Punishment is discussed by psychologists and educators as one of approaches to discipline children through ceasing or preventing the undesired behaviors or through the use of negative reinforcers. In spite of the fact that different types of punishment are applied in education, corporal punishment is one of the most debatable and controversial practices that can be used by parents and teachers as a method of control (Saunders & Goddard, 2010).
However, the problem is in the fact that physical punishment includes not only spanking, shaking, and paddling among other forms but also violent actions and child abuse (Wilson, 2010). As a result, it is possible to observe the situation in the society when corporal punishment is used in troubled families with aggressive parents, in many ordinary families, and even in schools (Nieman & Shea, 2004).
In addition, whereas psychologists and social workers focus the parents’ attention on the fact that corporal punishment is harmful for their children and it cannot lead to expected results in education, physical punishment is still not banned in the Southern states of the United States (Dupper & Dingus, 2008). Thus, it is important to research the problem in detail and find the answer to the question: How does using corporal punishment to discipline children affect them physically and psychologically?
Although corporal punishment can be discussed as an appropriate discipline measure in rare cases, this type of punishment influences children negatively because they become physically traumatized and hurt; they begin to suffer from self-loathing and fears; they become irresponsible and aggressive; and their vision of morality and values change.
The Impact of Corporal Punishment on the Physical Health of Children
Corporal punishment can be discussed as a physical representation of the parents’ dissatisfaction with the child’s actions that is directly associated with causing pain and suffering. According to Nieman and Shea, parents prefer to use corporal punishment in those situations when they view pain as the only control mechanism that can influence the child’s inappropriate behavior (Nieman & Shea, 2004, p. 38).
However, in most cases, corporal punishment is a sign of the parents’ weakness in educating or influencing children (Telep, 2014, para. 4). Thus, such punishment has the significant negative consequences for the body of a child, and there are few cases when the use of the parent’s physical force can be discussed as reasonable.
In this context, Lenta notes that corporal punishment involves the “infliction of pain that has not conclusively been shown to do significant good, because it poses some risk of serious harm, and because there are alternative punishments that bring about as much (if not more) benefit at a lower cost” (Lenta, 2012, p. 690).
From this point, the cost of the physical punishment is extremely high because hitting, spanking, shaking, and paddling can lead to traumas. As a result, a parent becomes perceived as an enemy by a child because of affecting his or her physical health negatively (Saunders & Goddard, 2010, p. 415). The situation can be discussed as even more dangerous when a child can be harmed by teachers at school.
The ethical and religious standards and rules spread in the Southern states of the United States influenced the development of the whole system of corporal punishment at school. The problem is in the fact that children studying in 21 states of the country are not protected from being physically harmed by teachers who can use rather cruel methods of punishment during lessons (Dupper & Dingus, 2008, p. 245).
In spite of the fact that the practice of corporal punishment is not supported in majority of official social institutions in the United States as well as in many other Western countries, the risks for a child of being physically harmed or traumatized remain. In order to accentuate the negative effects of physical punishment, Dupper and Dingus (2008) point at important findings in previous studies.
According to these studies, in the US states where the corporal punishment is not prohibited, children and adolescents can be discussed as more aggressive (Dupper & Dingus, 2008, p. 243). Thus, “higher rates of child abuse fatalities occur in states that allow corporal punishment in the schools”, and moreover, students are “more likely to die from school shootings in states where corporal punishment is used” (Dupper & Dingus, 2008, p. 245).
From this point, the relationship between corporal punishment in schools and high rates of aggression can be explained with references to the fact that physical punishment has significant negative effects on the children’s psychological state, and this aspect needs to be discussed in detail.
Psychological Impacts of Corporal Punishment and Concepts of Self-Loathing and Fears
The impact of corporal punishment on the children’s psychological state is even more important and dangerous than the risk of being traumatized or harmed. The problem is in the fact that children usually perceive corporal punishment as the evidence that they are ‘bad’, they act wrongly, they are not good persons, and they cannot be respected by their parents.
Wilson states that punishment “makes children think there must be something wrong with them”, and it “makes children hate themselves and others” as a result of disliking themselves “for getting the punishment” (Wilson, 2010, p. 2329-3). From this point, the dramatic consequences of corporal punishment for children are in their feeling of self-loathing.
Children are inclined to perceive physical punishment as the evidence of the absence of love and support in their parents, and their self-esteem becomes significantly affected. Therefore, Nieman and Shea emphasize in their article that parents should “refrain from hurting the child’s self-esteem by instilling shame, guilt, loss of trust or a sense of abandonment” (Nieman & Shea, 2004, p. 40). If a child is frequently punished, he cannot believe that he is good because good children are not punished, as parents often say.
Therefore, another problem for children who are punished by parents is their fears. These fears can be different and associated with the fear of losing the parents’ love or the fear of experiencing that pain again (Lenta, 2012, p. 690). When children know that their bad behavior will be punished they try to avoid demonstrating this behavior, but it does not mean that these children begin to understand the moral significance of behaving well. The only driving force in this case is a fear as an instinct to protect oneself (Telep, 2014, para. 6).
In addition, the researchers focus on the problem that the life in the atmosphere of constant fearing affects children negatively (Nieman & Shea, 2004, p. 38). These children experience stress, they cannot relax, they become depressed, they can suffer from eating disorders, and their constant anxiety can even lead to the development of psychological disorders (Saunders & Goddard, 2010).
From this perspective, while selecting corporal punishment instead of other approaches to discipline young persons, parents do a lot of physical and psychological harm to their children. While analyzing the ways to avoid punishment, Nieman and Shea state that “undesirable behaviors are best avoided through prevention and by building supportive structures that include clear, consistent rules” (Nieman & Shea, 2004, p. 37). Parents need to focus on promoting the psychological comfort in their children even when they face educational or behavioral challenges.
Instead of demonstrating love, care, and security in order to support children psychologically and teach them regarding right and wrong things, parents often choose to become violent and focused on the idea of discipline as an educating process that is associated with punishment. As a result, children begin to suffer from significant emotional and social pressures as they cannot feel secure even at home because their parents can punish them physically (Lenta, 2012).
From this point, corporal punishment should not be used as a way of making children be afraid of parents and as a method of the psychological pressure because parents need to find out how to teach their offspring instead of punishing him or her. Nieman and Shea pay attention to the fact that the goal of parents is “to protect the child from danger, help the child learn self-discipline” (Nieman & Shea, 2004, p. 39).
However, the practice of corporal punishment is an illustration of an opposite approach when children suffer from violence in their families instead of being protected (Wilson, 2010). As it is noted by Dupper and Dingus in their research, wherever corporal punishment is used, at school or at home, it is associated with “damaging physical and psychological outcomes that can affect some children for the remainder of their lives” (Dupper & Dingus, 2008, p. 245).
Therefore, it is important to note that physical punishment should be discussed as a method to suppress a child’s will rather than to educate him or her because of those negative effects connected with the corporal punishing practices.
Psychological effects of corporal punishment can be discussed as most influential for the development of a child’s personality. The reason is that children need to be raised in comfortable environments where they feel support and protection. The situation in which the physical punishment can be used is not discussed as positive for a child, regardless his or her age. The problem is in the fact that children need to feel security instead of a threat while thinking about their parents (Lenta, 2012).
If a feeling of fear and threat is more intensive than the feeling of love and security, it is possible to speak about the significant psychological trauma. Social workers and psychologists all over the country work to help children cope with the consequences of experiencing abuse and physical punishment in their families (Nieman & Shea, 2004, p. 37).
However, this situation cannot be discussed as normal because it supports the idea that physical punishment is a typical practice in the United States, and only social workers and counselors can address it appropriately (Telep, 2014, para. 4; Wilson, 2010). In order to make children psychologically healthy, parents, social workers, and educators need to combine their efforts.
Corporal Punishment as a Way to Make Children Irresponsible and Aggressive
The negative psychological impact of corporal punishment on children can also be observed with references to the changes in behaviors of boys and girls. While discussing the relationship between the children’s psychological state, corporal punishment, and subsequent behaviors, it is possible to observe the tendency that penalty does not lead to positive changes in children’s attitudes, actions, and conduct. Wilson explains this observation while noting that if children “think they are bad, they will act bad” (Wilson, 2010, p. 2329-3).
From this point, children can become irresponsible regarding their actions because they begin to perceive their punishment as unavoidable, and these children can view the parents’ violence as reasonable. As a result, it is possible to observe a logical chain in parents and children’s behaviors.
If parents use corporal punishment, they are perceived as right because they know better. If parents use the corporal punishment for the concrete child, the reason is in a child because parents’ actions are always right. If the reason is in a child’s behavior, this child can be discussed as bad because his actions are bad. This simple logic is typical for children, as it is noted by Saunders and Goddard (2010) in their work. Therefore, the possible conclusion is that the wrong disciplinary actions of parents provoke wrong reaction in their children.
It is important to remember that when children are punished physically, they experience significant shame. Therefore, another strategy to feel secure from being physically punished and from the feeling of shame is avoidance. Samakow has analyzed the studies conducted by many researchers in the field of corporal punishment and concluded that “young victims of violence may start withdrawing and behaving differently as a coping strategy” (Samakow, 2014, para. 11).
This opinion was also mentioned in the work by Wilson who states that avoidance is a usual strategy for children along with demonstrating irresponsibility (Wilson, 2010, p. 2329-3). Focusing only on avoiding the unpleasant physical punishment, children cannot learn what consequences their negative behaviors have because of their parents’ inability to demonstrate results of wrong behaviors without extremes and without the use of violence (Nieman & Shea, 2004).
It is possible to state that while abusing children or causing their pain and tears, parents provoke their alienation because young persons try not to prevent punishment, but to avoid it. As a result, physical punishment seems to be ineffective in comparison with alternative disciplinary actions that do not involve using the physical force.
One more undesirable effect of the corporal punishment is the increased aggression in children who cannot see the boundary between the aggression of their parents and the aggression that can be demonstrated in the society. Those children who become the victims of the parents’ violence are often weak and helpless to attract the other adults’ attention to their problems (Samakow, 2014, para. 6).
Therefore, these children have to suffer from the unfair treatment of their parents and find their own ways to adapt to the painful situation through their aggression or isolation (Saunders & Goddard, 2010, p. 415).
It is important to mention that such reaction directly leads to the rise of aggression in children and adolescents. Samakow cites the results of studies according to which children, who are “spanked frequently at age 3”, are discussed as “more likely to show aggressive behavior by the time they’re 5 than kids who are not” (Samakow, 2014, para. 8).
These numbers can indicate that the roots of the antisocial behaviors of the youth are in the methods of education used by their parents. Dupper and Dingus also support the idea that corporal punishment can cause negative changes in children’s behaviors because they become more “aggressive, defiant, and oppositional” (Dupper & Dingus, 2008, p. 245).
If children become victims of the violent actions of their parents, they can start perceiving corporal punishment as a normal reaction associated with the signs of wrong behaviors in them, in their friends, and in other people.
The Impact of Physical Punishment on Children’s Morality and Values and Families’ Dynamics
In contrast to provoking the children’s aggressive behaviors and attitudes that can be directed toward parents, relatives, teachers, and peers, disciplinary actions need to expand the children’s outlook regarding morality and values. Therefore, discipline at home and at school should not be originated from the punishment. In this case, the term ‘morality’ should be used in order to help children understand the difference between their right and wrong actions and behaviors (Saunders & Goddard, 2010).
While discussing the idea of just and wrong behaviors and activities, Wilson states that punishment does not contribute to developing the “sense of right and wrong” in children because these aspects are not explained to them (Wilson, 2010, p. 2329-1). Wilson continues to discuss this issue and states that “punishment does not teach the behavior you want. Punishment does not cause good behavior” (Wilson, 2010, p. 2329-1).
As a result, a child becomes a victim of a mistakenly chosen practice to maintain discipline in a family. From this point, when parents punish their children using the physical force, they seem to support the idea that violence is permissible instead of developing the children’s understanding of the morality of certain actions.
The focus on the personal development of a child is important for parents, and they need to choose the best methods of educating good persons who share the system of moral values and who can be characterized by certain virtues. However, corporal punishment is not among those approaches that can be used in order to educate children effectively because their vision of moral values can change, depending on their parents’ actions (Lenta, 2012; Wilson, 2010).
In this context, it can be a challenging task for parents to “develop a healthy conscience and an internal sense of responsibility and control” in their children and to “instill values” to raise good people (Nieman & Shea, 2004, p. 39). It is important to state that the physical punishment affects children negatively in terms of their personal development because young persons are inclined to reflect any behavioral pattern they see (Saunders & Goddard, 2010).
As a result, while punishing their children, parents leave only few choices for their children to select the behavior to follow. From this point, researchers are inclined to state that the psychological atmosphere in the family is important to influence the children’s development.
The family dynamics play the critical role in determining what values will be perceived by children and adolescents as morally good. Therefore, all means see to be good in order to prevent physical punishment in families and social institutions. According to Pennell, the government needs to promote the policies and programs that are oriented to developing the safe environments for children in the society (Pennell, 2008, p. 16).
If children are not protected in their families, they should be guaranteed with the social protection at school and other institutions. Moreover, if a family cannot contribute to the development of moral values in children without using the corporal punishment, the social institutions need to concentrate on educating children effectively. Still, this idea becomes challenged with the focus on the punishment strategies used in schools of the Southern states, as it is depicted by Dupper and Dingus in their work (Dupper & Dingus, 2008).
Much attention should be paid to developing family dynamics and to contributing to the acknowledgement of moral principles in modern families. Parents need to become aware of negative consequences of selecting corporal punishment. If family and children protection acts are not followed in the society, there is a risk of raising the generation of psychologically vulnerable young persons who have problems with identity, self-esteem, aggression, and responsibility.
Possible Positive Effects of Corporal Punishment
Although corporal punishment can be discussed as a morally impermissible practice that usually affect children negatively, there are many supporters of the idea that physical actions directed to prevent the children’s wrong behavior can be reasonable in most cases. Thus, Benatar agrees that corporal punishment involves “the application of direct and intense power to the body”, but he cannot state that the impact of the physical punishment is worse than the impact of any other type of punishment used by parents (Benatar, 1998, p. 242).
Furthermore, the author of the controversial research is inclined to state that there are no obvious evidence to support the idea that “excessive corporal punishment” can “increase the chances of psychological harm” (Benatar, 1998, p. 242). Referring to the data available in 1998, the researcher claims that the information was not enough in order to draw conclusions on the negative role of corporal punishment in the child’s life.
Benatar’s ideas were reflected in the work by Mechling who paid much attention to justifying the use of the physical force in order to educate children, especially boys (Mechling, 2008). According to the researcher, physical punishment or spanking is a necessary part of the children’s education in order to develop the understanding of such concepts as authority, domination, and masculinity in them.
Mechling claims that corporal punishment and “safe hazing practices such as paddling” are important for boys in order to develop their masculinity” (Mechling, 2008, p. 70). These controversial ideas of proponents of corporal punishment are the matter for many debates among psychologists, educators, and sociologists.
Supporters of the idea that any punishment is important to educate children also agree with the opinion that the corporal punishment is necessary because children need to learn the consequences of their wrong or undesired behaviors. However, the reality is in the fact that any type of punishment can be avoided because children learn how to act right not because of punishment, but because of discipline, and these notions cannot be confused (Nieman & Shea, 2004, p. 39).
According to Wilson, parents need to remember easy rules that can be helpful in order to maintain discipline in the family and avoid punishment. Thus, Wilson note that “children do not think like adults”, and they need to be asked about their motives before being punished (Wilson, 2010, p. 2329-4).
The researcher continues that children also “need to know why you disapprove” their behaviors because it is important to demonstrate the cause of any action that can be perceived as harmful or abusive (Wilson, 2010, p. 2329-4). In this context, a simple conversation between a parent and a child can work better than the physical punishment that usually leads to the child’s tears and to the parent’s frustration.
One more argument against justification of the use of physical punishment in families is the fact that corporal punishment is usually a direct result of a developing a conflict in a family. While interpreting the behaviors of adults, children become to perceive using the physical force as the only way to resolve conflicts because their parents use punishment as a disciplinary strategy, as it is discussed by Telep in her article (Telep, 2014, para. 11).
In this case, a child cannot understand that the use of a physical force is not always a solution to the problem. It is important to emphasize that children need to grow with a thought that any conflict can be negotiated through the discussion. Instead, children often grow in the hostile environments and they learn the principles of the violent behaviors in their families (Pennell, 2008, p. 14).
Thus, while focusing on advantages and disadvantages of the corporal punishment, it is possible to state that there are no adequate reasons to support corporal punishment because of a variety of negative effects on the child’s development.
Corporal punishment is often associated with a range of negative social and psychological factors such as aggression, fear, child abuse, harm, and violence. In spite of the fact that some researchers and educators can state that physical punishment have the positive effects on children and their education, it is rather difficult to agree with this idea because of many negative consequences associated with using the physical force in families or in schools.
First, physical punishment is associated with pain, harm, trauma, and suffering. In addition to the physical stress, corporal punishment is also a significant psychological stress. Second, the psychological reactions of children to the physical punishment are numerous, and they are usually negative. Thus, those children who are punished by parents physically need to cope with the fear, hatred, anxiety, depression, and helplessness.
The common consequence of the constant exercising pain and humiliation of that kind is the aggression or the loss of interest in the parents’ motives to punish children. From this perspective, if a child does not receive the clear explanation of the parents’ activities, he or she simply chooses to avoid the painful experience. Therefore, the researchers state that physical punishment can lead only to negative results in education.
In order to make children change their conduct, parents need to focus on alternative discipline and control measures. Furthermore, any justification of the corporal punishment can be discussed as only a subjective view, when the parent should choose the approach to children while trying to avoid all possible negative consequences for the child’s physical and psychological health.
Benatar, D. (1998). Corporal punishment. Social Theory and Practice, 24(2), 237-260.
Dupper, D., & Dingus, A. (2008). Corporal punishment in U.S. public schools: A continuing challenge for school social workers. Children & Schools, 30(4), 243-250.
Lenta, P. (2012). Corporal punishment of children. Social Theory and Practice, 38(4), 689-716.
Mechling, J. (2008). Paddling and the repression of the feminine in male hazing. Thymos, 2(1), 60-75.
Nieman, P., & Shea, S. (2004). Effective discipline for children. Paediatrics & Child Health, 9(1), 37–41.
Pennell, J. (2008). Family group conferencing in child welfare: Responsive and regulatory interfaces. Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare, 31(1), 12-19.
Samakow, J. (2014). What science says about using physical force to punish a child?
Saunders, B., & Goddard, C. (2010). Physical punishment in childhood: The rights of the child. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.
Wilson, E. (2010). Discipline without punishment.