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Corporal punishment is not all bad

By Barry Maley - posted Thursday, 15 February 2001


"Corporal punishment amounts to a total lack of respect for the human being; it therefore cannot depend on the age of the human being"
- (from a report by the European Human Rights Commission, quoted in Legal and Social Aspect of the Physical Punishment of Children, Commonwealth Department of Human Services and Health, 1995:78)

The dilemmas and difficulties raised by the infliction of physical punishment on children by parents or those acting in loco parentis in the interests of disciplining or correcting children are evident enough, and there are two main arguments against it.

The first is that it is a morally repugnant, illegitimate and unjust assault upon another human being and especially reprehensible in that it is perpetrated upon those who are least able to defend themselves. The second argument (which is really an hypothesis) is that physical punishment of children does not, as may be claimed, constitute an efficient and effective way of disciplining children in the interests of socialising and educating them; that it contributes to the development of aggressive personalities; and that other methods of control are more effective and humane. It follows, so the argument goes, that all forms of physical punishment of children by adults should be outlawed. Arguments of this kind have prevailed about physical punishment in schools (e.g. caning), and in some countries parental physical punishment has either been outlawed or had defined restrictions placed upon its use.

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The moral questions – is physical punishment always wrong or can it be rightly used in certain circumstances? – admit no easy or unanimous answers. Both views have been strongly put; the first in terms of fundamental human or natural rights; and the second, so far as children are concerned, as not inherently wrong and pragmatically valuable provided there is no physical or emotional harm involved.

From the latter perspective, the crux of the issue is whether mild, undamaging corporal punishment – for example, open-hand spanking or smacking on the legs or bottom with a disciplinary purpose, and which could not be construed as violence or an assault because it lacks the ‘evil intent’ which some courts have found to be essential to assault – has a useful and humane place in adult control and supervision of children. If corporal punishment has a legitimate but restricted place, the presumption is that it would only be administered by parents or guardians and those acting under parental consent and delegation.

Such reflections have acquired urgency in the context of a proposal by the Law Reform Commission that state Attorneys- General consider the reformulation of a uniform law to treat corporal punishment of children, other than a slap with the open hand, as criminal assault. The suggestion prompted a spate of articles and letters in the daily press arguing both for and against the proposal and largely drawing upon one or the other of the arguments summarised above.

Surveys have shown that the overwhelming majority of Australian adults (80-90%) endorse the legitimacy and occasional necessity of mild physical punishments of misbehaving children by their parents, or those in loco parentis if they have the consent of the parents. This points to the widespread belief that parents and those authorised to assume a parental role have a responsibility to administer reasonable chastisement if it is merited, and that such punishment is effective in disciplining children and controlling misbehaviour. It seems reasonable to infer that the respondents are drawing upon their experience both as children and parents in reaching that conclusion. There is evidence of declining resort to physical punishment. For most parents, it seems, physical punishment of children is rarely random or capricious and is almost invariably tied to ‘pulling them up’ sharply and immediately with the intention of teaching them an understanding of acceptably social, or safe, behaviour.

Research evidence and expert opinion on physical punishment and its effectiveness is mixed. In what follows, the main findings of the comprehensive discussion paper Legal and Social Aspect of the Physical Punishment of Children by the Commonwealth Department of Human Services and Health are summarised.

Some studies show that frequent smacking may be counter-productive. But selective or infrequent smacking or spanking is not necessarily contra-indicated and can be effective. Most experts would agree that the form and context of punishment are important. A substantial body of opinion is consistent with the commonsense view of most parents that a slap with the hand for a naughty child, or one whose behaviour is endangering itself, may sometimes be the best immediate course of action under certain circumstances. However, reliance on physical punishment, to the exclusion of other measures such as warning, explaining, withdrawal of affection, etc., may lead to less compliance and lagging development.

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Evidence from surveys indicates that slaps with the hand on legs or bottom are the common forms of physical punishment and peak in the critical ‘socialising’ period between 18 months and 4 years of age. As children get older, physical punishment declines noticeably. Evidence suggests, further, that most parents would agree with the experts that severe and frequent punishment is morally wrong, counterproductive and conducive to aggressiveness as children grow up, and an admission of parental failure. They would also agree with the experts that physical punishment should be accompanied by an explanation to the child of the reasons for it. Indeed, this seems to be a crucial element in the internalised accretion of generalised rules of proper conduct and considerate behaviour, and that ‘children themselves believe that the combination of reasoning and some power assertion works best’. Severe and frequent punishment, on the other hand, although it may induce situational compliance, is associated with failure to internalise moral rules, with reduced likelihood to resist temptations without external constraints, with less willingness to confess and accept responsibility, with greater aggressiveness, and with increased likelihood of delinquency.

In sum, there is virtual unanimity to be found in expert opinion and the evidence that harsh or frequent punishment – quite apart from its moral repugnance – is less effective, and even counterproductive, in the development of desirable personal and social conduct, and is psychologically damaging. On the other hand, there is support by some experts, and more widely by the population in general, for the view that infrequent, mild punishment, accompanied by explanation and reasoning, and less frequently resorted to as children get older, has a useful role in discipline and control, has no harmful consequences, is not inherently wrong, and should remain a parental option. Those parents and others who totally oppose physical punishment on either, or both, moral and effectiveness grounds, are not left resourceless, however, in maters of discipline and shaping of child conduct. There are many other means – reasoning, privileges, approval and rewards for desirable conduct, and so on – available to them, and the evidence is that they are effective if used consistently and firmly in socialising young children.

In a carefully constructed empirical study of alternative methods of parental discipline, Larzelere and Merenda (1994) concluded that:

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About the Author

Dr Barry Maley is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies.

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