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A Curious Question About Physical Punishment of Children

Physical punishment of children is a controversial issue throughout the world.

Key points

  • Physical punishment in U.S. schools: Legal in 17 states for public schools, in 46 for private schools.
  • A discrepancy: The same action that is legal inside schools is criminal outside them.
  • More than 125 countries have banned physical punishment in schools, more than 64 ban it in all settings.
  • Studies show prohibiting physical punishment leads to less violence and improved parent-child relationships.
Source: Siam

Physical punishment of children is a controversial issue throughout the world. Many countries have banned physical punishment in schools, and several have banned it in all settings. In the United States, spanking a child (hitting, paddling) is still legally permitted in the public schools of 17 states and in the private schools of 46 states. The paddling is often done using a wooden paddle on the child’s backside. Rather than repeating the well-documented data on the problems with physical punishment, I find myself puzzling over a very intriguing question in this area.

So, here’s where it gets interesting. Say the same child, the same adult, and the same paddle are about 10 yards or so outside of the school grounds and the child is being paddled. It turns out that the paddle is now considered a lethal weapon and the adult can be charged with assault and battery—for exactly the same actions as were occurring and permitted in the school!

How are we to understand this?

What are we to make of this—that the same action that is a serious criminal offense is now considered to be reasonable discipline within the walls of the school?

To borrow a phrase from Bob Dylan’s song about the Kennedy assassination:

Right there in front of everyone’s eyes
Greatest magic trick ever under the sun

(Murder Most Foul, 2020)

How does the international community respond to the physical punishment of children?

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC or the Child’s Convention) was adopted in 1989. It presents one of the most comprehensive cases regarding problems associated with physical punishment of children and the benefits of its prohibition. Currently, 196 countries are party to the CRC, including every member of the United Nations, with the exception of the United States. Currently, more than 125 countries have prohibited physical punishment in schools, and more than 64 countries have banned it in all settings, including the home.

Are there studies of outcomes in countries that have completely prohibited physical punishment? Joan Durrant and her colleagues found that countries that banned physical punishment tended to have less physical punishment of children, enhanced parent-child relationships, and less violence in society (2011, 2012, 2017). Following a ban on physical punishment in Finland, Karen Osterman and her colleagues found a continuous and significant decline in self-reported physical punishment and a similar decline in murdered children (2014, 2018). They concluded that, in Finland, a shift existed in the mindset toward a culture of nonviolent child-rearing.

What about physical punishment in the United States?

The United States has no federal law prohibiting physical punishment. The 17 states that permit physical punishment in public schools tend to be in the south and west—such as Florida, Georgia, and Kansas. In 2023 a bill called The Protecting Our Students in Schools Act was reintroduced in the U.S. Congress, sponsored by Senator Chris Murphy, Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici, and others. This bill would prohibit physical punishment in any public school in the United States that receives federal funding.

Unfortunately, the position statements of most major medical and psychological associations do not call for the prohibition of physical punishment. Rather, they urge consideration of alternatives to physical punishment. This results in what Straus and his colleagues (2014) call Paradox #3: Focusing exclusively on teaching alternatives results in almost everyone spanking. Some organizations have called for a ban on physical punishment, including the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the American Psychoanalytic Association (APsA), and the Association for Child Psychoanalysis (ACP).

Wrapping Up

There seems to be something of a paradox here, or confusion, as we try to integrate our complicated feelings and cognitive capacities regarding raising children and physical punishment. Rather than provide a so-called answer, I think it is better to let readers come to their own conclusions regarding the dilemma presented at the beginning.


Durant JE, Smith AB (Eds.) (2011). Global Pathways to Abolishing Physical Punishment: Realizing Children’s Rights. New York: Routledge.

Durrant JE, Ensom R (2012). Physical punishment of children: Lessons from 20 years of research. Canadian Medical Association Journal 184:1737-1377.

Durrant JE, Ensom R (2017). Twenty-five years of physical punishment research: What have we learned? Journal of the Korean Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry 29: 20-24. https//

Osterman K, Bjorkqvist K, Wahlbeck K (2014). Twenty-eight years after the complete ban on the physical punishment of children in Finland: Trends and psychosocial concomitants. Aggressive Behavior 40: 568- 581 (online, Wiley Periodicals, Inc.).

Osterman K, Bjorkqvist K, Wahlbeck K (2018). A decrease in victimization from physical punishment in Finland in 1934-2014: An evidence of an emerging culture of nonviolent parenting. EJMO 2: 221-230.

Straus MA, Douglas EM, Medeiros RA (2014). The Primordial Violence: Spanking Children, Psychological Development, Violence, and Crime. New York: Routledge.

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