corporal punishment: is it ever good?

It’s a debate that’s been raging amongst parents and developmental experts alike. Corporal punishment is the use of physical action against a person in order to cause pain to the end of controlling or stopping undesirable behaviour in that individual. Corporal punishment spans a continuum of bodily harm and may include spanking, pinching, pulling hair, shaking, twisting ears, washing a child’s mouth out with soap, or hitting with an object such as a belt or stick. Corporal punishment and physical discipline has been used in a military, penal and policing context for thousands of years, pervades society at all levels and is widely accepted for use in child discipline. It should be no surprise then that a great number of parents worldwide use physical discipline to control their children.

A 2010 Australian survey of attitudes found that 92% of respondents thought that child abuse (including smacking) was a problem. The act of physically striking an adult is illegal in Australia, but this is not the case with regards to one’s own children. Twenty-four countries have banned parental smacking of children, including nineteen in the European Union including all the Scandinavian countries, some South American nations and New Zealand.

Is it harmful?

Recent research has shown a correlation between physical discipline of children and learning and developmental problems, mental health problems, increased risk of being abused, ineffective for teaching good behaviour and actually results in increasing bad behaviour, aggression and endorsement of aggression (Straus and Paschall 1999, Straus & Donnelly 2001, Slade & Wissow 2004, Aucoin, Frick and Bodin 2006, Simons & Wurtele 2007, Berlin, Ispa, Fine, Malone, Brooks-Gunn, Brady-Smith and Bai, 2009).

Berlin et al (2009) and Aucoin, Frick and Bodin (2006) found that both verbal and physical discipline increased aggression, particularly in concert with less parental emotional responsiveness. Slade and Wissow’s (2004) longitudinal study of the effects of smacking on 1966 two-five year olds, finding that children “were substantially more likely to have behavior problems after entry into school” (2004, 1321). Aucoin, Frick and Bodin (2006) also found the amount of problems the children experienced were directly related to the frequency of physical punishment.

Christie-Mizell, Pryor, & Grossman (2008) found a correlation between smacking and depressive symptoms in children and adolescents, saying that “spanking may be a damaging disciplinary tactic” (p347). They suggest alternative disciplinary methods like “withdrawal of privileges” as a better tactic. Bodovski & Youn (2010) found physical discipline linked with depressive symptoms of the parent also. There was also an association between depressive symptoms, physical discipline and poor school performance.

Stacks, Oshio, Gerard, & Roe (2009) explored whether parental warmth moderated the aggression of children who were physically disciplined. They found that this was not the case in their study of 2389 parent-toddler dyads.

Sullivan, Carmody & Lewis (2010) examined the link between emotional knowledge and cognitive development in preschoolers subjected to punitive or neglectful parenting. They found lower emotional recognition in those whose parents were more punitive: “physical abuse sensitizes children to anger, but may also make them more likely to over-attribute anger to other negative expressions leading to errors of discrimination.” This finding backs the claims by developmental psychologists John Bowlby and Erik Erikson that authoritarian parenting can lead to emotional problems.

Simons and Wurtele (2007) found that children who were physically disciplined by their parents were more likely to endorse hitting as a strategy for solving interpersonal conflicts. Vittrup and Holden (2008) also found this link. The findings of this study support the view that behavioural patterns are repeated inter-generation, and passed on from parent to child.

Zolotor, Theodore, Chang, Berkoff & Runyan (2008) found a relationship between increased physical discipline and increased likelihood of child abuse (for instance smacking a child with an object). This supports a correlation between physical discipline and escalation to child abuse. It also supports the view that use of physical discipline is intergenerational, and that it fosters poor coping skills and emotional control as posited by Erikson, Bowlby and Albert Bandura.

Advocates of physical discipline of children often contend that there is no lasting damage done from a smack on the bottom to a misbehaving child, but this is not borne out by the empirical evidence. Developmental theories suggest that no level of physical discipline is without harm. Even the lowest level of non-harming smacking still sends the message to children that force is a legitimate tool for controlling others.

Parental programmes that foster behaviour change and raise awareness of the negative impacts of smacking are essential to this end. In all of the countries which have banned corporal punishment of children, measured declines in approval for physical discipline of children was recorded (Zolotor 2010). Attitudinal change, in concert with the learning of new behaviour techniques for child discipline can make a powerful combination.

Some of the public programmes that have shown success achieving reduced levels of physical punishment of children predominantly involve equipping parents with new ways to discipline children. The Triple P programme developed by Matt Sanders at the Unviersity of Qld is widely instituted in Australian hospital settings and can also be pursued online for parents who are self-motivated to change. Hahlweg, Heinrichs, Kuschel, Bertram and Naumann’s (2010) review of the Triple P programme showed it’s efficacity in reducing parent-child conflict and an increase of positive parenting behaviour after two years. Hahlweg et al describe the key elements of the Triple P programme:

Parents are taught 17 core child management strategies. Ten of the strategies are designed to promote children’s competence and development (e.g., quality time, talking with children, physical affection, praise, setting a good example, behavior charts) and seven strategies are designed to help parents manage misbehavior (e.g., setting rules, directed discussion, planned ignoring, logical consequences, time out). In addition, parents are taught a six-step planned activities routine to enhance the generalization and maintenance of parenting skills (e.g., plan ahead, decide on rules, select engaging activities). Consequently, parents are taught to apply parenting skills to a broad range of target behaviours in both home and community settings with the target child and all relevant siblings. By working through a workbook, parents learn to set and monitor their own goals for behaviour change and enhance their skills in observing their child’s and their own behaviour (2010, p 6)

Prinz (2009) found that the Triple P programme delivered significant reductions in child abuse, injuries or hospitalisations in the U.S counties that implemented it, than in U.S. counties without the programme. The encouraging uptake of the programme worldwide speaks to it’s effectiveness and it a place for psychology practitioners to implement effective measures against physical punishment.

Government funded agencies including Family Relationship Centres and Relationships Australia offer personal and family counselling, parenting courses and literature for parents wanting to improve their parenting and relationships in general. Non-government women’s groups like DVConnect (Australia) and religious organisations like Spritus (Australia) offer telephone counselling and advice. All these groups are likely places to implement Triple P training for both social work practitioners and parents. Parents who have been subject to investigation and targeted for intervention by the Child Protection Agency may be required or recommended to access the services of these agencies. Support for parents under stress is vital to the agenda of reducing the use of physical violence. Community groups including parent support groups and playgroups are good sources of support with peers and can help reduce the isolation that many parents may feel.

The focus of programs to reduce and eliminate physical discipline must necessarily be targeted at parents. Adults who smack children are often unaware of or unable to consider the potential outcomes of their behaviour on the long-term development of their children. The prevention of the use of physical discipline will require a joint effort of policy and education. Law and policy can prohibit and make illegal physical punishment of children, and this sends a strong message to the community, it should not be used to penalise parents who are not causing abuse to their children. Rather the existence of a law prohibiting physical punishment of children should be used as a conduit for public education programmes in most cases.

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