Corporal punishment harms children, says experts

When it comes to corporal punishment, there are just as many names for it as there are instruments.

Whether it’s with done with the hand, the belt or the classic wooden spoon, corporal punishment has been a staple tool in many households and is often touted as a quick, effective way to discipline children.

PAINFUL LESSON: Hitting or using the wooden spoon on a child is used for more than just cooking in many households but has a negative instead of a positive effect, experts say
Picture: FILE

However, there is absolutely no science to back up this claim.

In fact, the overwhelming scientific consensus is that corporal punishment is not just ineffective, it is also harmful to the child.

“Many people still believe that hitting children instills self-control and needs to be done to ‘save society’,” educational psychologist Sheryl Maastrecht said.

“That doesn’t make sense because we have always hit children and have still ended up where we are.”

For Maastrecht, corporal punishment is any action “intended to cause pain” that is used to punish “bad or unwanted behaviour or to train/deter someone from engaging in unwanted behaviour in the future”.

This is in-line with the current definition used by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) which defines corporal punishment as “any punishment in which physical force is used and intended to cause some degree of pain or discomfort, however light”.

With definitions out of the way, let’s get down to business.

The first question we need to ask is whether or not corporal punishment is an effective discipline tool.

“Personally and professionally, I do not believe it is,” says Maastrecht.

Corporal punishment, while appearing to work in the short-term, doesn’t produce any long-term benefits.

“Children learn to avoid the punishment and the disapproval of the parent. They adapt their behaviour to get their needs met but they do not necessarily learn why the behaviour itself is incorrect,” Maastrecht said.

She is not alone in this conclusion.

An associate professor of human development and family sciences at the University of Texas (UT), Elizabeth Gershoff, is on record saying “there is no clear evidence of positive effects from spanking”.

Likewise, Yale psychology professor Alan Kazdin, when advocating for the end of corporal punishment, said: “We are not giving up an effective technique. We are saying this is a horrible thing that does not work”.

Unfortunately, the problems with corporal punishment are more serious than just being ineffective.

Maastrecht said that corporal punishment can have serious negative effects on a child’s mental state.

“A child who experiences shaming painful punishment learns: it is all right alright for someone who loves you to hurt you, it is all right to use force to get your point across, if you are misbehaving then try your best not to get caught, and if you get caught then lie to get out if it, and worse of all – someone else is ultimately responsible for telling you when you have gone far enough and is therefore responsible for sorting out problems.

“When a parent misuses their precious attachment bond to punish a child [violently], they become a scary space, as well as a place of safety and this is confusing to the child. In order to make sense of their world, the child has to distort/shut down their own feelings or distort/ manipulate their sense of reality.

“This may be why boys who were given ‘six of the best’ don’t see that it did them any harm – they had to shut away their true feelings and believe it was good for them in order to make sense of their world,” she said.

In this regard, Maastrecht is backed up by decades of studies that show corporal punishment to be harmful to children.

The Canadian Medical Association’s study of 20 years of research into corporal punishment, released in 2012, found zero studies demonstrating positive effects of corporal punishment.

There are many studies linking corporal punishment to increased aggression, depression and other mental problems among children in later in life.

Adolescents who experienced corporal punishment were more likely to turn to alcohol or other narcotics.

Paediatrics, the official journal of the American Academy of Paediatrics, released a study in July 2012 showing that corporal punishment was associated with increased odds of mood disorders, anxiety disorders, alcohol and drug abuse/dependence and several personality disorders.

The list goes on and on. At the end of the day, there is no argument in support of corporal punishment that stands up to close scrutiny.

It has been shown to be entirely ineffective at meaningfully teaching children, and on top of that, it’s been proven to cause serious harm to their long-term mental health.

All of this isn’t to say that you should never discipline your children. However, there is a big difference between peaceful constructive discipline and corporal punishment.

Childline SA gives a number of alternatives that parents can use instead of hitting their children.

For example, praising children when they do well encourages them to model their behaviour on positive reinforcements instead of fear.

Negotiating with children is also important since it teaches them communication skills and how to get along with other points of view.

The most important thing to remember, however, is to respect your children.


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