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The Problem with Physical Punishment

An overview of physical punishment

In the last several newsletters, we have focused on the universal, built-in feelings with which all human beings are born. We described how the work of Darwin, Tomkins, Ekman, and others have shown that human babies are born with various responses to stimuli. These we call feelings: interest, enjoyment, surprise, distress, anger, fear, shame, disgust, and dissmell (reaction to noxious odors).

As we get older, these responses combine with experience to form our more complex emotional life. We discussed what feelings are, how they work, and why they are important—after all, feelings cause behaviors!

We are now in a position to discuss the important issue of physical punishment—because the physical punishment of a child stirs up precisely the feelings one does not want. In general, one wants to elicit interest and enjoyment. Physical punishment stirs up distress, anger, fear, and shame.

Overview of Physical Punishment

Physical punishment is a major public health problem in this country. Approximately 65 percent of adults still approve of physical punishment, despite compelling evidence that it does not work, it makes things worse, and there are effective alternatives.

Physical punishment involves the use of physical force with the intention of causing the child to experience bodily pain or discomfort so as to correct or punish the child's behavior. This includes spanking, hitting, pinching, paddling, whipping, slapping, and so on.

Spanking is a euphemism for hitting. One is not permitted to hit one's spouse or a stranger; these actions are considered domestic violence and/or assault. Nor should one be permitted to hit a smaller and even more vulnerable child. Studies show that children who are hit identify with the aggressor and are more likely to become hitters themselves: i.e., bullies and future abusers of their children and spouses. They tend to learn to use violent behavior as a way to deal with disputes. If hitting a child is not wrong, then nothing is wrong.

Research on Physical Punishment

The data in this area have recently been summarized by Elizabeth Gershoff (Report on Physical Punishment in the United States, 2008) and Susan Bitensky (Corporal Punishment of Children, 2006). The evidence shows that physical punishment is stunningly deleterious at every developmental level.

Meta-analyses of hundreds of studies document that physical punishment is associated with: verbal and physical aggression; delinquent, antisocial, and criminal behavior; poorer quality of parent-child relationships; impaired mental health; and later abuse of one's own spouse and children.

The International Community and Physical Punishment

Internationally, there is increasing consensus that the physical punishment of children violates international human rights laws. Several United Nations treaties address violence towards children, with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC or the Children's Convention, adopted in 1989) presenting one of the most comprehensive cases regarding the prohibition of physical punishment of children.

The United States has not banned physical punishment, but the approval of physical punishment in the United States has declined gradually and steadily over the past 40 years. The United States has signed, but not ratified, the CRC.

Significantly, 30 countries have now prohibited physical punishment in all settings, including the home. Among these countries are Sweden, Germany, Spain, Greece, and Venezuela. More than 100 countries have banned physical punishment in schools. The laws and consequences tend to be more educative (about development) than punitive. In the United States, physical punishment in schools is still legal in 19 states.

Effective Alternatives to Physical Punishment

There exist a variety of programs and alternatives which provide parents with a greater understanding of their children's development, present strategies which can lead to less violent behavior in children and adults, and decrease the frustration and helplessness in parents which often leads to physical punishment.

One of the most useful ways to achieve healthy child development is to promote words instead of actions. As Anny Katan eloquently summarized: "If a child would verbalize his feelings, he would learn to delay action." Increasing the child's capacity to put words to feelings and actions results in increased tension regulation, self-awareness, and thoughtful decision-making. This process can be accomplished by:

  • Talk and use words instead of actions—speak rather than hit. Talk with the child about what behaviors are acceptable or not, what is safe or dangerous, and why.
  • Listen to the child—find out why he/she did or did not do something.
  • Explain your reasons; this will enhance the child's decision-making capacities.
  • The word "discipline" comes from the Latin word for "teaching" or "learning." Children's behaviors have meaning, and behaviors are directly connected to inner feelings. Thus, discipline is a process that addresses behaviors and the feelings which cause them.
  • Help the child label his or her feelings with words as early as possible. The nine inborn feelings (interest, enjoyment, surprise, distress, anger, fear, shame, disgust, and dissmell) should be labeled with words. This will facilitate tension regulation and aid the transition to more mature ways of handling emotion.
  • Positive reinforcement—rewards and praise—will enhance the child's self-esteem when appropriate standards are met. Positive reinforcement is more effective in obtaining long-term behavioral compliance than frightening and shaming punishments.
  • Set a good example for the child. The child wants to be like the parents. Children identify with their parents, and they will put feelings and actions into words when they see their parents doing this. Who the parents are, and how they behave, will have a profound impact on the development of their children. Your child will follow your lead.


The American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Psychoanalytic Association are among many national and international organizations that have comprehensive position statements calling for a ban on physical punishment and describing effective alternatives.

The American Academy of Pediatrics concludes: "Corporal punishment is of limited effectiveness and has potentially deleterious side effects. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents be encouraged and assisted in the development of methods other than spanking for managing undesired behavior."

From a public health perspective, three issues are crucial to decreasing physical punishment: education (about infant and child development); legislation (to aid parents who are at risk and to protect the children); and continued research (especially on the alternatives).

A concerted effort to decrease smoking in the United States was begun in the 1960s, with the result that the prevalence of smoking has been cut in half. We need a similar public health initiative to do the same with physical punishment.

Public health goals of preventing problems and enhancing potential are ideally suited to dealing with the dilemma of the physical punishment of children. If we truly want a less violent society, not hitting our children is a good place to start.