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Discipline: Corporal Punishment - Yes or No?

Updated on September 3, 2009

I confess, I was never always against the idea of corporal punishment. At one stage, I even believed that if you "spare the rod", you "spoil the child". My only defense lies in the fact that I believed it back in days before I became a parent. I used to think that juvenile deliquents existed because their parents failed to discipline (read: smack, because back then discipline to me meant smacking, spanking, hitting or whatever name it goes by under the umbrella term of corporal punishment) them adequately when they were younger, and that was why I was all for corporal punishment.

And then I became a mother.

And the maternal instincts kicked in.

Okay, okay, perhaps it started a little before that. I was pregnant and the dog was misbehaving and while I was threatening to smack him for being "bad" that was about as far as I could go. I couldn't bring myself to inflict harm upon him.

Even as I look at my son, I don't think I could lay a hand upon him and justify it under the term of "discipline".

I decided "to each his own". Corporal punishment may be the way for some parents but it wasn't going to be for me.

That was when I started reading to educate myself on what other options existed besides corporal punishment. How else could I raise a well-behaved, confident and socially well-adjusted child?

Reading led to the discovery of the mounting evidence against corporal punishment and the ill-effects of corporal punishment on the developing brain of a child. I was alarmed. If my decision not to discipline my son with corporal punishment was born from an instinct, my conviction for that decision had been cemented by the evidence. Where I once told the hubby that he could discipline our son as he saw fit and I would do as I saw fit, I now felt compelled to convince him of the dangers of corporal punishment.

Why is corporal punishment so damanging to a child?

Because corporal punishment causes stress in a child that is no different to the stress a child experiences when being bullied or suffering from child abuse. Brain scans show structural and biochemical changes that affect social behaviour.

Cell death in the anterior cingulate gyrus affects a child's ability to moderate fear and to empathise. Changes in the brain's pathways affect a child's ability to manage stress and being more prone to being impulsive, aggressive and/or anxious. Long term changes to the adrenaline systems in the brain affect the ability to think clearly. Impairment in the brain stem has been linked to ADHD, depression and impaired attention. It also leads to more aggression and irritability.

Other changes to the brain have also been observed:

  • decrease in size of the corpus callosum causing manic shifts in mood states
  • reduced amygdala and hippocampus resulting in depression, irritability and hostility; and poor memory function
  • affects the GABA system making a child feel unsafe and constantly living in a state of alarm

Violent methods of discipline also been linked to children with anti-social behaviour and increased prevalence of psychiatric disorders, while non-violent methods of discipline is linked to higher cognitive function.

A common argument for the corporal punishment camp is one that goes something along the lines of, "I was spanked as a child and I turned out okay."

A couple of other arguments stem from this point as well. Firstly, what is okay? Could it be that if we weren't smacked we might have more deeper and meaningful friendships? Better relationships? Lasting marriages? Feel less depressed? Perform better at work? Have a better outlook and attitude towards life?

Secondly, children who have been hit by misguided well-intentioned parents are later able to reach a well adjusted adulthood, it is because of the love, nurturance and appropriate limit-setting not because of the physical violence they received.

Jordan Riak cites an excellent example that articulates the fallacy of this belief rather aptly (incidentally, each and every one of these examples apply to my own childhood, too):

Let's test the I-turned-out-okay argument by examining a few real-life examples from my own childhood. See if they apply to you.

  1. There were ashtrays in every room of our house. My parents smoked, as did most adult visitors to our home. The aroma of cigarette, cigar and pipe smoke was always present. Nobody minded. In fact, not one day passed in my early life when I was not exposed to tobacco smoke. I was even exposed in the womb because my mother smoked when she was pregnant with me. And I turned out okay.
  2. The first family car I remember was a 1937 Chevrolet sedan. It had no seat belts. When we traveled, I was merely plunked down on the back seat with the expectation that gravity would keep me there. It did. And I turned out okay.
  3. All the places in which I lived as a child were painted with lead-based paint. And I turned out okay.
  4. I used a bicycle throughout my childhood and teen years, but never wore any kind of protective headgear. And I turned out okay.

Was my family wise or just lucky? Today, we don't do those things anymore. We don't take such risks, and we don't expose our children to such risks - not if we know the facts.

Quite possibly, one of the uncomfortable notions about bashing corporal punishment is that many of us (at least in the circle of people that I know) were smacked at some stage when we were children. The idea that our parents did wrong against us can be a rather uncomfortable one to face. I'm not bashing the way we were raised by our parents. They did what they felt was right at the time because they lacked the awareness of the possible side effects. All the examples listed above are other ways our parents did "wrong" against us but they were accepted practices in their day.

I could cite a few more...

When I was a kid, I was treated by dentists who never wore gloves. Would you allow a dentist to put her hands into your mouth now without gloves?

As a child, I was weaned by my mother because that was the recommended practice of the day but I don't blame my mother for it, nor do I complain that I am intellectually weaker than my peers who were lucky enough to be breastfed as a result.

The Efficacy of Corporal Punishment

One might argue that corporal punishment is effective in conveying the message across to a child that they did wrong and that nothing else works quite as well. Longitudinal studies have shown that, in fact, the converse is true. In fact, schools that had the highest rates of corporal punishment also had "the lowest graduation rates, the highest rates of teen pregnancy, the highest incarceration rates and the highest murder rates".

From: The Influence of Corporal Punishment on Crime
From: The Influence of Corporal Punishment on Crime

The Influence of Corporal Punishment on Crime

By Adah Maurer, Ph.D. and James S. Wallerstein (1987)

You will find that adults who were hit as kids, while believing that it did them "no harm" can seldom articulate any way in which it helped them. Let's be honest, if you were smacked at a kid and you behaved after that, why did you behave? Was it because you knew it was wrong? Because you were afraid of getting smacked again? Or because you didn't want to disappoint your parents?

Exactly what are the lessons learned from being hit? Often it leads to bullying and the acceptance that it is okay to hit others. What happened to the moral of the story? Your child might behave in front of you but how will you know what goes on behind your back? Discipline should be about raising morally-aware children with a social conscience, and not creating fear-inspired behaviours in a child that don't last once the child is out of sight.

There are Other Ways to Discipline

It also seems to me that a common misconception is that if I choose not to discipline my child by smacking him, I'm choosing not to discipline him at all (forgive me if I'm making a generalisation here as this is based on a comment made on a recent post I wrote about Choosing a Parenting Style). Perhaps such thoughts are only limited to those near-sighted enough to believe that the only way to discipline a child is through violence.

There are other ways to discipline a child. They are generally more time consuming and they also require more effort. Let's face it - it's definitely a lot easier to just yell at your child or smack him for misbehaving. It doesn't require much thought and I'm sure the action alone will help you let off some steam from the anger buttons your child has just pushed.

This is a long and lengthy topic, but if you're convinced that non-violent discipline is the way to go, then might I recommend these resources:

Or at the very least read the evidence or dig deeper yourself:


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    • profile image


      5 years ago

      Interesting! However, the example mentioned of never wearing a helmet when riding a bike should be taken out, it does not belong in the list. If you read the Continuum Concept, by Jean Liedloff, you see that children have a very innate sense of self-preservation. This includes a sense of danger, balance, etc.. this gets 'spoiled' by well meaning adults who keep a child back and always protect them from falling. In countries like the Netherlands children ride bikes from a very young age, always without a helmet. So this one does not belong in the list, of otherwise well put together arguments! Spanking and other physical abuse leads to an under developed brain, but a protection from outside sensory inputs does the same. So let your child free, dont strap them down in strollers, let them walk freely and explore! Don't hold them back.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Of course. Corporal punishment is harmful. People who don't admit it, are simply in denial. Anyway. We can't change the world and its behaviour towards children. However, we can change our world and behaviour towards children. And Thank God you made the effort to make that change. God Bless you for it. Don't take people who try to convince you to spank your kids seriously. Behave as though they are only challenges that are sent to you by God to test your love for your kids and overcome them. And If you are a decent person. You will definitely admit that you believed in corporal punishment before, because sometimes kids drive you crazy. In other words, you're getting angry. And it's understandable. After all, we are only human. I go through that on daily basis with my nieces. But you know what. So far I have passed that test.

    • A.Villarasa profile image

      Alexander A. Villarasa 

      8 years ago from Palm Springs

      Well written and researched, a delight to read. I'm impressed... and I am one who is not easily swayed.

    • figur8 profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago

      dracslair - there are many ways to discipline a child. What is important is to know that child and understand his or her motivations. That will help you determine what is the best way to discipline that child.

      My son also fights me when I tell him what's right or wrong. It all boils down to how I tell him what's right or wrong that helps him to accept what I say.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      what about children who think they are the boss?i know a few kids who will fight you when you tell them what right and what's wrong.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      corpal punishment can lead to abuss or your kids could think its right and trun into bullies

    • figur8 profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago

      Thanks! It's something my husband and I have talked about since we started discussing how we were going to discipline our son. I was kind of spurred on to research the topic when someone challenged me for choosing not to use corporal punishment and told me not to come crying when my son grew up to be an uncontrolled and reckless youth.

    • teendad profile image


      9 years ago from Richmond, VA

      You have a lot of great information in this hub. Thank you for putting it together.

    • figur8 profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago

      You are so right! I'm glad I took the time to examine the evidence before I started with my son.

    • G-Ma Johnson profile image

      Merle Ann Johnson 

      10 years ago from NW in the land of the Free

      violence begets violence...G-Ma :o) hugs


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