Corporal Punishment: History and Modernity


Corporal punishment is the term used to refer to a form of penalty for disapproving behavior through which a child is subjected to physical pain in the body. This form of punishment is intentional and varies to include methods such as the use of various objects, spanking, shaking, hitting, shoving, punching, pedaling, painful body postures, electric shock, and excessive exercise drills among others. Different instruments have been used to administer corporal punishment in schools such as switches, paddles and leather straps. Injuries acquired from such punishment include skin discolorations, welts, blood clots, severe bruising, hematomas, blood blisters, and broken veins among others. In contemporary society, corporal punishment is prohibited in all the industrialized nations although it is often reported in the less developed areas of the U.S.A and Australia. As recently as the year 2008, researchers reported an annual estimate of over 1 million cases of this type of punishment in U.S schools with about 15,000 students seeking treatment for injuries incurred through corporal punishment. In the U.S., corporal punishment has been more prevalent in boys living in rural and low-income areas. African-American students are said to be hit by this form of punishment at a rate that is over two times higher than their proportion to the total U.S. population (Dupper & Dingus, p.2).

Corporal punishment and its effects on children

The practice of corporal punishment dates back to the Victorian era when laziness and insubordination were considered as bad character traits that alienated people from God. For this reason, teachers were entrusted with the ideal role of guiding school children out of ignorance and sin. The first documented law legalizing corporal punishment was established in the 18th century and was referred to as ‘in loco parentis’ and officially authorized school officials and teachers to adopt the role of the position of parents in child upbringing. The principle then spread out from England to areas such as the U.S. and was highly esteemed as an excellent method of correcting children so that they would grow up in conformity to societal norms, be able to learn, and also be freed from the wrongheadedness that was believed to result from the original sin. Corporal punishment has a very strong link with the Christian religion which provides a biblical interpretation that punishing a child with the rod cannot kill him but will only help to save the child’s soul from eternal death (Dupper & Dingus, p. 4).

In the U.S; only 29 states have banned the punishment of children through corporal punishment while it remains legal in 21 of them. It is specifically frequent as a form of discipline in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, North and South Carolina, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas. But corporal punishment inflicted on children is antithetical and new measures to ban its use in these states are necessary especially because of religious and cultural factors that promote its use (, p. 3; Human Rights Watch 3, 12). Corporal punishment is banned in all states of Australia except in Queensland where it is not legally binding. Smacking children, however, remains a controversial issue in Australia with many parents still supporting its use. In Cambodia, a rich traditional culture still supports corporal punishment, especially in schools. Even some of the students contend that the practice is sometimes useful. However, the government and NGO communities have initiated various projects through which Cambodian school children will be educated about their rights as human beings as well as expose them to those role models who can help them break the cycle of abuse. In China, various laws such as the Teacher Law, Protection of Minors, and Compulsory Education Law protect children against corporal punishment leaving taunting and verbal harassment as the most common types of punishment (Epstein & Limage 14, 92, 115).

Until a few years back, corporal punishment was not an issue with many parents. However, as years pass by, there has been a shift in attitude necessitated by a rising awareness of good parenting which according to psychologists has brought attention to schools. Both educationists and parents now despise corporal punishment as a method of inflicting discipline on children citing it as not only physically harmful but also emotionally devastating to the victims. According to one father, an incident of corporal punishment can hamper a child’s emotional development (Bhatia ¶ 2-7). Although local school officials uphold it as a quick and also effective form of punishment, corporal punishment fails to be effective in that the children exposed to this form of punishment may not have been made to understand the wrongness of the actions that led to the punishment. Counseling would provide a better option to this form of punishment although such a resource appears to be lacking especially in schools with a high student population. Corporal punishment is also discriminative, with Black students being more prone to this form of punishment (, pp. 2-7).

Since the 1970s, corporal punishment has been complimented for immediately increased compliance but no data has been availed which demonstrates its effectiveness as a form of punishment because the same students receive this type of punishment over and over again. Corporal punishment has been blamed for various damaging physical as well as psychological problems which could affect children for a lifetime. It has been associated with conduct disorder and linked with post-traumatic stress disorder (PSTD) in children. This form of punishment is humiliating and can reduce a child’s rationality in solving problems; inhabit the child’s ability towards problem-solving; as well as lead to such behavioral problems as defiance, opposition and aggression. Studies have proved that it also reduces performance in social competence, academic achievement and ability. It is these deficits that usually create feelings of resentment and inadequacy leading to anger, aggression, violence, and hostility towards peers, school authorities and property (Dupper & Dingus, pp. 9-10).

Proponents of corporal punishment argue that it is less expensive as a form of punishment than suspension and that it ensures that students return to class sooner. However, in those U.S states where corporal punishment has not been banned, there is a likelihood of higher rates of fatalities from child abuse and school shooting is more prevalent. Such states have also reported the highest number of youths enrolled for capital punishment in the judicial systems. Corporal punishment also increases the rate of such negative motivational traits as a desire for revenge, student misbehavior and alienation. Considering that the most common types of offenses receiving this form of punishment as such as drinking or eating in class, failure to turn in homework, and answering back to a teacher among other minor misbehaviors, corporal punishment is highly disproportionate. It affects the learning and delivery of education. The objects used as well as the position of the student during the punishment can also be very humiliating. Even those students who do not receive corporal punishment have to put up with a hostile and violent environment that instills fear in them. For special education students, corporal punishment can have detrimental effects on the student’s mental health. Worst of all effects is the fact that a student’s rights to human dignity and physical integrity are violated and this form of punishment has also been blamed to accelerate domestic violence as those subjected to it go on to practice it later in life. Most parents however hold a common belief that corporal punishment is healthy as it provides the type of discipline necessary in a learning environment. But such a belief does not make it a lesser form of human rights violation (Human Rights Watch 4-7, 14-36).


Banning corporal punishment in the U.S has been an ongoing process since the 1920s and 1930s although federal law has not officially banned it. In the remaining states, the exercise has been left to individual districts and has been banned in some of the largest school districts such as Atlanta, Georgia; Houston and Dallas in Texas; Mobile County in Alabama; and Memphis, Tennessee. It has also been banned in 106 countries outside the U.S.A. The practice should however be completely outlawed because it causes more harm to the students than it is helpful. Besides hurting students, it destroys the learning environment, is discriminatory, and promotes violence as a means of solving problems. Better forms of punishment are available and there should be no exception in banning corporal punishment (Human Rights Watch 8-9).

Works Cited

  1. Bhatia, Chvavi. Indian Express.Com. “Chandigarh, education. As decibels rise against corporal punishment, notice of child rearing undergoes sea change.” 2009.
  2. “More than 200,000 Kids Spanked at School.” Wed  2008. Web.
  3. Dupper, David R and Dingus Amy E.M. Children & Schools. “Corporal Punishment in U.S Public Schools: A Continuing Challenge for School Social Workers.” Washington: 2008. Vol.30, Iss.4: p.g 243.
  4. Epstein, Irving and Limage Leslie. The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Children’s Issues Worldwide: Asia and Oceania. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2008.
  5. Human Rights Watch (Organization). A Violent Education: Corporal Punishment of Children in U.S. Public Schools. New York: Human Rights Watch, 2008.