Why Does the U.S. Still Permit the Physical Punishment of Children?

November 12, 2020

We can raise responsible, kind, creative, motivated children.

A Story

Two travelers visited Earth from outer space.

They were chatting when one said, “You know, out of curiosity, I asked the humans about raising children. They said that nearly two-thirds of parents approve of physical punishment—hitting their children—in order to discipline them.”

His friend looked shaken and said, “What?! These people are crazy! That is so old-fashioned! Don’t they know they are doing more harm than good? Let’s get out of here NOW!”

“Wait a sec,” the first traveler responded. “Maybe we can help them. They don’t seem to know that you can raise responsible and kind children without hitting them. Let’s leave some material for them, and then be on our way.”

And they did, and here it is!

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC, Atlanta, GA) has now formally come out with policies and legislative recommendations asserting that physical punishment is child abuse and that it should be prohibited (Foston, et al. 2016).

The CDC stance is in response to data consistently showing that physical punishment is associated with increased violence and psychopathology (eg, Durrant and Ensom 2012; Straus et al. 2014; Gershoff and Grogan-Kaylor 2016; Sege et al. 2018; American Psychological Association 2019; Holden 2020).

However, the U.S. has no federal law prohibiting physical punishment. In addition, there are still 19 states that permit physical punishment in schools. All this is in contrast to the international response to the data on physical punishment: 60 countries have banned physical punishment in all settings, and more than 125 countries have banned it in schools, including all of Europe.

The American Psychoanalytic Association (APsaA) identifies and advocates for three crucial interventions for the prevention of physical punishment of children:

Education about the psychological problems caused by physical punishment and about alternative approaches to discipline. Educational efforts should be directed towards parents, caregivers, educators, clergy, legislators, and the general public.

Legislation to protect all children from physical punishment and to aid parents at risk.

Research about alternative methods of disciplining and managing children and about the best ways to communicate these methods to parents, educators, and caregivers.

Defining Physical Punishment

Physical punishment has been defined as “the use of physical force with the intention of causing a child to experience bodily pain or discomfort, so as to correct or punish the child’s behavior” (Gershoff 2008). This includes: spanking, hitting, pinching, squeezing, paddling, whipping/”whupping,” swatting, smacking, slapping, washing a child’s mouth with soap, making a child kneel on painful objects, and forcing a child to stand or sit in painful positions for long periods of time.

Physical abuse can be characterized by “the infliction of physical injury as a result of punching, beating, kicking, biting, burning, shaking, or otherwise harming a child” (National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect 2000, as cited in Gershoff 2002). Behaviors that cause pain but not physical injury are considered physical punishment, whereas behaviors that risk physical injury are termed physical abuse.

Recent research questions the traditional physical punishment-abuse dichotomy: Most physical abuse occurs during episodes of physical punishment. Physical abuse often follows when physical punishment is the intent, form, and effect of discipline. Both physical punishment and physical abuse must be condemned. Alternatives exist that are more effective in enhancing the healthy development of children.

Physical Punishment: A Mental Health Pandemic

Physical punishment is a serious public health problem in the United States, and it profoundly affects the mental health of children and the society in which we live. Studies show that approximately 65% of adults in the United States approve of physical punishment and about 50% of families use physical punishment to discipline children.

Yet, research shows that physical punishment is associated with increases in delinquency, antisocial behavior, and aggression in children, and decreases in the quality of the parent-child relationship, children’s mental health, and children’s capacity to internalize socially acceptable behavior. Adults who have been subjected to physical punishment as children are more likely to abuse their own child or spouse and to manifest criminal behavior (Gershoff 2008, 2016; Straus et al. 2014).

Spanking is a euphemism for hitting. One is not permitted to hit one’s spouse or a stranger; such actions are defined as the crime of assault. Nor should one be permitted to hit a small and more vulnerable child.

Hitting a child elicits precisely the feelings one does not want to generate in a child: distress, anger, fear, shame, and disgust. Studies show that children who are hit identify with the aggressor and are more likely to become hitters themselves—that is, bullies and future abusers of their own children and partners. They tend to learn to use violent behavior as a way to deal with stress and interpersonal disputes.

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