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Corporal Punishment Should Be Illegal in America

Fifty-three countries have already outlawed physically punishing children. It's time for the U.S. to join them.

George W. Holden, Ph.D. is the chair of the Department of Psychology at Southern Methodist University. A noted expert on childhood discipline, Dr. Holden currently sits on the American Psychological Association’s task force on corporal punishment and serves as the president of the U.S. Alliance to End the Hitting of Children.

The country of Wales is considering banning the corporal punishment, the use of physical force with the intention of causing a child to experience pain for the purpose of correcting behavior or asserting control. If Wales goes ahead with the ban, the country will become the 54th nation to pass such a law. These bans are a reflection of the international movement to get adults to stop hitting children. Where did this idea of banning a disciplinary behavior come from? Do bans work? Should the U.S. pass such a ban?

Nearly 40 years ago – in 1979 – Sweden passed the first ban on the corporal punishment of children. There were laws on the books in Poland dating back to 1783 that outlawed paddling or hitting of students in schools, but no country had passed a law saying parents couldn’t slap or spank their children. It was a bold move by the Swedish government designed to get parents’ attention, not to criminalize their behavior. The law was seen as an effort to combat child abuse and to promote children’s rights by protecting them from violent and “humiliating” treatment.

Read more of Fatherly’s stories on discipline, punishment, and parenting.

Since then, 52 countries have followed Sweden’s lead. In addition to most of the European and East European countries, there are now 10 countries in Latin America, including Costa Rica and Peru, seven countries in Africa, including Kenya and the Republic of Congo, and two countries in East Asia and the Pacific, Mongolia and New Zealand. This is a global movement.

The purpose of the bans is to change child-rearing attitudes and behavior. What could be a more dramatic way to change behavior than to outlaw it? Laws indeed can be effective vehicles for behavioral change – think of our own laws regarding seat belts and smoking. However, there is only limited evidence available to date documenting how effective these bans are. Bans only work if three things occur: There is widespread awareness of the ban, attitudes about the behavior change, and actual child-rearing behavior changes. Several studies have documented attitudinal and behavioral changes in Sweden and Finland. That said, in some of the countries that have adopted bans, citizens are unaware of the law.

Why have governments adopted the bans and, more specifically, why should parents stop using corporal punishment as a disciplinary technique? There are several compelling reasons why so many governments have joined the movement. First, the results of research on discipline are amazingly consistent: Spanking is not only ineffective, it is linked to a number of unintended negative child behavior problems. Hundreds of studies have addressed this topic and there are now multiple reviews of the literature, the latest one appeared in 2016.

The most common finding is that children who are spanked engage in more aggression than other children. In addition, more than a dozen other negative outcomes have been linked to parents’ use of corporal punishment, including depression, anxiety, cognitive problems, and impaired parent-child relationships. There is now even evidence that corporal punishment negatively affects brain development. Spanking does not promote children’s moral development or good behavior, but we know that it can do the opposite.

A second major reason governments ban corporal punishment is that it has clear links to physical abuse. Indeed, the single most common reason parents physically abuse their children is because their disciplinary efforts go awry. Disciplinary incidents can escalate, particularly with challenging children, and in rare situations, parents end up injuring their children. One study found that as many as 80 percent of physical child abuse cases stem from incidents involving a disciplinarian losing control of a situation.

Perhaps we should label the behavior more accurately with terms ‘assaulting’ or ‘beating.’

The third commonly cited reason why governments ban corporal punishment is because it is a violation of children’s rights. Just as adults have the right not to be assaulted by another adult, so too do children. This right began to be codified in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, a document adopted in 1989. That convention was not intended to take away parental rights, but it was designed to promote the respect of children as individuals and protect them from violence and other forms of mistreatment. Currently 196 countries have ratified the CRC. Only one country has not: the United States. A subsequent document (called a “General Comment”), issued by the United Nations in 2006, specifically identified corporal punishment as cruel and degrading to children.

Corporal punishment, by definition, is a form of violence because it inflicts pain on children. We, as a society, normalize it by calling it “spanking” or “paddling.” Perhaps we should label the behavior more accurately with terms “assaulting” or “beating.” Increasingly, countries are recognizing the need to prevent violence by starting in the home. If we can eradicate parental use of violence, children will be less likely to fight with siblings, bully other children, and engage in intimate partner violence when they start dating or get married. The evidence clearly indicates that children who are raised spank-free will develop into more healthy, productive, and happy adults than children who experience harsh discipline.

For those reasons and others, almost every year, more countries are passing legislative bans on corporal punishment. The effort is being led by an international organization called the Global Initiative to End all Corporal Punishment of Children. Nationally, the U.S. Alliance to End of Hitting of Children (of which I am President) as well as other organizations are working to end spanking in the home and school paddling in the 19 states that still allow it.

Activists on this issue are not seeking a national ban at this time. Although a ban would be the fastest way to change, passage is unrealistic, particularly in the current political climate. Instead we are working to educate parents about the problems linked to using corporal punishment and alternative approaches to discipline and rearing children. Changing the ways Americans discipline their children will not be easy, but for children’s sake, it must be done.