In addition to being flat out ineffective, corporal punishment is harmful to a child’s wellbeing. This is discussed in greater detail in our book: Child Maltreatment – A Cross-Comparison, but we also wanted to summarize a few of those points here.
The distinctions between physical punishment and child abuse are far fewer than people might imagine. First of all, most instances of physical abuse (around two-thirds of all cases) actually originate from corporal punishment that is taken too far. (Straus, 1994) So the distinction between physical discipline and physical abuse is quite blurry, and there is frequently a great deal of overlap between the two. And for those of you who regularly practice physical discipline, it doesn’t take a whole lot to cross the line. All it takes is for a child to be off-balance when you whack him, or to turn his head in the wrong direction, and suddenly a shove or a slap ends up with a ruptured eardrum or a fall and a concussion.
Physical discipline produces all the same consequences as does physical child abuse, though the harm-ratio is not quite as large. (Straus, 2001) In other words, think of physical discipline and physical abuse as existing on the same spectrum. On the mild end of this spectrum you might have parents who spank their child once or twice a year. On the extreme end at the other side you have consistent physical abuse.
Parents who seldom spank put their child at a mild risk for future problems. Dr. Murray A. Strauss (2001, p. 13), a sociologist and long-time physical punishment researcher, notes that “Even children who were spanked only once in the past six months had slightly higher impulsiveness and antisocial behavior scores compared to the never spanked children.” The risk is small, but it is there. And the more physical discipline is used, the higher you climb on this spectrum, and the greater the likelihood there is of harm. For those parents who use corporal punishment quite often, the harm it does can be comparable to physical abuse that occurs at a somewhat lower frequency.
The distinction between the two gets especially blurry when it comes to the social messages a child internalizes about themselves. After all, the message for both is virtually identical: “I’m a bad boy, and when Mommy is upset with me, she’ll hit me.” From the child’s perspective, the only distinction is the level of injury or the body part whacked, or perhaps the degree of restraint shown by the parent. Other than that, the two would seem to produce similar messages. Since these messages are the driving force for harm, there is reason to be concerned.
“Spanking does a lot of damage to a child’s self-concept and trust in others,” note Bill & Kathy Kvols-Riedler, “and it usually teaches him to be hesitant in participating or cooperating with others.” (1979, p. 165) Dreikurs and Soltz (1964, p. 71) also weigh in, saying that “the insult to a child’s dignity is enormous when he is whacked, and not much of mother’s dignity is left when she is through with the procedure, particularly if she feels guilty afterwards.”
Dr. Murray A. Strauss notes that data on the association between spanking and harmful outcomes is more robust than the correlations that have served as a basis for other public health interventions, such as secondhand smoke’s relation to cancer, the link between lead exposure and low IQs in children, or the danger from exposure to asbestos. (Schrock, 2010) You wouldn’t let your child chain smoke or send them to school in a preschool filled with asbestos and lined with lead, and you shouldn’t make a habit out of hitting them for discipline purposes, either.
To put the situation in perspective, eliminating corporal discipline would have a far bigger benefit on child welfare than would eliminating physical abuse. (Strauss, 2001) This is because although physical abuse is typically more harmful than corporal punishment, the harmful effects of physical discipline are significant enough, and the practice is far more common. Therefore eliminating physical discipline among parents would be of greater benefit to kids and society as a whole.
Once again, we say this not to condemn parents, but because we hope it will help guide them towards more appropriate (and more effective) discipline practices. The point is not to feel guilty over past practices or beat yourself up if you lose your temper and give your child a whack. (Because the practice of spanking is often hardwired into our brain from having experienced it ourselves, it’s almost inevitable that parents who grew up being spanked will backslide on occasion, no matter how hard they try.) The point is simply to recognize it’s not the best approach and steer ourselves toward better practices in the future.
As Lawrence Kutner writes, “One or two swats on the backside over the course of your child’s development won’t permanently warp his psyche. (They probably won’t change his behavior much, either.) But if you ever feel that you must hit your child to control him, you should look for some outside help such as family counseling. The problems that trigger that feeling are seldom only your child’s behavior.” (1996, p. 108)