delivered one of the most popular TEDx talks of all time.