Corporal Punishment by Parents
All fifty states allow parents to use corporal punishment for purposes of disciplining their children. This means that the parent may use objects such as belts as long as the child does not suffer injury, as well as the more typical spanking with the hand. When states passed child abuse laws in the 1960s, provisions allowing parents to use corporal punishment helped facilitate passage of the legislation.
According to the Center for Effective Discipline, as of September 2004, thirteen countries prohibited corporal punishment by parents, caretakers, and teachers. In 1979 Sweden became the first country to ban all corporal punishment of children. The other twelve countries were: Finland (1983), Norway (1987), Austria (1989), Cyprus (1994), Denmark (1997), Latvia (1998), Croatia (1999), Germany (2000), Israel (2000), Iceland (2003), Ukraine (2004), and Romania (2004). Since January 2003, Canada bans corporal punishment for children under two and over twelve years of age, as well as the use of any object, such as a paddle.
Corporal Punishment in Schools
As of 2004, among industrialized countries, only Australia (just Outback areas) and the United States allowed spanking in schools. A total of twenty-two U.S. states allowed corporal punishment in public schools, although in some schools parents can request that their children not be spanked. Most are southern states. (See Figure 5.4.) The most recent school year (1999–2000) for which U.S. Department of Education figures are available showed that 342,038 students were paddled in public schools (Center for Effective Discipline, "U.S. Statistics on Corporal Punishment by State and Race," http://www.stophitting.com/disatschool/statesbanning.php [accessed November 20, 2004]).
American Attitudes about Corporal Punishment
The latest Gallup poll (1997) that surveyed Americans' attitudes about corporal punishment showed that 65% of Americans favored spanking children, a slightly lower percentage than the 74% who approved of spanking about fifty years ago in 1946. The 1997 poll also showed that, among parents, 66% favored spanking. An October 2002 ABC News poll found almost the same proportion (65%) of American parents in favor of spanking. Half of the respondents (50%) who had minor children at home indicated they sometimes spanked their children. Respondents in the southern states were more likely to favor corporal punishment, compared with the rest of the country (73% versus 60%). More parents in the South (62%) reported spanking their children, compared to parents in the rest of the states (41%). On the subject of physical punishment administered by teachers, just a quarter (26%) of parents with children thought spanking should be allowed in school. Among parents in the South, about one-third (35%) felt spanking should be allowed in schools.
The Trend of Corporal Punishment by Parents
The 1985 National Family Violence Resurvey found that more than 90% of parents of children ages three and
four used some form of corporal punishment, ranging from a slap on the hand to severe spanking. While spanking generally decreased as the child got older, about 49% of thirteen-year-olds were still being physically punished.
The National Center for Health Statistics of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services conducted the first nationwide survey to examine the health and development of children under three years of age. Using data from the 2000 survey, researchers examined, among other things, the parental use of corporal punishment for discipline (Michael Regalado, Harvinder Sareen, Moira Inkelas, Lawrence S. Wissow, and Neal Halfon, "Parents' Discipline of Young Children: Results from the National Survey of Early Childhood Health," Pediatrics, vol. 113, no. 6, June 2004). Six percent of parents surveyed indicated they ever spanked their children ages four to nine months old. Twenty-nine percent spanked their children ten to eighteen months old, and 64% spanked their children who were nineteen to thirty-five months old. Frequent spankings were also administered by some parents (11%) of children ten to eighteen months old and nineteen to thirty-five months old (26%).
Prevalence and Chronicity of Corporal Punishment
Murray A. Straus and Julie H. Stewart, in "Corporal Punishment by American Parents: National Data on Prevalence, Chronicity, Severity, and Duration, in Relation to Child and Family Characteristics" (Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, vol. 2, no. 2, 1999), reported on a national survey of American parents regarding their use of corporal punishment.
Overall, based on the chronological age of the children, more than a third (35%) of parents surveyed used corporal punishment on their infants, reaching a peak of 94% for parents of children who were three to four years old. The prevalence rate of parents using corporal punishment decreased after age five, with just over 50% of parents using it on children at age twelve, one-third (33%) at age fourteen, and 13% at age seventeen. The survey also found that corporal punishment was more prevalent among African-Americans and parents in the low socioeconomic level. It was also more commonly inflicted on boys, by mothers, and in the South.
Chronicity refers to the frequency of the infliction of corporal punishment during the year. Corporal punishment was most frequently used by parents of two-year-olds, averaging eighteen times a year. After age two, chronicity declined, averaging six times a year for teenagers.
Corporal Punishment and Behavior Problems in Children Starting Elementary School
Studies on the spanking of children have mostly used sample populations of children age two and older. Eric P. Slade and Lawrence S. Wissow conducted the first study of its kind in the United States, following a group of 1,966 children younger than two years old to test the hypothesis that "spanking frequency before age two is positively associated with the probability of having significant behavior problems four years later" ("Spanking in Early Childhood and Later Behavior Problems: A Prospective Study of Infants and Young Toddlers," Pediatrics, vol. 113, no. 5, May 2004).
The researchers collected data about 1,966 children and their mothers who participated in the National Longitudinal Survey of Mother-Child Sample, a large-scale national study of youth ages fourteen to twenty-one. Some of these young people were mothers with children. Data were collected on the mother-children groups when the children were under two years of age. Four years later, after the children had entered elementary school, the researchers inter-viewed the mothers to explore their hypothesis. Mothers were asked if they spanked their child the previous week and how frequently they spanked their children. They were also questioned about the child's temperament, mother-child interactions, and whether they had ever met with the child's teacher due to behavioral problems.
Slade and Wissow found that, compared with children who were never spanked, white non-Hispanic children who were frequently spanked (five times a week) before age two were four times more likely to have behavioral problems by the time they started school. No connection was found between spanking and later behavioral problems among African-American and Hispanic children. According to the authors, the same results were found in studies involving children older than two. The authors explained that the way white families and other ethnic groups view the spanking of children may influence the impact of spanking. For example, African-American families typically do not consider spanking as "harsh or unfair."
Corporal Punishment Increases the Risk of Physical Abuse
Murray A. Straus presented a model called "path analysis" to illustrate how physical punishment could escalate to physical abuse ("Physical Abuse," Chapter 6 in Beating the Devil out of Them: Corporal Punishment in American Families and Its Effects on Children, 2nd ed., New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2001). Straus theorized that parents who have been physically disciplined as adolescents are more likely to believe that it is acceptable to use violence to remedy a misbehavior. These parents tend to be depressed and to be involved in spousal violence. When a parent resorts to physical punishment and the child does not comply, the parent increases the severity of the punishment, eventually harming the child.
Corporal punishment experienced in adolescence produces the same effect on males and females. Parents who were physically punished thirty or more times as adolescents (24%) were three times as likely as those who never received physical punishment (7%) to abuse their children physically. Straus noted, however, that his model also shows that three-quarters (76%) of parents who were hit many times (thirty or more) as adolescents did not, in turn, abuse their children.
Corporal Punishment and Cognitive Development
In "Corporal Punishment by Mothers and Child's Cognitive Development: A Longitudinal Study" (Family Research Laboratory, University of New Hampshire, Durham, NH; a paper presented at the 14th World Congress of Sociology, Montreal, Quebec, Canada, 1998), Murray A. Straus and Mallie J. Paschall found that corporal punishment was associated with a child's failure to keep up with the average rate of cognitive development.
Straus and Paschall followed the cognitive development of 960 children born to mothers who participated in the National Longitudinal Study of Youth. The women were fourteen to twenty-one years old in 1979, at the start of the study. In 1986, when the women were between the ages of twenty-one and twenty-eight, those with children were interviewed regarding the way they were raising their children. The children underwent cognitive, psychosocial, and behavioral assessments. Children ages one to four were selected, among other reasons, because "the development of neural connections is greatest at the youngest ages." The children were tested again in 1990.
About seven in ten (71%) mothers reported spanking their toddlers in the past week, with 6.2% spanking the child during the course of their interview for the study. Those who used corporal punishment reported using it an average of 3.6 times per week. This amounted to an estimated 187 spankings a year.
COGNITIVE DEVELOPMENT. Straus and Paschall found that the more prevalent the corporal punishment, the greater the decrease in cognitive ability. Considering other studies, which showed that talking to children, including infants, is associated with increased neural connections in the brain and cognitive functioning, the researchers hypothesized that if parents are not using corporal punishment to discipline their child, they are very likely verbally interacting with that child, thus positively affecting cognitive development.
Moreover, corporal punishment has been found to affect cognitive development in other ways. It is believed that experiencing corporal punishment can be very stressful to children. Stress hampers children's ability to process events, which is important for their cognitive development. And since corporal punishment generally occurs over a long period, children's bonding with their parents may be minimized to the point that the children will not be motivated to learn from their parents.
OTHER FINDINGS. Straus and Paschall also found that, contrary to some beliefs that corporal punishment is acceptable if the parent provides emotional support to the child, the adverse effects of physical punishment on cognitive development remained the same whether or not there was maternal support. The results of the study also debunked the general belief among African-Americans that corporal punishment benefits children. The adverse consequences on cognitive development held true for all racial and ethnic groups.
Consequences of Reducing the Use of Corporal Punishment
Ron L. Pitzer, a University of Minnesota Extension Service sociologist, conducted a six-year study of changes in parental disciplinary practices, specifically the use of corporal punishment, and their effects on aggressive child behaviors ("Changes in Goodhue County Parenting Practices 1993–1998," Family Forum, Minnesota Council of Family Relations, St. Paul, MN, 2002). The Positive Parenting study randomly selected 1003 parents with children under age thirteen. The participants were residents of Goodhue County (501) and Rice County (502) in Minnesota. In this report, Pitzer discussed data concerning the Goodhue County participants.
Researchers interviewed the parents regarding their parenting practices in 1993, 1995, and 1998. During the six-year period, many parents attended positive-parenting classes. At the same time, a multiagency citizen group ran a public awareness and educational campaign to bring the message of "Kids: Handle with Care" to the county residents. Overall, parents' use of corporal punishment declined from 36% (1993) to 21% (1995) to 12% (1998) during the six months prior to the interviews. Those parents who attended public-awareness activities reported lesser use of corporal punishment. In 1993, 11% reported spanking their children eleven or more times in the past six months before the interview. By 1998 no parent reported spanking that often during the past six months. In 1993, 20% indicated spanking six or more times the previous six months. Just 2% said they used physical punishment in 1998. Parents who took parenting classes reported, among other things, that they learned to set limits by explaining to the child what was expected of him or her. Fathers who actively participated in the parenting classes and public-awareness programs did just as well as or better than the mothers in changing their parenting practices.
The researchers also found changes in some children's aggression. Nonaggressive children at the start of the study who were spanked were twice as aggressive by the end of the study. Those who were aggressive in 1993 but were not spanked throughout the study were half as aggressive in 1998. Overall, the percentage of parents who reported their children hitting siblings dropped from 80% in 1993 to 56% in 1998. Hitting other children declined from 45% to 27%, damaging things, from 47% to 31%, and hitting adults, including parents, from 28% to 9%. The study did not take into account, however, that much of this change would be expected because of the difference in the children's age from the beginning to the end of the study.
Not All Experts Oppose Physical Punishment
Some experts believe nonabusive spanking can play a role in effective parental discipline of young children. According to Robert E. Larzelere, spanking can have beneficial results when it is "nonabusive (e.g., two swats to the buttocks with an open hand) and used primarily to back up milder disciplinary tactics with 2- to 6-year-olds by loving parents" ("Child Outcomes of Nonabusive and Customary Physical Punishment by Parents: An Updated Literature Review," Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, vol. 3, no. 4, 2000). Larzelere reviewed thirty-eight studies on corporal punishment to determine the effects of nonabusive and customary spanking. The author described researches on customary spanking as "studies that measure physical punishment without emphasizing the severity of its use."
Generally, the thirty-eight studies were nearly equally divided in their reports of beneficial child outcomes, detrimental child outcomes, and neutral or mixed outcomes: 32%, 34%, and 34%, respectively. The author examined seventeen studies he considered to be causally conclusive, that is, the research showed that nonabusive spanking was associated with the child outcomes. Nine studies in which children two to six years of age received nonabusive spankings after noncompliance with room time-out found beneficial child outcomes, such as subsequent compliance with parental orders. Of these nine studies, two studies in which parents used reasoning with the child followed by nonabusive spanking revealed a longer delay in between misbehaviors. A study involving extended disciplining by mothers showed that child compliance occurred at higher rates when the mothers used spanking as a final resort after other disciplinary measures had been tried.
Of the eight controlled longitudinal studies that examined spanking frequency, five reported negative child outcomes, such as low self-esteem. Controlled studies refer to studies that excluded initial child misbehavior. The author noted that three of these studies showed that the detrimental effects were a result of frequent spankings.
Larzelere found that the child's age was associated with the outcome of nonabusive spanking. Of twelve studies involving children with mean ages under six, eleven reported beneficial outcomes. Among children ages seven-and-a-half to ten years, just one study reported beneficial outcomes, while six studies found detrimental outcomes.
Larzelere noted that confounding factors in some studies were responsible for a conclusion of detrimental child outcomes. In other words, studies that used opposing or unclear factors found negative outcomes. According to Larzelere, studies that did not show detrimental child outcomes shared three common factors: very serious corporal punishment was not included in those studies; spanking was measured as a back-up for other disciplinary practices and not in terms of frequency; and a large number of children exhibited behavior problems at the start of the study.