Radio Freethinker

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Slapping Around Corporal Punishment

Posted by Ethan Clow on January 16, 2011

If I could just shy away from all that the attention that’s been given to homeopathy and the CBC Marketplace episode for a just a few moments…I’d like to talk about corporal punishment. (I feel like I need a knight with a rubber chicken for that segue.)

Last week on the show we discussed corporal punishment. Inspired by many conversations I’ve had with friends and acquaintances who have some rather interesting ideas about corporal punishment. It seemed to me like their ideas on corporal punishment are informed by evidence that isn’t scientific, so I wanted to investigate and see what science actually has to say on corporal punishment.


Is it the same as child abuse?

Is it dangerous?

Does corporal punish work?

First, let’s define our terms.

Child abuse:

What is it?
-Generally defined as the physical/emotional mistreatment of children. According to the CDC in America child abuse is defined asAny act or series of acts of commission or omission by a parent or other caregiver that results in harm, potential for harm, or threat of harm to a child

-Child abuse is divided into 4 main categories:

  • Neglect
  • Physical abuse –  contact intended to cause feelings of intimidation, injury, or other physical suffering or bodily harm
  • Sexual abuse
  • Psychological abuse – behaviour that is psychologically harmful

Why is it done?
The exact causes are unknown. Some evidence indicates that child abuses correlates with parents who are addicts, abusive to their spouses, and socio-economic reasons.

Corporal Punishment:

What is it?
-Generally speaking it is defined as the deliberate infliction of pain as retribution for an offence, or for the purpose of disciplining or reforming a wrongdoer, or to deter attitudes or behaviour deemed unacceptable. When done to children it is sometimes referred to as ‘corporal punishment in the home.’

-It typically takes the form of spanking or open hand swatting.

-However it can also take the form of whipping and/or beating with items/weapons. Whips, belts, paddles, canes etc.

Why is it done?
It is a form of punishment. The rational behind it is that it is quick, cost effective, and provides immediate results.

Are they the same thing?


The intent isn’t the same (correcting bad behaviour vs trying to cause harm) and…
The end result isn’t the same (corporal punishment usually doesn’t result in serious injuries vs abuse which typically does)


There is in both cases an intent to harm (regardless of the extent to harm) and…
The end result is the same because force has been used when it need not have been.

Why is it important to specify child abuse and corporal punishment? Child abuse is illegal, corporal punishment isn’t. In order to have any successful understanding of why or why not corporal punishment should/should not be used, we have to clearly indicate what is and what isn’t so that both sides can understand we’re talking about. Because individual experience varies so much on corporal punishment, we have to specify exactly what we’re talking about. Consider how for one person, they might be talking about using a belt on a child whereas one person might be talking about spanking.

Is Corporal Punishment dangerous?  This is typically where we get a lot of disagreement and accusations of being ideological or biased. We are trying to determine if corporal punishment has lasting detrimental impact on a child’s development.

Many sociologists and psychologists claim that there is a large amount of evidence that child abuse leads to further problems in life. (Barrish, 1996; Straus and Kantor, 1994; Weiss et al., 1992; Straus 1997).

For instance A 1996 study suggested that children who receive corporal punishment are more likely to be angry as adults, use spanking as a form of discipline, approve of striking a spouse, and experience marital discord.

The difficulty with this is how can you possibly control for all the factors between childhood and becoming an adult and factor it down to corporal punishment? Many in the field have labelled such efforts unscientific.

I think making the argument that corporal punishment could cause problems later in life is to broad a question to work with. More enlightening would be to look at the damage corporal punishment can cause in the present. Going back to my first point of defining what is and what isn’t abuse is critical. The problem is that what defines it – is lasting harm. So you have this continuum where it starts off legal until a certain point when it becomes illegal and that change can come depending on really variable factors.

A parent accustomed to using corporal punishment may, when frustrated, to step over the line into physical abuse.

This is why many of the laws regulating corporal punishment are so strictly defined.

In Canada the law states that the person administering the punishment must be a parent or legal guardian, and not a school teacher or other person (i.e. non-parental relatives such as grandparents, aunts, or uncles, as well as babysitters and other caretakers, are banned from spanking); that the force must be used “by way of correction” (sober, reasoned uses of force that address the actual behaviour of the child and are designed to restrain, control or express some symbolic disapproval of his or her behaviour), that the child must be capable of benefiting from the correction (i.e. not under the age of 2 or over 12, etc.)

Punishment involving slaps or blows to the head is considered harmful. Use of any implement other than a bare hand is illegal, and “bare-bottom” spanking is also illegal.”

The operative phrase being “reasonable force” which is going to be decided on a case by case standard.

These two points (the demarcation between corporal punishment and child abuse and the lasting damage) are the most controversial. When it comes to asking if corporal punishment actually works, there isn’t much controversy.

(Of course people think there is.) But in reality, the science on behaviour changing through violence and punishment is pretty well understood and there isn’t a lot of disagreement on this. It’s also collaborated by a lot of independent evidence and research, not necessary relating to corporal punishment but simple experiments on behaviour.

Studies have indicated that corporal punishment of children can increase short-term compliance with parental commands. But not long term compliance. Examples of such circumstances are that no implements should be used, that the child is between ages 2 and 6, that the punishment be carried out in private, and that it should occur less than once per week. However, comparisons in the same study with alternative punishments such as one-minute time-outs did not establish that corporal punishment was more effective. (Larzelere, 1996)

The science seems to be in consensus that corporal punishment is not a reliable form of punishment. It many cases it may actually increase the negative behaviour of the child. There are a few major problems, not just related to corporal punishment but related to any behaviour modification through negative reinforcement. 1) the effect is temporary 2) unless done immediately after the offense, it doesn’t work (the reinforcement comes after the behaviour) 3) it doesn’t pass on any information other than “that was wrong” – not “what I should have done”

Now these are also problems of punishing in general. In order for any punishment to work it has deal with those points (and there are other issues as well that I haven’t gone into) So the question from a scientific point of view might be, cannot a non-violent punishment like a time out serve just as well, if not better?

If you look at what experts are saying on this matter, they would seem to agree with that suggestion:

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has stated as an official position:

“Because of the negative consequences of spanking and because it has been demonstrated to be no more effective than other approaches for managing undesired behavior in children, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents be encouraged and assisted in developing methods other than spanking in response to undesired behavior.” – link to source

During the show I quoted the Canadian Paediatric Society on their policy of corporal punishment, however when I searched for the source of that quote I couldn’t locate it. If anyone comes across it please let me know.

Conversations about corporal punishment often devolve into debates and polemics about who “owns” children and the rights of a parent to raise their child according to their culture and society. I really don’t think that that’s the direction this conversation has to go. If we are committed to looking at the research and evidence we can move beyond some of the rhetoric.


One Response to “Slapping Around Corporal Punishment”

  1. Robbyn said

    The research is clear, spanking is correlated to a plethora of negative outcomes in the short run (increased aggressive behavior) and in the long term (mental illness, adolescent drug use, adolescent suicide, depression). The list goes on. is an excellent resource for the science. Spanking is on the continuum of violence. A little is bad, more is worse.

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