One of the most divisive debates in contemporary family sociology and child psychology centers on corporal punishment, known to most persons as spanking. Corporal punishment is the most widespread and well-documented form of family violence. In recent years, scholars as well theologians have debated the question of whether corporal punishment is an appropriate form of child discipline. This debate is particularly interesting in that it is relatively new and it taps into an area of firmly entrenched beliefs and values held by most Americans: that family is a private institution and that government should be minimally involved in guiding or mandating parenting practices. Furthermore, for most of U.S. history, it was assumed that good parents used physical discipline and that an absence of physical punishment would be detrimental to the normal development of children. Indeed, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was established prior to any such organization formed on behalf of children’s welfare. Both social as well as religious ideologies strongly legitimated the use of physical punishment in the home. The debate over corporal punishment is so volatile that the few scholars who dare study it empirically seldom have intellectual comrades. This is one area of social life in which even the most progressive-minded individuals find themselves in dissension with academia and perhaps personally conflicted. Indeed, one of the most prominent and widely recognized scholars in this area confronted quite a bit of resistance from publishers when attempting to market his book.
I. The Study of Corporal Punishment
II. Attitudes toward Corporal Punishment
III. Religiosity, Region, and Corporal Punishment
IV. Effects of Corporal Punishment
The Study of Corporal Punishment
The scholarly study of corporal punishment is relatively new, with the vast majority of empirical studies conducted since the late 1950s. However, a few references to corporal punishment or harsh parenting appeared as early as the 1920s. Interestingly, in the 1960s, a popular magazine reported that there were more child deaths due to parental infliction than due to diseases. Despite this claim, many parental advice books make no mention of corporal punishment whatsoever, suggesting that the decision of whether to use it is a private one and must be decided by individuals. Culturally as well, the phenomenon is often either ignored or presumed normal and inevitable. Not surprisingly, most of these early works found that the vast majority of parents queried admitted to the use of physical punishment. Furthermore, in the early to mid-1900s, the majority of child psychologists approved of or ignored corporal punishment. To be sure, the trend among early scholars and child experts was to either actively endorse or tolerate the use of corporal punishment by parents against children, at least on occasion. One notable exception to this was Benjamin Spock, who was perhaps the most well known pediatrician and parenting expert of the 20th century. In his popular book, Baby and Child Care, he argued against the use of corporal punishment unless absolutely necessary. Spock later changed his position, arguing against the use of corporal punishment under all circumstances. Critics of Spock suggest that he led the trend toward more permissive parenting.
Today, experts are divided on the issue, although awareness of the potentially harmful consequences of corporal punishment is higher today than ever before. Consequently, disapproval of corporal punishment seems to have grown somewhat among scholars and those who offer parenting advice, although, even as late as the early 1990s, relatively high levels of support have been found among general practitioners and pediatricians.
Attitudes toward Corporal Punishment
The vast majority of U.S. parents support the use of corporal punishment. This is peculiar in light of the purported overwhelming concern that Americans have about violence in society generally and certainly in relation to children and adolescents. In fact, parents who choose not to spank their children are in violation of a strong social norm and often encounter conflict with others. They may feel the need to justify their decision not to spank, whereas no justification for spanking is required.
Overall, corporal punishment is still commonly being used against U.S. children. A number of Americans actually favor corporal punishment over other methods of child discipline. Most studies of the incidence of corporal punishment reveal that more than 90 percent of children and adolescents have experienced some form of physical punishment. What may be surprising, however, is that the use of corporal punishment is fairly common across the life course of a child, often beginning during infancy and continuing well into adolescence and even into young adulthood. Approximately three-quarters of U.S. parents believe that spanking or slapping a 12-year-old child is necessary sometimes. Furthermore, studies of college students reveal that a significant proportion of them report having been slapped or hit by a parent in the recent past. One study found that one in four 17-year-olds is still being hit by a parent (Straus 2001). The only significant decline is in the use of the most severe kinds of child discipline.
It should be noted, however, that attitudes and actions can be incongruent with regard to corporal punishment. Many Americans who do not verbally endorse corporal punishment do, in fact, spank or slap their children. On the other hand, some of those who endorse it may not use it. Interestingly, attitudes do not predict behavior for parents of toddlers. Almost all U.S. parents of four-year-olds spank regardless of their approval or disapproval of corporal punishment. On the other hand, when looking at older children, attitudes are predictive of behavior. Parents of 16-year-olds who score high on approval of corporal punishment are more likely to use it. Personal experience with corporal punishment seems to be a strong predictor of attitudes as well as actions. Individuals who were spanked or slapped by a parent are more likely than others to indicate that they favor spanking. Furthermore, those who say that they were hit by a parent are more likely to hit their own children, regardless of the children’s age. Interestingly, in one study of parents who were hit but later chose not to hit or spank their own children, the influential variables seemed to be the educational level of the parents and their age at parenthood. The parents who decided to go against their upbringing—those who chose not to hit—were more highly educated and became parents at later ages.
All states give parents the right to use physical punishment against their children, regardless of the children’s age. It may be surprising to learn that even spanking or hitting with an object such as a belt remains legal in the United States. More than 95 percent of parents of three-year-olds reported that they had been hit by their parents. Approximately 60 percent of parents admit to hitting their 10- to 12-year-old children. The lasting effect or mental imprint of having been physically punished is evident in the finding that 40 percent of adults over the age of 60 can recall being hit by their parents.
Little difference has been found between single-parent and two-parent families when it comes to the use of corporal punishment. It does appear that boys are hit more often than girls, although rates are not vastly discrepant. Adolescent boys are hit by both mothers and fathers, while adolescent girls are more often hit by mothers. There is evidence to show that mothers, in general, use corporal punishment more often than fathers, but this is generally assumed to be a consequence of the different amounts of time parents spend with children, with mothers spending considerably more time with children than fathers. Since it is known that men are more physically aggressive and more violent in all other areas of social life, it is assumed that if men spent as much time with children as women did, the use of corporal punishment by fathers would exceed that of mothers.
Religiosity, Region, and Corporal Punishment
Support for corporal punishment in the United States historically has always been high and is often linked to religious or regional factors. Violence against children and babies is well documented and dates back to the biblical period. Historically, most forms of child punishment would today be considered severe child abuse. Parents were instructed to chastise and control errant children through such methods as swaddling, whipping, burning, drowning, castration, and abandonment. Puritans held a strict belief in original sin, and parents were instructed to, in a very literal sense, beat the devil out of their children. Early U.S. schools used corporal punishment so frequently that the birch rod became a symbol of education. The not-too-distant past contains reports of special education teachers twisting and grabbing students’ arms, hitting or banging their heads onto desks, and smearing hot sauce into their faces and mouths.
In the 1970s, it was found that Baptists were more likely to have experienced physical punishment at home than were persons from other denominations. In general, corporal punishment is more strongly supported by conservative or fundamentalist Protestants than by others. This association is explained by the emphasis on biblical literalism, biblical inerrancy, and original sin found among these religious traditions. In addition, Christians from more conservative traditions often embrace a view of the family that is hierarchical—with children, as well as wives, subsumed under the headship of men. Fundamentalist Protestants and conservative Catholics are also more likely than others to support the use of corporal punishment in schools. Not surprisingly, it also has been found that conservative Protestants are, for the most part, not persuaded by social science research to modify their familial practices. On the contrary, conservatives may identify social science scholarship, as well as intellectual pursuits more generally, as antithetical to Christian beliefs and threatening to family life. Popular theologian and author James Dobson, for example, has explicitly rejected the use of scientific inquiry to explore the appropriateness of various parenting practices. Dobson has also suggested that children suffer from an inherent predisposition toward selfishness and rebellion.
Attitudes toward corporal punishment vary regionally as well. In general, persons living in the Southeast are more likely to approve of corporal punishment, both at home and in schools. This is not surprising in light of other findings that reveal that Southerners hold more conservative attitudes in many areas, including gender roles, sexuality, race, and religion. In particular, the association between region and approval of corporal punishment has been linked to the predominance of religious conservatism and biblical literalism found in the southern region of the United States. In fact, a small number of states concentrated in what is commonly referred to as the Bible Belt—including Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, Georgia, and South Carolina—account for the majority of school spankings nationally. Interestingly, recent studies demonstrate that the most noteworthy aspect of regional variation in corporal punishment attitudes does not center on the South’s approval of corporal punishment, but rather the rejection of corporal punishment found in the Northeast. In general, the Northeastern region has the least amount of legitimate, or culturally sanctioned, violence.
Southern support for corporal punishment has also been linked to lower levels of education, lower household incomes, and racial composition. It should be noted, however, that research in this area has resulted in a myriad of findings, some of which are complex and contradictory. For example, African American parents have been shown to express approval for corporal punishment at higher levels than whites, although some studies find that white parents are more likely than African American parents to use corporal punishment. In addition, some studies find little or no correlation between the use of corporal punishment and socioeconomic status, presumably because support for corporal punishment in the United States has been, and continues to be, extremely high due to a variety of social, cultural, and religious reasons.
In conclusion, it has been found that mothers spank more than fathers and younger parents more than older parents. Individuals who were spanked as children are more likely than others to spank their own children. Also, spouses involved in violent marriages are more likely to hit their children than spouses in nonabusive relationships. The relationship between social class and use of corporal punishment has been researched extensively, and this research has produced mixed findings. Perhaps an accurate summary statement is that, while some studies find greater approval and more use of corporal punishment among lower-income households, corporal punishment is so widely accepted and approved in U.S. culture that it is commonly found among and across all social classes.
Effects of Corporal Punishment
The effects of corporal punishment are well documented and sobering. Studies reveal that individuals who were physically punished by parents or caregivers are more likely to be physically aggressive with others, including one’s spouse; to severely attack one’s siblings; to imagine or engage in masochistic sexual practices; to physically abuse one’s children; to have depressive symptoms and suicidal thoughts; to become delinquent as a juvenile; and to have lower lifetime earnings. The more often one was subjected to corporal punishment during adolescence, the lower the chances of being in the top 20 percent of all wage earners. It is worth reiterating that, contrary to conventional wisdom, a number of studies demonstrate that spanking children actually places them at greater risk for adjustment and behavior problems.
It has also been found that states in which teachers are permitted to hit children have a higher rate of student violence as well as a higher homicide rate. Nations that approve of the use of corporal punishment by teachers have higher infant murder rates than do other nations. This association is explained by using a so-called cultural spillover theory. That is, nations that strongly support corporal punishment in schools tend to have wide levels of support for the practice and consequently high rates of its usage at all ages and across varying circumstances and situations. Therefore, the likelihood that someone—a parent, teacher, day care worker, or clergyperson—will use corporal punishment, even against an infant, is higher in such societies. Furthermore, the likelihood of corporal punishment resulting in death is obviously much higher for infants than for other age groups.
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- Bitensky, Susan H., Corporal Punishment of Children: A Human Rights Violation. Ardsley, NY: Transnational Publishers, 2006.
- Crary, Elizabeth, Without Spanking or Spoiling: A Practical Approach to Toddler and Preschool Guidance. Seattle: Parenting Press, 1993.
- Donnelly, Michael, and Murray A. Stras, eds., Corporal Punishment of Children in Theoretical Perspective. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005.
- Hyman, Irwin A., Reading, Writing, and the Hickory Stick: The Appalling Story of Physical and Psychological Abuse in American Schools. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 1990.
- Spock, Benjamin, Baby and Child Care. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.
- Straus, Murray A., Beating the Devil out of Them: Corporal Punishment in American Families and Its Effects on Children. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2001.
- Wyckoff , Jerry L., and Barbara C. Unell, Discipline without Shouting or Spanking: Practical Solutions to the Most Common Preschool Behavior Problems. Minnetonka, MN: Meadowbrook Press, 2002.