The indictment of Adrian Peterson on charges relating to injury to a child brings up the long-standing issue of the use of corporal punishment (CP) or spanking as a way of disciplining children. This issue seems to be polarized between two camps: those who call for spanking to be outlawed nation-wide and those who believe all children sometimes need a good spanking.
No one is favorable toward child abuse or anything that could be construed as abuse. However, it’s important to have the facts about all sides in order to make informed decisions. As is the case with many issues, the media often fuels the heated debate over spanking as an acceptable form of punishment. One headline from cnn.com on July 23, 2014, was “Spanking the gray matter out of our kids”. The article states, “physical punishment actually alters the brain”, going on to describe a study from 2009. As written, the article could easily be read as any spanking can lead to brain injury.
The actual study (Tomada, et al., 2009) defined what they call harsh corporal punishment (HCP) as a severe form of corporal punishment or spanking. If the CNN article had made clear in its headline that severe spanking can lead to decreased gray matter, it could have been more accurate. Why is this important? Research into copywriting shows many people read only headlines of articles to form opinions. Thus, the absence of one key word can make a very significant difference in the perceived message of news articles.
Considering that spanking is a very frequently used discipline technique among parents, this issue of whether it is harmful becomes important. Both surveys and more rigorous studies have shown spanking to be common. A study by Straus and Stewart (1999) showed almost 94% of parents use some form of spanking for their 4 year old children. A national survey (Child Trends, 2013) showed half of women and three-fourths of men advocated a “good spanking” for children.
CP (Spanking) vs HCP (Using Objects, Leaving Bruises)
There are many studies showing correlations between HCP and numerous psychological and physical problems. Poor school achievement, behavior problems, low self-esteem, delinquent behavior, increased aggression, mental health problems, and suicidal thoughts and impulses have been linked to harsh corporal punishment.
A caution to keep in mind when reading many if not most of these studies is that while there may be sometimes significant correlations between HCP and the problems mentioned above, there is no proof that HCP causes those issues. Correlational research only points out that HCP has occurred in the same sample of people in the problematic conditions also occurred. The dictum that correlation does not imply causation applies here.
Other studies have shown spanking, when used appropriately, can be an effective method of disciplining children. Appropriate use has been defined as two swats on the buttocks with the open hand at a time when the parent is not angry. It is further defined as not choosing spanking as the first, or only, choice of punishment. In addition, when spanking is used, it should be combined with a positive, loving parent-child relationship. This body of research suggests there is an appropriate, effective use of spanking (Larzelere, 2000; Baumrind, Larzelere, & Cowan, 2002; American Psychological Association, 2001).
Certainly, there is general consensus regarding harsh corporal punishment that leads to physical injury. That consensus is that no physical injury to children that results from efforts to punish them is appropriate.
If Not Spanking, Then What?
If a parent chooses not to spank, or lives in an area where spanking is prohibited, there are numerous other ways of punishing inappropriate behavior. Some of these methods are discussed below.
Time Out. This method of punishment consists of placing the child who is misbehaving in a situation where there is little to no stimulation. Ideally, this would be a small room (not a closet) where there literally is nothing for the child to do. The child would be required to stay in this place for a specific period of time. Of course, the ideal rarely is available in the real world, so standing in a corner, sitting in a chair in the middle of a room, or, in some cases, sending the child to his/her room may be as close as parents will get. The basic idea of Time Out is to take the child out of the environment where the misbehavior occurred and putting him/her in a non-stimulating environment.
Some parents have chosen to use a closet for a Time Out room. This is not acceptable. A closet is too restrictive and may lead to fear responses from the child. Also, a child should never be locked in a room as Time Out. Light, as well as appropriate heat or cooling, should be available for the child. If standing in a corner or sitting in a chair are used, the child should be away from others, away from television or any other device he/she can hear, and away from anything that could be used as entertainment by the child.
Restriction. This punishment usually consists of taking away some activity the child enjoys. Most of the time, making a connection between what is taken away and the inappropriate behavior is best. For example, if a child is allowed to go to another child’s house and told to be back home at a certain time, restriction can be used if the child doesn’t return home at the required time. If the child is fifteen minutes late returning home, the next time he/she wants to go to a friend’s house, the return time is scheduled for fifteen minutes sooner than it would have been had he/she been on time the time before. Or the child is not allowed to go to the friend’s house the next time. This is explained clearly as being due to not coming home on time the time before.
Removing Privileges. This punishment involves taking something the child wants to do away from him/her for engaging in inappropriate behavior. For example, when a child watches television instead of getting homework done when it’s supposed to be done, television privileges could be removed for a period of time. Or if a child stays up later than usual playing or reading or communicating with friends, then is not ready to get up the next morning for school, he/she may be required to go to bed earlier the next night. This is explained as necessary because the child has shown he/she is not responsible enough to get sufficient sleep to get up and go to school. Or if a child is given a chore to do at home and chooses to watch a favorite television program instead, he/she could be required to complete the chore during the time that television program is on the next time.
These are only some of the possible punishments that can be used instead of spanking. All of them are punishing in nature and not likely to cause physical harm to the child.
Some parents resort to yelling or shouting at their children instead of physically punishing them. Their thinking may be that this form of punishment is preferable because of not causing physical harm. However, research indicates yelling and shouting to be as harmful as some forms of physical punishment. Wang and Kenny (2013) found harsh verbal discipline to as detrimental as harsh corporal punishment. Many times, yelling and shouting at children involves degrading them, calling names, and destroying children’s self-esteem. These activities can lead to very significant psychological problems.
Discipline vs Punishment
It is very important for parents to keep in mind that punishment is only a part of the overall teaching of discipline. A very small part.
The vast majority of the effort directed at teaching a child to be disciplined should be positive. Talking to the child about what is appropriate behavior, encouraging the child to do what is appropriate, and reminding the child what to do in different situations. At all time, a parent’s intent should be to make sure their child knows they are loved. Their behavior may not be liked, but they are loved. Building this loving relationship between parent and child should be the foundation of all discipline efforts.
Punishment is sometimes necessary. It serves to stop behavior that is inappropriate. It works as long as the person with the power to punish is present. Once that person is not around, children tend to go back to the inappropriate behavior.
This is the reason it is important for parents not only to punish inappropriate behavior to stop it, but also to teach appropriate behavior and reward it. So discipline requires a two-pronged approach. Stop the inappropriate behavior and reward the appropriate behavior.
So what is needed to get parents away from using only physical punishment as a way of disciplining their children? The main necessity is education.
How do parents learn how to parent? By imitating the way they were parented. If people grow up in a family where spanking is the norm for all inappropriate behavior, that is the way they will raise their own children. Thus, parenting is a generational cycle of behavior.
In previous years, no one had any information about other, equally or more effective ways of disciplining children. Now, with the vast amount of information available from research, it should be made available to parents. This information should include what methods are most effective, when and how they should be used, and what to look for in children that might suggest they could be developing problems because of the discipline used.
Children don’t come with instruction booklets. But something similar could be developed and made available for parents to study and follow independently or in more formal groups. Encouraging parents to learn and use many methods would go a long way toward preventing even unintentional physical or psychological harm to children.
A national focus on appropriate parenting spearheaded by a well-known parenting expert would be a good start. This effort could initially bring together everyone with a significant investment in parenting, both professionals and concerned lay people. A national conference with break-out sessions would be a good start. From there, regional or state level conferences could follow. These smaller gatherings could include people in those regions or state who are actively involved in parenting or treating kids and families, along with parents themselves.
Any investment of time and money that leads to improved parenting will pay off in the long run through stronger families, more well-adjusted kids, better educated kids, and ultimately a stronger country. The effort will be well worth it.
American Psychological Association. (2001).
Baumrind, D., Larzelere, R.E., & Cowan, P. (2002). Ordinary physical punishment – Is it harmful? Commentary on Gershoff. Psychological Bulletin.
Child Trends. (2013). Attitudes toward spanking. Retrieved from: http://www.childtrends.org/?indicators=attitudes-toward-spanking
Larzelere, R.E. (2000). Child outcomes of nonabusive and customary physical punishment by parents: An updated literature review. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 3(4), 199-221.
Straus, M.A., & Stewart, J.H. (1999). Corporal punishment by American parents: National data on prevalence, chronicity, severity, and duration in relations to child and family characteristics. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 2, 55-70.
Tomada, A., Suzuki, H., Rabi, K., Sheu, Y., Polcari, A., & Teicher, M.H. (2009). Reduced prefrontal cortical gray matter volume in young adults exposed to harsh corporal punishment. Neuroimage, 47, T66-T71.
Wang, M., & Kenny, S. (2013). Longitudinal links between fathers’ and mothers’ harsh verbal discipline and adolescents’ conduct problems and depressive symptoms. Child Development, 85(3), 908-923.