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The Stand Against Corporal Punishment

I confess that I was never always against the idea of corporal punishment.  At one stage, I even believed that if you “spare the rod”, you “spoil the child”.  My only defence lies in the fact that I believed it back in days before I became a parent.  I used to think that juvenile delinquents existed because their parents failed to discipline (read: smack, because back then discipline to me meant smacking, spanking, hitting or whatever name it goes by under the umbrella term of corporal punishment) them adequately when they were younger, and that was why I was all for corporal punishment.

And then I became a mother.

And the maternal instincts kicked in.

Okay, okay, perhaps it started a little before that.  I was pregnant and the dog was misbehaving and while I was threatening to smack him for being “bad” that was about as far as I could go.  I couldn’t bring myself to inflict harm upon him.

Even as I look at my son, I don’t think I could lay a hand upon him and justify it under the term of “discipline”.

I decided “to each his own”.  Corporal punishment may be the way for some parents but it wasn’t going to be for me.

That was when I started reading to educate myself on what other options existed besides corporal punishment.  How else could I raise a well-behaved, confident and socially well-adjusted child?

Reading led to the discovery of the mounting evidence against corporal punishment and the ill-effects of corporal punishment on the developing brain of a child.  I was alarmed.  If my decision not to discipline my son with corporal punishment was born from an instinct, my conviction for that decision had been cemented by the evidence.  Where I once told the hubby that he could discipline our son as he saw fit and I would do as I saw fit, I now felt compelled to convince him of the dangers of corporal punishment.

Why is corporal punishment so damaging to a child?

Because corporal punishment causes stress in a child that is no different to the stress a child experiences when being bullied or suffering from child abuse.  Brain scans show structural and biochemical changes that affect social behaviour.

Cell death in the anterior cingulate gyrus affects a child’s ability to moderate fear and to empathise.  Changes in the brain’s pathways affect a child’s ability to manage stress and be more prone to being impulsive, aggressive and/or anxious.  Long term changes to the adrenaline systems in the brain affect the ability to think clearly.  Impairment in the brain stem has been linked to ADHD, depression and impaired attention.  It also leads to more aggression and irritability.

Other changes to the brain have also been observed:

  • decrease in size of the corpus callosum causing manic shifts in mood states
  • reduced amygdala and hippocampus resulting in depression, irritability and hostility; and poor memory function
  • effects to the GABA system making a child feel unsafe and constantly living in a state of alarm

Violent methods of discipline have also been linked to children with anti-social behaviour and increased prevalence of psychiatric disorders, while non-violent methods of discipline is linked to higher cognitive function.

A common argument for the corporal punishment camp is one that goes something along the lines of, “I was spanked as a child and I turned out okay.”

A couple of other arguments stem from this point as well.  Firstly, what is okay?  Could it be that if we weren’t smacked we might have more deeper and meaningful friendships?  Better relationships?  Lasting marriages?  Feel less depressed?  Perform better at work?  Have a better outlook and attitude towards life?

Secondly, children who have been hit by misguided well-intentioned parents are later able to reach a well adjusted adulthood because of the love, nurturance and appropriate limit-setting not because of the physical violence they received.

Jordan Riak cites an excellent example that articulates the fallacy of this belief rather aptly (incidentally, each and every one of these examples applies to my own childhood, too):

Let’s test the I-turned-out-okay argument by examining a few real-life examples from my own childhood. See if they apply to you.

  1. There were ashtrays in every room of our house. My parents smoked, as did most adult visitors to our home. The aroma of cigarette, cigar and pipe smoke was always present. Nobody minded. In fact, not one day passed in my early life when I was not exposed to tobacco smoke. I was even exposed in the womb because my mother smoked when she was pregnant with me. And I turned out okay.
  2. The first family car I remember was a 1937 Chevrolet sedan. It had no seat belts. When we traveled, I was merely plunked down on the back seat with the expectation that gravity would keep me there. It did. And I turned out okay.
  3. All the places in which I lived as a child were painted with lead-based paint. And I turned out okay.
  4. I used a bicycle throughout my childhood and teen years, but never wore any kind of protective headgear. And I turned out okay.

Was my family wise or just lucky? Today, we don’t do those things anymore. We don’t take such risks, and we don’t expose our children to such risks – not if we know the facts.

Quite possibly, one of the uncomfortable notions about criticising corporal punishment is that many of us (at least in the circle of people that I know) were smacked at some stage when we were children.  The idea that our parents did wrong against us can be a rather uncomfortable one to face.  I’m not faulting the way we were raised by our parents.  They did what they felt was right at the time because they lacked the awareness of the possible side effects.  All the examples listed above are other ways our parents did “wrong” against us but they were accepted practices in their day.

I could cite a few more…

When I was a kid, I was treated by dentists who never wore gloves.  Would you allow a dentist to put her hands into your mouth now without gloves?

As a child, I was weaned by my mother because that was the recommended practice of the day. I don’t blame my mother for it, nor do I complain that I am intellectually weaker than my peers who were lucky enough to be breastfed as a result.

The Efficacy of Corporal Punishment

One might argue that corporal punishment is effective in conveying the message across to a child that they did wrong and that nothing else works quite as well.  Longitudinal studies have shown the converse to be true.  In fact, schools that had the highest rates of corporal punishment also had “the lowest graduation rates, the highest rates of teen pregnancy, the highest incarceration rates and the highest murder rates“.

Corporal Punishment

From: The Influence of Corporal Punishment on Crime
By Adah Maurer, Ph.D. and James S. Wallerstein (1987)

You will find that adults who were hit as kids, while believing that it did them “no harm”, can seldom articulate any way in which it helped them. Let’s be honest, if you were smacked as a kid and you behaved after that, why did you behave?  Was it because you knew it was wrong?  Because you were afraid of getting smacked again?  Or because you didn’t want to disappoint your parents?

Exactly what are the lessons learned from being hit?  Often it leads to bullying and the acceptance that it is okay to hit others.  What happened to the moral of the story?  Your child might behave in front of you but how will you know what goes on behind your back?  Discipline should be about raising morally-aware children with a social conscience, and not creating fear-inspired behaviours in a child that don’t last once the child is out of sight.

There are Other Ways to Discipline

It also seems to me that a common misconception is that if I choose not to discipline my child by smacking him, I’m choosing not to discipline him at all (forgive me if I’m making a generalisation here as this is based on a comment made on a recent post I wrote about Choosing a Parenting Style).  Perhaps such thoughts are only limited to those near-sighted enough to believe that the only way to discipline a child is through violence.

There are other ways to discipline a child.  They are generally more time consuming and they also require more effort.  Let’s face it – it’s definitely a lot easier to just yell at your child or smack him for misbehaving.  It doesn’t require much thought and I’m sure the action alone will help you let off some steam from the anger buttons your child has just pushed.

This is a long and lengthy topic, but if you’re convinced that non-violent discipline is the way to go, then might I recommend these resources:

Or at the very least read the evidence or dig deeper yourself:

Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of (a website on parenting, education, child development) and (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

9 thoughts on “The Stand Against Corporal Punishment

  1. Smacking a child does not do anything to teach a child about what they should have done differently to avoid the smack in the first place.
    Smacking a child is about the parent letting off steam in a moment of anger or frustration.
    So if it doesn’t help your child, if it doesn’t teach your child anything, if all it does is stress and hurt your child…why do it?


  2. Hi Nerida – thanks for stopping by. It is refreshing to hear that many parents disagree with the whole corporal punishment as a form of discipline.

    It is my hope that once more parents know about the negative effects of corporal punishment, even those who practice it will cease the practice.


  3. I believe corporal punishment is the number “one” reason we have so much drug addiction, alcoholism, child abuse, domestic violence, violent crime, murder and rape in this country.
    All corporal punishment says to a child if you don’t do what I say, I am going to hurt you, OR if you make a mistake I am going to hurt you…Our whole society is based on this reasoning look at the police abuse and brutality that is going on all around against small children, college students and adults.
    You don’t have to believe me just watch the news and you will see exactly what I am talking about.My wife and I both, came from severe corporal punishment backgrounds, she has one brother that died from alcoholism before the age of 30 and another in prison for 33 years because he got drunk and did drugs and killed his wife. I have a brother that is in court ordered rehab right now, and has been in and out of prison since he was 18 years old. My dad was an abusive alcoholic and he beat my mother, me, and my brother up until we were like 15 years old and started fighting back and defending ourselves. At that time we were kicked out of our parents home and forced to figure out how to survive on our own. My younger brother turned to alcohol, drugs and crime to survive. Coming from a cattle ranching background I turned to working on ranches and working with horses to survive. I turned ranch jobs because they offered a place to live, a vehicle to drive and a small salary. For the last 25 years I have been trying learn better ways of communicating without violence. I have achieved this by accidently meeting a “horse whisperer” fellow from Wyoming. I hitch hiked from South Texas all the way to Jackson Hole, Wyoming in search of a ranch job for the summer. The owner of ranch I went to work for In Jackson Hole, paid my way to go to my first “Horse Whispering School”, that was over 25 years ago.I have never stopped learning and trying to teach others the non-violent communication ways of horse whispering and how it can be used to teach discipline with out violence in all relationships human or animal.
    I have written a book with the help of my wife and son titled : Horse Whispering Savvy for People…. Bob Allen


  4. Bob – Thank you for sharing your experiences and for your book. If we’re going to protect our children from corporal punishment, we need to help parents see that there are other more effective ways to discipline a child than to use physical force.


  5. You have provided lots of information about corporal punishment! Many adults mix up punishment and discipline. They thought in order to get their child to become discipline, we need to punish the child so that he will stop the misbehavior right away. I’ll be writing on this issue in my upcoming post.


  6. Hi Rosabel – thanks for visiting. You’re right. It’s amazing how many people assume that discipline and punishment are the same thing. So much so that they think discipline means to punish when discipline really means to teach.

    I’ll be looking forward to your post.


  7. Hi Shen-Li, I am the horse whispering guy. I am wondering if you might know someone that would be interested in learning about the horse whispering communication principles and how they can be used to help parents learn how to effectively communicate with their children?
    I tell people horse whispering really has nothing to do with horses, it is however a non-violent communication process that can be learned by anyone and universally applied to all of life to produce harmonious, calm and cooperative behavior through understanding some very simple, but powerful communication principles.
    It is my dream to teach these principles world wide so people will have a way to communicate with each other in a way that produces harmony—–not war and violence. Thank You Sincerely Bob Allen


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