One of the key responsibilities of parents and teachers is to promote desired behaviours in children and to handle misbehaviours when they occur. Parents and teachers have many options for managing children’s behaviours, ranging from proactive guidance aimed at preventing misbehaviour in the first place to reactive methods that punish misbehaviour after it occurs. Arguably, the most controversial way that some parents and teachers attempt to manage children’s behaviour is through corporal punishment, which has been defined as adult use of physical force intended to cause pain, but not injury, to correct or control a child's inappropriate behaviour.1 This article focuses primarily on parents’ rather than teachers’ use of corporal punishment because more children experience corporal punishment at home than in school and because the majority of research has focused on parents’ use of corporal punishment. However, many of the issues described apply equally to corporal punishment in home and school settings.
Corporal punishment is widely used by caregivers around the world. In one study of parents’ use of corporal punishment with 2- to 4-year-old children in 30,470 families from 24 developing countries, 63% of primary caregivers reported that someone in their household had corporally punished their child in the last month.2 Across these 24 countries, 29% of caregivers reported that they believe it is necessary to use corporal punishment to rear a child properly.2 In a study of 1,417 families with 7- to 9-year-old children in 9 countries, over half of the children had been corporally punished in the last month.3 Even with this older sample, 17% of parents across countries believed it was necessary to use corporal punishment to rear their child.3
Corporal punishment has become an increasingly problematic global human rights issue. In 1989 the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly. To date, all except two members of the United Nations (Somalia and the United States) have ratified the CRC, meaning that the 192 countries that have ratified the CRC are obliged to examine their policies, laws and cultural norms to ensure that they uphold children’s right to protection.7 The UN defines physical violence (including corporal punishment) toward children as a breach of their rights under the CRC and has set a goal of putting “an end to adult justification of violence against children, whether accepted as ‘tradition’ or disguised as ‘discipline.’”8(p5)
In addition to corporal punishment being a human rights issue, it has been found to be ineffective in bringing about desired behaviours and is a risk factor for a wide range of child adjustment problems.9 For example, children who have been corporally punished are at greater risk for externalizing behaviour problems such as aggression and delinquency as well as internalizing problems such as depression and anxiety.9 Furthermore, mild use of corporal punishment can lead to the use of severe forms of corporal punishment and physical abuse.10,11
At least three factors are important in describing the research context of studies on corporal punishment. One factor is the age of the child being punished. Parents’ use of corporal punishment peaks during the toddler and preschool years and declines thereafter.12 In understanding prevalence rates of corporal punishment as well as how corporal punishment affects children’s adjustment, it is important to consider the age of the children involved.
Second, corporal punishment is multidimensional and its assessment can involve understanding how frequently parents use corporal punishment, how severely it is administered (e.g., with a bare hand or with an object), and the context in which it is administered (e.g., pervasively or as a last resort after attempts to manage behaviour through non-physical means have failed). Prevalence levels that indicate what proportion of parents have ever used corporal punishment generally are high (e.g., over 90% of American parents have used corporal punishment at some point).12 The frequency with which corporal punishment is used varies by child age.3,12 Frequency, severity and pervasiveness of corporal punishment are related to more child adjustment problems.
The third factor in understanding the research context of studies of corporal punishment is that studies vary in their methodological rigour. For example, studies vary in measures of the frequency, severity and nature of corporal punishment; whether they include convenience or representative samples; whether they are cross-sectional or longitudinal; whether they use current or retrospective data; and whether they control for confounding variables that could provide alternate explanations for links between corporal punishment and children’s adjustment. These methodological features of studies have implications about the conclusions that can be drawn from them. Studies that statistically control for early child behaviour problems when examining links between corporal punishment and future child behaviour problems, for instance, can examine whether corporal punishment leads to an increase in child behaviour problems above and beyond early behaviour problems that may have elicited corporal punishment.
Key Research Questions
Research has addressed four key questions regarding parents’ use of corporal punishment. First, how does corporal punishment affect children’s future behavioural, cognitive and social adjustment? Second, through what mechanisms does corporal punishment affect children’s future adjustment? Third, does it affect all children in similar ways, or do certain characteristics of children or settings in which it is used make corporal punishment more or less detrimental for some children than others? Fourth, what factors predict whether parents will use corporal punishment?
Recent Research Results
A large body of research suggests that experiencing corporal punishment is related to a range of future adjustment problems. In a meta-analysis of 88 studies, corporal punishment was found to predict more aggression, delinquent and antisocial behaviour, mental health problems, and risk of becoming physically abused during childhood as well as less moral internalization and lower quality of parent-child relationships.9 Furthermore, experiencing corporal punishment during childhood was found to relate to more adulthood aggression, criminal and antisocial behaviour, mental health problems, and later abuse of one’s spouse or own child.9 In the meta-analysis, the only positive child outcome predicted by corporal punishment was children’s immediate compliance.9
Corporal punishment also predicts a number of cognitive problems, including lower IQ scores.13,14 However, these findings remain controversial, with some researchers arguing that the link between corporal punishment and child adjustment problems results not because corporal punishment causes more problematic child outcomes but because children with more behaviour problems elicit more of all kinds of discipline, including corporal punishment, from their parents.15,16 These researchers also point to the methodological limitations of research on corporal punishment (e.g., mothers reporting on both their behaviour and the child’s behaviour leading to inflation of correlations because the information is from a single source) to argue that the existing evidence is not sufficient to establish a causal link between parents’ use of corporal punishment and children’s subsequent adjustment problems.15,16 On the other hand, given the many risks of corporal punishment and the lack of evidence that corporal punishment improves children’s behaviours (which would presumably be parents’ goal in using corporal punishment), the risks of using corporal punishment appear to be too great to ignore.
There is some evidence that one of the major mechanisms through which corporal punishment affects children’s future adjustment is through children’s perceptions of their parents’ warmth and acceptance versus hostility and rejection.17 If parents’ use of corporal punishment leads children to perceive their parents as being hostile and rejecting, then those perceptions of rejection and hostility will lead to an escalation of children’s behaviour problems and a decrease in the quality of their social relationships. However, if children continue to perceive their parents as being warm and accepting, then parents’ use of corporal punishment may not lead to children’s adjustment problems. One problem with corporal punishment is that parents often use it as an angry response executed in the heat of the moment. For example, 85% of the middle-class, primarily European American parents in one study reported experiencing moderate to high levels of anger, remorse and agitation when dealing with their children’s misbehaviour.18 In another study, 54% of mothers in an American sample reported that in over half of the times in which they had used corporal punishment, it was the wrong response to have used.19 If children perceive that their parents are out of control and lashing out at them in anger, these cognitive and emotional responses to corporal punishment could lead to more problematic child adjustment in the future.20
Another mechanism through which corporal punishment affects children’s adjustment is by altering the way that children cognitively process social information. For example, compared to children who are not corporally punished, those who are corporally punished are more likely to interpret other people’s behaviour as having hostile intent, are more likely to generate aggressive solutions in provocative social situations, and are more likely to evaluate aggression as being a good way to act in social situations.21 Each of these cognitive biases in turn increases the likelihood that children will themselves behave aggressively.22
Not all children respond to corporal punishment in the same way, and several factors may alter the way in which corporal punishment is related to children’s adjustment. One of these factors is cultural normativeness. In a study of six countries (China, India, Italy, Kenya, Philippines and Thailand), mothers’ more frequent use of corporal punishment was related to higher levels of child aggression and anxiety in all six countries, but the association between corporal punishment and child adjustment problems was strongest in countries where the use of corporal punishment was non-normative and weakest in countries where the use of corporal punishment was normative.23 Researchers also have found some evidence that corporal punishment is more detrimental if it is used with children younger than two years of age or older than 13 years of age, if it is used more often than once a week, and if it is harsh (e.g., using objects rather than using a bare hand).24
Although most research has focused on corporal punishment as a predictor of child adjustment problems, there is a smaller body of research that has investigated factors that predict whether parents use corporal punishment. These studies have found that demographic, child behaviour, and parent factors affect whether parents use corporal punishment. For example, parents are more likely to use corporal punishment if they have children with difficult temperaments or have high levels of family stress.25 Particular cultural contexts also make it more or less likely that parents will use corporal punishment. For instance, according to ethnographic data collected by anthropologists in 186 preindustrial societies, corporal punishment is more prevalent in societies with higher levels of social stratification and with undemocratic political decision making, perhaps because parents may use corporal punishment to socialize children to live in a society with power inequalities where submissive and obedient child behaviours are particularly valued.26 Furthermore, several religious and cultural groups endorse corporal punishment through adages such as “spare the rod, spoil the child.”27
Overall, the research literature can best be characterized as demonstrating that children’s behaviour problems and parents’ use of corporal punishment should be regarded as part of a reciprocal system in which children’s behaviour problems elicit corporal punishment, which then leads to escalation in children’s behaviour problems in a coercive cycle that perpetuates over time.28,29 Therefore, research that focuses both on factors that predict parents’ use of corporal punishment as well as child outcomes that result from parents’ use of corporal punishment better capture the full complexity of this bidirectional system. In addition, research that includes mechanisms that help account for these associations over time and that attempts to understand other factors that may alter the links between corporal punishment and child adjustment are important to advancing research on corporal punishment.
Despite much progress in understanding the complex associations between corporal punishment and children’s adjustment, the research still has gaps, just one of which will be highlighted here. Genetic and environmental factors interact to shape behavioural outcomes. To date, few studies have attempted to understand in what ways genetic factors may interact with the experience of corporal punishment to alter children’s adjustment. One study demonstrated that risk of delinquent behaviour conferred by a particular monoamine oxidase A genotype was exacerbated by the experience of corporal punishment.30 Genetically informative studies will be important in the future both to disentangle genetic and environmental influences on children’s adjustment and to understand how they act in conjunction with one another.
A large proportion of parents use corporal punishment to try to manage their children’s behaviour, but there is little evidence that corporal punishment results in better behaviour (with the exception of inducing immediate compliance) and a great deal of evidence that corporal punishment has the unintended consequence of increasing rather than decreasing children’s future behaviour problems. Children’s cognitive and emotional perceptions regarding their experience of corporal punishment serve as mechanisms linking parents’ use of corporal punishment with children’s future adjustment problems, and contextual factors such as cultural normativeness can strengthen or weaken links between corporal punishment and children’s adjustment. Societal level factors and children’s behaviour problems also influence whether parents use corporal punishment.
There are two main problems with the use of corporal punishment. The first problem is highlighted by scientific research that demonstrates no benefits of corporal punishment in terms of promoting long-term desired behaviours and many risks related to children’s adjustment. The second problem is a moral and ethical one rather than scientific one in that eliminating violence against children, including the use of corporal punishment, has increasingly become a focus of the international community in an effort to ensure children’s right to protection as stipulated in the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Implications for Parents, Services and Policy
The American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement that the use of corporal punishment is of “limited effectiveness and has potentially deleterious side effects” and recommended that “parents be encouraged and assisted in the development of methods other than spanking for managing undesired behaviour.”31(p723) Beyond the level of parents, the UN, the World Health Organization and other international bodies have been campaigning at for countries to ban the use of corporal punishment in all settings.32
In part as a result of their obligation to promote children’s right to protection from violence as set forth in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, countries have increasingly incorporated educational and behavioural interventions related to corporal punishment into their national parenting programs.33 These programs have taken a variety of forms. For example, one approach has been to implement preventive interventions that to reduce parental stress, substance use, and poverty and to increase parents’ access to supportive services in an attempt to reduce their use of corporal punishment.34 Another approach has been to provide parents with information related to the risks of corporal punishment and information about alternative, non-violent discipline methods. For example, in the Philippines, Parent Effectiveness Service is a multifaceted parenting program that includes information designed to help parents manage the behaviour of their young children.33 Yet another approach has been to launch public awareness campaigns as part of national strategies to reduce parents’ use of corporal punishment. For instance, information about the ban of corporal punishment was printed on milk cartons in Sweden at the time of the initial legislation.6 Yet other interventions have focused on decreasing teachers’ use of corporal punishment and increasing positive discipline in school settings.35
Given both the widespread use of corporal punishment and the widespread belief in the necessity of using corporal punishment in some countries, efforts to eliminate violence against children will need to alter the belief that corporal punishment is necessary to rear a child as well as provide caregivers with nonviolent alternatives to replace corporal punishment. The challenge will be to work with adults to devise alternate child behaviour management strategies that do not rely on the use of corporal punishment.
- Straus MA, Donnelly M. In: Donnelly M, Straus MA, eds. Corporal punishment in theoretical perspective. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press; 2005:3-7.
- Lansford JE, Deater-Deckard K. Childrearing discipline and violence in developing countries. Child Dev. In press.
- Lansford JE, Alampay L, Bacchini D, et al. Corporal punishment of children in nine countries as a function of child gender and parent gender. Int J Pediatrics. 2010 doi:10.1155/2010/672780.
- Smith DE, Mosby G. Jamaican child-rearing practices: the role of corporal punishment. Adolescence. 2003;38:370-381.
- Global initiative to end all corporal punishment of children. Available at: http://www.endcorporalpunishment.org/.
- Durrant JE. Evaluating the success of Sweden’s corporal punishment ban. Child Abuse and Negl. 1999;23:435-448.
- UNICEF. Convention on the Rights of the Child. Available at: http://www.unicef.org/crc/index_30160.html. 2008.
- Pinheiro PS. Report of the independent expert for the United Nations study on violenceagainstchildren.Availableat: http://www.violencestudy.org/IMG/pdf/English-2-2.pdf. 2006.
- Gershoff ET. Corporal punishment by parents and associated child behaviors and experiences: a meta-analytic and theoretical review. Psychol Bull. 2002;128:539-579.
- Lansford JE, Wager LB, Bates JE, Pettit GS, Dodge KA. Forms of spanking and children’s externalizing behaviors. Fam Relations. In press.
- Zolotor AJ, Theodore AD, Chang JJ, et al. Speak softly--and forget the stick. Corporal punishment and child physical abuse. Am J Prev Med. 2008;35:364-369.
- Straus MA, Stewart JH. Physical punishment by American parents: national data on prevalence, chronicity, severity, and duration, in relation to child and family characteristics. Clin Child Fam Rev. 1999;2:55–70.
- Berlin LJ, Ispa JM, Fine MA, et al. Correlates and consequences of spanking and verbal punishment for low-income White, African American, and Mexican American toddlers. Child Dev. 2009;80:1403-1420.
- Straus MA, Paschall MJ. Corporal punishment by mothers and development of cognitive ability: a longitudinal study of two nationally representative age cohorts. Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment Trauma. 2009; 18:459-483.
- Baumrind D, Larzelere RE, Cowan PA. Ordinary physical punishment: Is it harmful? Comment on Gershoff (2002). Psychol Bull. 2002;128:580–589.
- Larzelere RE. Child outcomes of nonabusive and customary physical punishment by parents: an updated literature review. Clin Child Fam Psychol Rev. 2000;3:199–221.
- Rohner RP. The warmth dimension: Foundations of parental acceptance-rejection theory. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage; 1986.
- Graziano AM, Hamblen JL. Subabusive violence in child rearing in middle-class American families. Pediatrics. 1996;98:845-848.
- Straus MA. Spanking and the making of a violent society. Pediatrics. 1996;98:837-842.
- Lansford JE, Malone PS, Dodge KA, et al. Children’s perceptions of maternal hostility as a mediator of the link between discipline and children’s adjustment in four countries. Int J Behav Dev. 2010;34:452–461.
- Weiss B, Dodge KA, Bates JE, Pettit GS. Some consequences of early harsh discipline: child aggression and a maladaptive social information processing style. Child Dev. 1992;63:1321-1335.
- Crick NR, Dodge KA. A review and reformulation of social information- processing mechanisms in children's social adjustment. Psychol Bull. 1994;115:74-101.
- Lansford JE, Chang L, Dodge KA, et al. Cultural normativeness as a moderator of the link between physical discipline and children’s adjustment: a comparison of China, India, Italy, Kenya, Philippines, and Thailand. Child Dev. 2005;76:1234- 1246.
- Larzelere RE, Kuhn BR. Comparing child outcomes of physical punishment and alternative disciplinary tactics: a meta-analysis. Clin Child Fam Psychol Rev. 2005;8:1-37.
- Lansford JE, Criss MM, Dodge KA, Shaw DS, Pettit GS, Bates JE. Trajectories of physical discipline: antecedents and developmental outcomes. Child Dev. 2009;80:1385-1402.
- Ember CR, Ember M. Explaining corporal punishment of children: a cross- cultural study. Am Anthropologist. 2005;107:609-619.
- Gershoff ET, Miller PC, Holden GW. Parenting influences from the pulpit: religious affiliation as a determinant of parental corporal punishment. J Fam Psychol. 1999;13:307-320.
- Lansford JE, Criss MM, Laird RD, et al. Reciprocal relations between parents’ physical discipline and children’s externalizing behavior during middle childhood and adolescence. Dev and Psychopathol. 2011;23:225-238.
- Patterson GR, Reid JB, Dishion TJ. Antisocial boys. Eugene, OR: Castalia; 1992.
- Edwards AC, Dodge KA, Latendresse SJ, et al. MAOA-uVNTR and early physical discipline interact to influence delinquent behavior. J Child Psychol Psychiatry. 2010;51:679-687.
- American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health. Guidance for effective discipline. Pediatrics. 1998;101:723–728.
- World Health Organization. Changing Cultural and Social Norms Supportive of Violent Behavior. Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization; 2009.
- Lansford JE, Bornstein MH. Review of parenting programs in developing countries. New York: UNICEF; 2007.
- Daro D, Dodge KA. Creating community responsibility for child protection: possibilities and challenges. Future of Child. 2009;19:67-97.
- Tapanya S. Corporal punishment in Thailand. Bangkok: Save the Children; 2010.
How to cite this article:
Lansford JE, Tapanya S, Oburu PO. Corporal Punishment. In: Tremblay RE, Boivin M, Peters RDeV, eds. Tremblay RE, topic ed. Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development [online]. https://www.child-encyclopedia.com/social-violence/according-experts/corporal-punishment. Published: October 2011. Accessed 20 January 2022.Text copied to the clipboard ✓