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Where Are the Laws Against Hitting Children?

Physical punishment, “the other plague.”

Key points

  • Physical punishment is damaging psychologically and physically. It affects not only the children, but parents, teachers, and other caregivers.
  • Over 125 countries around the world have banned physical punishment in schools, and 62 countries prohibit it in all settings.
  • The U.S. currently has no federal laws prohibiting physical punishment, and there are still 19 states that permit it in schools.

Physical punishment has long been a persistent human behavior—a behavior that people have been profoundly reluctant to abandon or even modify.

It was a strange feeling, as I went over this material. I realized that even when a youngster, I never understood physical punishment—the violence, impulsivity, lack of thoughtfulness, and tension-regulation—whether at friends’ houses, school, my household, the playgrounds. The notion that physical punishment—with its hurt, rage, shame—was a helpful thing to do in raising children seemed so absurd. It was a feeling of “how bizarre is this…it makes no sense.”

Yet, as I grew older, I seemed at least to understand better why it happens—efforts to change behaviors, protect the child, so much distress in the parent leading to rage and violence…

It seems as if this is a situation in which the three information-processing systems of affects, cognition, and language fail us. The negative affects can be overpowering, cognition at times is inadequate to lead to changes in affects and support self-reflection and restraint, and language becomes more inflammatory than helpful.

I sometimes call physical punishment “the other plague.” In some ways, it is as deadly, or even more so, than COVID-19.

  • Physical punishment is damaging psychologically and physically.
  • It is prevalent, affecting approximately 50-60% of U.S. households with children.
  • It is frequently transmitted from generation to generation.
  • The sequalae are many and severe (e.g., violence; drug abuse; delinquency; abuse of partner and children).

Defining Physical Punishment

Traditionally, physical punishment has been defined as “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” (Gershoff 2008).

  • Behaviors that cause pain but not serious physical injury are considered physical punishment.
  • Behaviors that cause physical injury are termed physical abuse.

Physical punishment can be inflicted via spanking, hitting, pinching, squeezing, paddling, whippings, whupping, swatting, smacking, slapping, washing a child’s mouth out with soap, making a child kneel on painful objects, and forcing a child to stand or sit in painful positions for long periods of time. Physical abuse involves “the infliction of physical injury as a result of punching, beating, kicking, biting, burning, shaking, or otherwise harming a child” (National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect 2000, as cited in Gershoff 2002).

The puzzle and persistence of physical punishment are not simply abstract issues: Profound individual psychopathology and social problems are indisputably associated with physical punishment.

Physical Punishment: Impact and Determinants

Hitting a child elicits precisely the feelings one does not want to generate in a child: distress, anger, fear, shame, and disgust. Studies show that children who are hit identify with the aggressor and are more likely to become hitters themselves—that is, bullies and future abusers of their own children and partners. They tend to learn to use violent behavior as a way to deal with stress and interpersonal disputes.

With regard to the impact of physical punishment, perhaps the best summary is that of Murray Straus, Emily Douglas, and Rose Anne Mededeiros, in The Primordial Violence: Spanking Children, Psychological Development, Violence, and Crime (2014). They summarized 15 harmful effects associated with physical punishment identified by their reviews and research:

  • More antisocial behavior and delinquency as a child and as a young adult.
  • More approval of other forms of violence.
  • More impulsiveness and less self-control.
  • Worse parent-child relationships.
  • More risky sexual behaviors as a teenager.
  • More juvenile delinquency.
  • More crime perpetrated as an adult.
  • Lower national average mental ability.
  • Less probability of graduation from college.
  • High probability of depression.
  • More violence against marital, cohabitating, and dating partners.
  • More violence against non-family persons.
  • More physical abuse of children.
  • More drug abuse.
  • More sexual coercion and physically forced sex.

The reasons that adults inflict physical and emotional harm on children are complex. Holden (2020) noted the wide range of categories associated with physical punishment. He divided the data into sociocultural determinants (e.g., social norms where parents reside); family social environment determinants (such as family structure, marital relationship, and stress); child determinants (age, sex, behavior, temperament, presence of a disability); and parental determinants (age, childhood history, mental health, conscious thoughts, and unconscious motives).

In addition to these categories, it seems possible to identify conditions and affects in individuals and situations which contribute to physical punishment: frustration, exhaustion, fear, and rage of a stressed parent or caregiver; one’s own upbringing, identification with the aggressor, and intergenerational psychopathology (the bullied become bullies); blaming (externalizing processes) (Hoffman & Prout, 2020); compromised socioeconomic conditions (SES); less education; certain religious beliefs (Holden, 2020); erotic aspects, for both the perpetrator and the victim (Rousseau, 1782, 1945; Cranston, 1982); and masochism and sadism (Novick & Novick, 2020).

Furthermore, as a remarkable study by Holden and his colleagues shows, the problem may be worse than we think (2014). Most studies of physical punishment are self-reports. Holden and his groups, using recorders (with the subjects’ knowledge and permission) in addition to self-reports, documented that physical punishment occurred at least five times as much as reported via self-reporting measures.

So, Where Are the Laws Against Hitting Children?

There is always tension between the rights of individuals and the rights of others, a community, a society. With physical punishment, this tension involves the rights of parents to raise their own children as they wish, and the rights of the child and society. I would suggest, consistent with the data, that the rights of the child and society should hold sway. We do not allow one adult to assault another; why should we allow an adult to hit their child who is smaller and in a vulnerable developmental period? As the data show, the consequences of physical punishment are negative.

Some have pointed out that laws preventing physical punishment may burden the state and lead to even more negative outcomes (e.g., Huntington, 2020). However, in several countries that have prohibited physical punishment, the penalty involved parental help and education about development, with good results (e.g., Österman et al, 2018), In addition, there is a concept in legal matters called “the voice of the law.” In other words, having a law on the books in itself enhances awareness and increases thoughtfulness about the nature of the behavior in question, even if such a law is difficult to enforce. All this would suggest that laws prohibiting physical punishment should continue to be enacted internationally.

Addendum: U.S. Reps. McEachin and Bonamici and U.S. Sen. Murphy have recently introduced legislation in Congress called Protecting Our Students in Schools Act. This bill would federally prohibit the practice of corporal punishment in any school that receives federal funding.


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