The Psychological Case Against Corporal Punishment

By Dr. Paul Mullen


All the news about the Minnesota Vickings' Adrian Peterson abusing his child has brought the topic of corporal punishment to the forefront. Online and in the news I've seen stories of people who are basically child abuse apologists, each citing some derivative of the "spare the rod" narrative, or perhaps spewing anecdotal evidence to suggest that their experience of parenting by violence has made them the person they are today. Even more upsetting, a recent TIME magazine editorial written by a supposed specialist (who is a clinical psychologist AND minister!) encourages the pairing of a "firm and consistent hand with a soft and loving heart." This is utter nonsense as a firm hand is not an extension of a soft and loving heart. We all agree that children benefit from consistency, and this includes between hands and hearts. Using the term "loving" in an article that attempts to elevate corporal punishment to some sort of gold standard parenting method is base indeed.

Time to step back for a reality check. First the facts: corporal punishment is legal in all 50 states, each of which defines it differently and puts limits upon parenting practices when they cross the line to abuse. Still, it is shocking to me to see that we are able to do to our children things that if we did them to any stranger on the street would land us in serious legal trouble. Even more surprising is the fact that corporal punishment in school settings is legal in 17 states!

Now, a recent study published in 2012 in the journal Pediatrics, suggested that children subjected to "harsh" physical punishment were more likely to develop mood and anxiety disorders, personality disorders, and addictions. True, this study referred to violent punishment. But what of the less harsh corporal punishment? I contend that the reasons against it can be found in common, established developmental concepts.

Social Learning: There is no arguing that children learn, perhaps learn best, by watching others. Physical punishment, then, is a sure-fire way to teach a child that aggression is an appropriate response to stress and frustration.

Desensitization: A small, controlled spanking seems harmless enough (to some). But we all know that once a comfort level is reached with any given behavior, it becomes the new "normal," leading us to considering the next level of severity the next time around. While this notion is frequently applied to addictions, it is pertinent here too. Desensitizing oneself to physical discipline could very well lead one to employ increasingly violent consequences regardless of their initial intentions.

Secure Attachment: Developmental and clinical psychologists alike understand the importance of a secure attachment style upon psychological development throughout the lifespan, but especially in childhood. Kids need to understand their parents as a safe and secure base from which they may cautiously investigate the new and confusing outside world fully believing that they may return at any time to the protection and support of the primary caregiver. Today on a radio talk show, a caller lamented that today's children don't fear their parents like they ought to. The caller, perhaps placing their call from 1950, seemed not to appreciate that "fear" is beneficial when it causes a child to pull away from a hot stove, angry animal, or busy intersection. Fear in parent-child relationships does nothing more than create the insecure attachments that may lead to further behavioral problems later in life.

In all, I find the proponents of corporal punishment to be sadly nostalgic, longing for the good old days that never were and recalling the benefits of a neglectful parenting style that, even if familiar, was never shown to be associated with positive adjustment. Stay tuned for more perspective on healthier, safer alternatives to handling behavioral concerns in children.

In closing, I think it might be beneficial to refer to to the American Psychological Association's statement on Corporal punishment, which clearly outlines the case against harming children in the name of discipline.

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