Conventional wisdom says “spare the rod, spoil the child.” Through most of history corporal punishment has been the accepted method of parental discipline, and often in schools and other institutions as well. The National Association of School Nurses defines it as “the intentional infliction of physical pain as a method of changing behavior. It may include methods such as hitting, slapping, punching, kicking, pinching, shaking, use of various objects (paddles, belts, sticks, or others), or painful body postures.” That ought to deter a kid tempted to break the rules!
Many of us were likely on the receiving end of a couple of hard swats to the rear as children. But times have changed, right? We’re more enlightened, and turn to kinder, gentler methods of correction? Perhaps not as much as you might think — at least not in the United States.
The History of Spanking
Some proponents use the quote at the head of this article as Biblical evidence for corporal punishment. In fact there are several Bible verses that seem to support physical punishment, including, from Proverbs 23:13, “Withhold not correction from a child: for if thou strike him with the rod, he shall not die.” In the Roman Empire, citizens were publicly punished with 40 lashes with a whip to the back or shoulders, or a switch of willow branches to the buttocks. During medieval times, the Church encouraged flagellation as a method of self-discipline; as educational institutions were often attached to religious bodies, the practice became common as a means of student punishment. With wide societal acceptance, corporal punishment was the norm at home for child discipline, and also as punishment for criminal and religious infractions for both children and adults.
Spanking in School
Even as the use of whipping and beating gradually lessened and in some places ceased altogether as a means of public punishment, spanking was still a generally accepted method of disciplining children. While corporal punishment in schools has been outlawed in Canada, Japan, most of Europe, Australia, and New Zealand, it is still legal in many countries in Asia, Africa, and South America — as well as in 21 states in the U.S. One recent study found as many as 200,000 American students were subjected to some form of corporal punishment during the 2007-2008 school year. Spanking is still common in 13 states, with Mississippi, Arkansas, and Texas at the top of the list. However, most states that allow corporal punishment in schools leave it up to the individual school district to set policy, so some of those districts have banned spanking altogether.
Spanking at Home: The International Perspective
During the 1990s and in early 2000 some countries began enacting laws banning any form of corporal punishment, even by parents, and it is currently illegal in countries as diverse as Austria, Costa Rica, Germany, Israel, and Greece. Sweden was the first country to outlaw it, in 1979, and the most recent bans were enacted in 2010 in Poland, Tunisia, and Kenya. In most of these countries, police and courts use discretion when enforcing the bans, which proponents see as a human rights issue, because the intention is to educate rather than criminalize parents. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child issued a call to its member nations to ban all corporal punishment of children and institute education programs on positive discipline. Those working to ban physical discipline cite studies which show spanking may impair cognitive development and encourage more aggressive behavior in the long run, results in lower self-esteem, antisocial behavior, and increased incidence of juvenile delinquency.
Spanking in the States
Spanking your kids is perfectly legal in the United States, as well as in Canada and Great Britain. Individual states, including California, Wisconsin, and Massachusetts, have had spanking bans proposed but none passed the state legislatures. Technicalities vary by state, but in general corporal punishment that is considered necessary and reasonable is allowed: for instance, the California Welfare and Institutions Code, in defining child abuse, states that “serious physical harm does not include reasonable and age-appropriate spanking to the buttocks where there is no evidence of serious physical injury.”
Opponents of anti-spanking laws point to flaws in scientific studies and have found research that contradicts previous findings on the long-term effects of spanking. Some studies show adults who were spanked as children are more well-adjusted than their peers who were not subject to corporal punishment. Others say laws against spanking infringe upon parental rights and cultural or religious practices. And recent studies show that despite widespread condemnation by medical and psychological professionals, spanking is still fairly common in the U.S.; a 2007 study reported that 90 percent of parents had spanked their children at least once, and 61 percent of mothers of 3 to 5-year olds had spanked their child in the previous week. And in the 2010 C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health, nearly one in four parents said they were “very likely” to spank their children.
The Bottom Line
You are within your parental rights to spank your child, but many scientific studies and child development experts suggest there may be harmful repercussions. There are plenty of other disciplinary options, so you may want to consider carefully before you decide to speak softly and carry a big stick.