III. The Corporal Punishment Controversy
As described earlier, several contemporary theories of deviant behavior agree that effective parenting behaviors decrease the probability of delinquent behavior. In recent years, some researchers have argued that there is convincing evidence for another generalization regarding the effect of parental behavior on child conduct problems. They contend that research has confirmed that children subjected to corporal punishment are at risk for delinquent and criminal behavior. Physical discipline has this effect, they argue, because parents who engage in this behavior inadvertently teach their children that aggression and coercion are legitimate approaches to solving problems, and corporal punishment fosters anger and generates opposition and defiance. Thus, instead of deterring misbehavior, it operates to amplify a child’s antisocial tendencies. These researchers consider exposure to corporal punishment during childhood to be a major cause of adolescent delinquency and adult crime and aggression. On the basis of arguments such as these, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Psychological Association have taken firm stances against the use of any corporal punishment. Some people believe that scientific support for this position is so strong that Congress should follow the example of several European countries and pass legislation prohibiting adults from using corporal methods to discipline children. Currently, parents are forbidden to use corporal punishment as a form of discipline in Austria, Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Italy, Latvia, Norway, and Sweden.
The majority of American parents sometimes use corporal punishment to discipline their children. One investigation found, for example, that over 90% of American parents have spanked their children by the time they are 3 or 4 years of age (Straus & Gelles, 1986). The effects of corporal punishment are an empirical question. Moral objections are a separate issue. This research paper focuses on research findings and lets readers draw their own conclusions regarding the ethics of physical forms of punishment.
It is important to distinguish spanking from harsh physical punishment. In 1996, a conference of developmental psychologists defined spanking as an approach to physical discipline that is noninjurious and is administered with an opened hand to the extremities or buttocks. At most, such punishment inflicts only a minor, temporary level of physical pain. More severe forms of corporal punishment involving slapping, kicking, shoving, and hitting with an object would be considered abusive.
Research indicates that modeling often results in discriminative learning whereby we learn to recognize (or discriminate) between the circumstances under which an action is or is not appropriate. Consider the example of a parent who uses low-impact spanking (i.e., a swat to the buttocks using an open hand) as a last-resort punishment when her preschooler misbehaves, but never uses corporal punishment with her older children and frequently talks about the importance of people not being violent or aggressive with one another. Also, when she administers a swat to her preschooler, she explains the importance of the rule that her child violated and indicates that little children get spanked when they defy their parents’ guidance. In this case, the child might be expected to learn that it is legitimate for parents to sometimes spank a misbehaving preschooler whereas in general people should not hit each other.
Children often respond with anger, aggression, and defiance when they perceive that they have been treated unjustly. Past research shows that corporal punishment is most apt to be perceived as legitimate if it is mild, is used with young children, is administered by a warm and caring parent, and occurs within a cultural context that legitimates corporal punishment. Under such circumstances, physical discipline is apt to operate as a deterrent to child conduct problems. Conversely, physical discipline is likely to elicit perceptions of injustice and mistreatment when it is severe, is directed toward older children, is dispensed by a rejecting parent, or occurs within a cultural context that disapproves of corporal punishment. Under these circumstances, physical discipline is apt to generate belligerence, defiance, and other conduct problems.
Unfortunately, much of the research on corporal punishment usually does not distinguish between the consequences of mild forms of physical punishment and more extreme forms that might be considered abusive. The few studies that have taken severity into account, however, have found that individuals exposed to moderate levels of physical punishment are no more likely to engage in antisocial behavior than those whose parents did not use corporal punishment, whereas persons who experienced severe physical punishment show significantly higher levels of antisocial behavior than those who received either no punishment or moderate corporal punishment. Several studies have reported that physically abused children are at risk for a variety of antisocial behaviors, including delinquency and substance abuse. In general, the association between harsh parenting and antisocial behavior is stronger for children who have experienced more extensive abuse.
The effects of physical discipline are likely to differ by age of child. Although moderate spanking may be a deterrent for preschoolers, corporal punishment might be expected to escalate the deviant behavior of older children and teens. Past research provides support for this observation. Clinical studies with preschoolers or kindergarteners have found that spanking increases compliance, as well as the effectiveness of time-outs and reasoning, whereas those that focus on parental behavior during late childhood or early adolescence tend to find a positive relationship between spanking and antisocial behavior.
A child’s reaction to physical punishment may depend, at least in part, on the quality of the relationship that she has with the caregiver. Warm and supportive parents may be able to use corporal punishment to obtain child compliance. On the other hand, corporal punishment may foster defiance and aggression when it is administered by cold, harsh, or uninvolved parents. Although few studies have addressed this issue, the evidence suggests that corporal punishment tends to escalate child behavior problems when it takes place within the context of a troubled parent–child relationship. These negative effects are much less likely to occur when physical discipline occurs within a warm and nurturing family environment.
There are also differences in the effects of corporal punishment by ethnicity. Several studies have reported that physical discipline is more widely used and accepted by African American parents than by European American parents. Furthermore, research shows that European American children often view physical discipline as an expression of parental hostility and disregard, whereas African American children tend to accept such discipline as a valid expression of parental concern. Several studies indicate that African American children show less aggression and defiance, and more compliance, in response to physical punishment than European American children. It appears that corporal punishment tends not to have negative consequences when the family is part of a culture that legitimates such parenting practices.
In summary, physical discipline is apt to foster compliance and be perceived as legitimate when (a) it is mild (e.g., a spank to the buttocks with an open hand); (b) is administered by a caring, supportive parent; and (c) the child is between 2 and 6 years of age. In contrast, physical discipline is likely to foster defiance and aggression when (a) it is severe; (b) is administered by a harsh, rejecting parent; and (c) the child is a preadolescent or teen. However, the decision to use physical punishments to discipline children involves more than the question of efficacy; it is also an ethical matter. Whereas social scientists can address the question of effectiveness, it is beyond the scope of science to draw moral conclusions. Ultimately, each individual must determine the circumstances, if any, under which it might be appropriate to use physical discipline.