Not too long ago, pop star Kelly Clarkson took part in a radio interview with 98.9 The Buzz in New York, in which the hosts asked her how she disciplines her two young kids (ages three and one). Having grown up in Texas, she responded “I’m from the South, y’all. So, like, we get spankings… my parents spanked me, and I did fine in life, and I feel fine about it”. Following this interview, Clarkson faced the backlash of the media that physical discipline is an ‘irrational’ and ‘lazy’ way for parents to teach their children to behave. In Kelly’s defense, this was a method her parents used during her childhood so using it with her kids is almost habitual. Despite the mixed opinions that Kelly received, her position on corporal punishment remained the same, “I’m not above a spanking”.
When a child misbehaves, some parents readily spank them without hesitation yet they do not consider the mental damage they are inflicting while doing so. Spanking as a means of discipline falls into the category of corporal punishment; the use of physical force intending to cause a child discomfort (slight pain) as retribution for misbehaving. Other forms of corporal punishment include pinching, slapping, belting, paddling and pushing a child around.
Even now, a number of parents still employ corporal punishment because it is a fairly easy way to get a child’s attention in regards to their disruptive behavior. However, is this an effective disciplinary technique for parents to use with their children?
On one hand, some argue that corporal punishment is unnecessary and harmful to the future development of a child. On the other hand, some contend that the use of physical punishment can temporarily resolve problematic behavior and the associated consequences of this do not just apply to physical punishment, but also non-physical punishment such as a timeout. Therefore, opponents maintain that it is an acceptable disciplinary tactic to use in children.
Above all, corporal punishment is not an effective nor appropriate method to discipline children because it is violent and harmful to their maturation. Through several case studies and research by doctors and psychologists, one can see how detrimental physical punishments can be for a child.
Tough Love? “Yes” to Corporal Punishment
Despite current research that shows corporal punishment damages a child’s current and future well-being, some people favor this method. For the supporting side, the long-term goal of using physical force with a child is to align their behavior with the expectations of a parent or authority. Nonetheless, some parents and caregivers wrongfully assume that corporal punishment causes no harm to a child’s development when they should see it as detrimental.
Those who advocate for the use of corporal punishment claim that it is normative in different cultures of the United States. Because of certain backgrounds and family dynamics, some parents and their children are accustomed to physical discipline. For instance, African American families argue that because of the ‘legacy of slavery’ and the whippings their ancestors endured in history, it has adapted them to use physical discipline with their children. This idea can be relative to the fact that parents adopt disciplinary methods that were used against them when they were children, just like Kelly Clarkson’s experience. Altogether, this argument is known as the theory of cultural violence, the justification of physical force due to cultural and or societal norms.
Proponents believe that striking a child will instill shock and or fear, causing the child to not repeat the inappropriate behavior that they were displaying. In response to a controversial article that SFGate had published, a column was created to give parents the opportunity to voice their opinions involving corporal punishment. One mother, Leigh Bradley of Fremont, states “there are times when a smack on the behind is the only way to get [her daughter’s] attention and make sure the lesson sticks”. Bradley, among other parents in the column, collectively agreed that corporal punishment is helpful to steer their children away from misbehavior and learn obedience. In their opinion, physical discipline is effective because the child is afraid of the consequences and therefore will not make the same mistake.
Some parents argue that corporal punishment is not comparable to child abuse or maltreatment. For example, the ‘Be Reasonable’ group that protests against banning corporal punishment in Wales, claims that the existing laws protect children from abuse. One campaigner of this group, also a mother, asserts “A little gentle slap here and there is just a part of teaching discipline… It never did anyone any harm”. The essence of her argument is that parents administer physical force, gently, to convey a lesson rather than hurt their child. In their eyes, it is a reasonable and practical punishment to use as a disciplinary tactic and thus, should not be stigmatized.
While these parents justify the different forms of physical discipline, they do not account for how punishments may intensify as a child’s behavior worsens. According to Elizabeth Gershoff, Ph.D, a researcher of physical punishment at the University of Texas at Austin, “Physical punishment doesn’t work to get kids to comply, so parents think they have to keep escalating it. That is why it is so dangerous”. Essentially, Gershoff’s position on corporal punishment can explain the error in proponents’ logic; if parents do not see results in their child’s behavior, the punishments may escalate to a dangerous and abusive point. This shows that the proponents underestimate the fine line between corporal punishment and child abuse.
In addition, people like the mother campaigner of the Be Reasonable group, incorrectly think that physical punishment “never” caused a child harm. In Gershoff’s meta-analysis of case studies, she observed only one positive outcome of spanking in children; they immediately obey when physical force is used. Yet, Gershoff found far more negative outcomes as a result of spanking; this includes increased child aggression, decreased child social behavior, decreased adult mental health and more. So, Gershoff urges parents and authorities to refrain from using physical punishment to help discipline children because the consequences are prevalent in both childhood and later, adulthood.
Although corporal punishment is still commonly used in parenting and schooling as a means of discipline, there are underlying repercussions that are detrimental to a child. Not to mention, spanking a child only reveals to them that they are doing something wrong; it doesn’t necessarily give them an idea of what they’re doing wrong or why they should not do it again. For this reason, physical punishment is not an adequate technique to resolve misbehavior and it should no longer be used for the purpose of doing so.
Not Worth the Risks, “No” to Corporal Punishment
Up until recently, I have always thought that physical punishment was an effective method of discipline. Because I am the oldest child of four and work as a mentor to younger kids on a daily basis, I have seen and become acclimated to a wide variety of discipline techniques ranging from timeouts to spankings. Likewise, parents that were physically disciplined during their childhood who did not see any repercussions in their development, justify doing the same with their own kids. The problem here is that seeing or experiencing physical punishment does not make it an appropriate nor a suitable disciplinary tactic.
While parents aim to teach their children through corporal punishment, using physical force only teaches a child to comply only in the moment and harms both their short-term and long-term development in the process. Granted that, parents should see that corporal punishment is detrimental to a young child.
For the short-term consequences, young children display outward signs of disruptive and aggressive behavior as a result of corporal punishment. To demonstrate this, a study was conducted to test if physical punishment generates aggression in children in which the data confirmed that “children who are more frequently spanked or slapped at two years of age are more likely to display aggression and attention problems at age two and also a year later”. This idea is relative to the common phrase “monkey see, monkey do” in which a child is observing aggression from their parents and then mimicking their parents’ aggressive behavior. Albert Bandura’s social learning theory can also explain why children may be exhibiting uncontrollable, aggressive behavior during childhood; children learn behaviors from their parents. In light of the study’s results that the aggression had manifested in the toddlers’ immediately after punishment or within the year, it is evident that a child’s development is endangered and has the potential of suffering in the long run.
Equally important, corporal punishment alters the brain, specifically, the hippocampus. According to Dr. Martin Teichler, a neuroscientist, many of his patients that were physically disciplined as children “have noticeable shrinkage of the hippocampus—that part of the brain used to form memories, organize and store information and is responsible for emotional management, logic and reasoning skills, self control, and communication”. By observing brain scans of different patients, Teicher was able to identify that their hippocampus was substantially smaller than a normal, healthy brain would have. The significance of a shrunken hippocampus is that it makes a person extremely vulnerable to PTSD, depression, and sometimes sleeping problems because of the stress they take on after being physically punished for misbehaving.
Furthermore, parents do not consider the severity of long-term outcomes due to physical punishment in early childhood. To prove this idea, a survey was organized in Canada to evaluate the theory that “adult psychopathology” (mental disorders) was affected by different levels of punishment during childhood (no physical punishment, physical punishment only, borderline child abuse). The data of the study supported that “physical punishment was associated with increased odds of major depression, alcohol abuse/dependence, and externalizing problems in adulthood”. When parents hit their kids, there is a lack of warmth and love that is lost in their relationship which is most likely carried on into adulthood. Consequently, unhappiness, susceptibility to drugs and alcohol, and mental disorders can be prevalent later on in life. While spanking a child may not display problematic behavior short term, there are no clear benefits seen in adulthood.
Although physical punishment has been accepted worldwide amongst parents and caregivers, current research reveals that this should not be the case. At the same time, research encourages parents and authorities to adopt other disciplinary tactics that are proven to be both effective and harmless to a child’s development.
Less Hitting, More Loving
In previous decades, it was conventional wisdom that parents hit their kids to discipline them. It was not unusual for these parents to escalate physical discipline to the point of child abuse. Now, the current generation of parents are those who were the victims of abuse and in return, use the same methods their parents did with their own children because it is what they’re familiar with. However, modern research seems to reveal how prevalent the cycle of abuse is in contemporary society.
To illustrate, “about 30% of abused and neglected children will later abuse their own children” in which the cycle of abuse continues. This is significant because corporal punishment, a disciplinary method these parents experienced in their childhood, becomes an unconscious reaction to feelings of frustration or impatience with their own child. By extension, this idea can apply to the child being abused by the parent and thus, the cycle will be ceaseless. Ultimately, the fate of the abuse cycle lies in parents and caregivers hands whom can prevent the cycle of abuse from continuing simply by adopting non-physical methods to discipline their little ones.
At the end of the day, children can grow to be happier and healthier if parents were to discontinue the use of corporal punishment. If children were to return home to a more loving and understanding environment, the parent-child relationship would benefit and become more unified because the child is able to feel comfortable rather than neglected. To say nothing of, a child will have more respect for a parent that nurtures them.
To conclude, corporal punishment is a common disciplinary measure amongst parents and caregivers because of how deeply ingrained this form of punishment is in Western culture. Nowadays, parents and even teachers are still using physical discipline but it is time to let go of this outdated method. When a child is struck by their parents or a person of superiority (grandparent, teacher, caregiver), the intake of force is detrimental to the child’s well-being, both physically and mentally. Moreover, corporal punishment can have serious long-term repercussions in a child’s maturation.
“Power is of two kinds.
One is obtained by the fear of punishment
and the other by acts of love. Power based on love is
a thousand times more effective and permanent
then the one derived from fear of punishment.”
— Mahatma Gandhi