An Evolving Debate on Corporal Punishment

Girl sitting with chin in hands
Klaus Tiedge/Getty Images

In schools and at home, corporal punishment (CP) is when a parent, legal guardian, or education administrator attempts to stop an unwanted behavior by causing the child to feel physical discomfort or pain. Corporal punishment includes spankings, slapping a child, and beatings with an open hand, fist, or object such as a belt, switch, cord, paddle, board, or fly swatter.

Although the United States Supreme Court ruled in 1977 that corporal punishment is still a lawful form of punishment in schools, as long as it's confined to spanking or paddling, local legislation is allowed to override this edict.

At home, the rules regulating what forms of corporal punishment do not count as child abuse varies by state and local jurisdiction, especially when considering appropriate discipline for a child under foster care. Corporal punishment also includes ear twisting, placing hot sauce on a child's tongue, locking a child in a room, tying a child down, and even asking a child to over-exert him or herself with exercise or not allowing a child to go to the toilet.

Evolving Social Understanding of CP

Since the 1977 Supreme Court decision, many state and local agencies updated regulations governing what does and does not count as child abuse when it comes to issuing disciplinary actions against a misbehaved child.

Only 31 states, as well as D.C., have instituted bans on corporal punishment in school, and of the 19 other states that still allow it to continue, only Alabama, Arkansas, and Mississippi still use this form of disciplinary action regularly.

Georgia, Louisiana, Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas, especially in small, rural towns, still use this form of punishment routinely but to a lesser degree. Canada, Kenya, South Africa, New Zealand, and nearly all of Europe have banned the practice outright.

In recent years, international human rights agencies have been pushing for tougher legislation around the world to prevent children from being the subject of undue violence, in any form.

Even as far back as 1989 at the Convention on the Rights of the Child at the United Nations, countries worldwide came together to "take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation."

Corporal Punishment Is Not Appropriate for Foster Children

The use of corporal punishment is not appropriate for children in foster care, especially because many adopted children have experienced abuse and neglect already in their birth homes.

Abuse sometimes leaves a child with a high tolerance for pain. A frustrated caregiver may start off by spanking a child, but when they don't get the response they are seeking from the child, begin to hit harder and harder. Additionally, corporal punishment may also bring about bad memories of past abuse or prevent a child from building an attachment to the foster or adoptive parents.

Many child behavior psychologists believe that needed life lessons are not being taught when discipline is angry and painful, and corporal punishment will often leave a child with increased anxiety and the inability to trust parental figures.

For many new foster or adoptive parents, not being allowed to spank a child may be hard to understand as most of us were raised by parents who spanked. Yes, most of us did “turn out okay,” and hopefully, the points above help in understanding why spanking or other forms of physical punishment are not in an abused or neglected child’s best interest or the best interest of a foster or adoptive family that is trying to attach to the child. There are, however, several other options.

Was this page helpful?
3 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.
  1. 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).

  2. Human Rights Watch. The education deficit. June 2016.

  3. Breen A, Daniels K, Tomlinson M. Children's experiences of corporal punishment: A qualitative study in an urban township of South Africa. Child Abuse Negl. 2015;(48):131-9.  doi:10.1016/j.chiabu.2015.04.022