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Why Physical Punishment Does Not Work

An overview of physical punishment and the best alternatives

“I’m sick and tired of violence… I’m tired of war and conflict in the world. I’m tired of shooting. I’m tired of hatred. I’m tired of selfishness. I’m tired of evil. I’m not going to use violence no matter who says it!” —Martin Luther King, Jr.

“Parents… have come to realize that children can be well behaved, cooperative, and polite without ever having been punished physically.” —Benjamin Spock

Why Physical Punishment Does Not Work—And the Best Alternatives

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 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 60 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 a 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 assault and battery. Why in the world 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 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, 37 countries have now prohibited physical punishment in all settings, including the home. The United States is not one of them. Among these countries are Sweden, Germany, Spain, Greece, and Venezuela. The laws and consequences tend to be more educative (about development) than punitive. More than 100 countries have banned physical punishment in schools. Remarkably, 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 lead to physical punishment. A detailed presentation of alternatives to physical punishment is contained in the American Psychoanalytic Association’s 2013 Position Statement on Physical Punishment:

Here we will highlight what are perhaps the two most important alternatives to physical punishment.

1. Use words to explain your feelings. Use words to label your child’s feelings.

The influence of language begins long before the child can talk (Vivona, 2013). In other words (ha!), listen to your child and talk with your child.

2. Set a good example.

These identification processes—preverbal and verbal—are among the most important factors in the formation of character structure and psychological health (Gedo, 2005). Act and talk as you would want your child to act and talk. Your child strives to be like you.


The American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Psychoanalytic Association are among many national and international organizations which 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 physical punishment of children.

If we truly want a less violent society, not hitting our children is a good place to start.


American Academy of Pediatrics – Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health (1998). Guidance for Effective Discipline. Pediatrics 101: 723-728.

Bitensky, SH (2006). Corporal Punishment of Children: A Human Rights Violation. Ardsley NY: Transnational Publishers Inc.

Gedo, J (2005). Psychoanalysis as Biological Science: A Comprehensive Theory. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press.

Gershoff, ET (2008). Report on Physical Punishment in the United States: What Research Tells Us About Its Effects on Children. Columbus OH: Center for Effective Discipline.

Vivona, JM (2013). Is there a nonverbal period of development? Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association 60: 231-265.