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Negative Outcomes of Corporal Punishment as Means of Child Rearing

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In 2015 at a Christian school near Hluti, Swaziland, a teacher used a stick “big enough to kill a snake” to apply hundreds of lashes to a 12-year old girl. This beating was said to be punishment for the child spreading rumors about her teacher. The Swazi Observer reported that the child “screamed and asked for forgiveness, but this seemed to infuriate the teacher more.” The extent of the girl’s injuries shocked medical personnel. Corporal punishment is still used to abuse children in modern-day society, but recently there has been a shift in perception of it.

Corporal punishment is defined as “the use of physical force with the intention of causing a child to experience pain to correct or control the child’s behavior”. Parents typically use corporal punishment to reduce unwanted behavior while increasing desirable future behavior. Some may believe that acting on their anger will serve as a powerful stimulant to memory and future behavior among their children. The most frequent forms of corporal punishment are spanking, slapping, grabbing, or shoving a child, however, in many poor and minority communities and countries, beating a child is considered corporal punishment. An overwhelming majority of adult Americans support its use as means of child rearing; at the very least, almost everyone agrees it can be used as a last resort. Close to 100% of parents use corporal punishment on toddlers, for just over half of American children it occurs into adolescence, and for a quarter it continues until they physically leave home.

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The incident in Swaziland pressured the country into changing its laws regarding corporal punishment. Some countries, such as Swaziland, still do not prohibit corporal punishment in schools, but there has been a major shift in policies recently. Many countries have banned this type of punishment in schools, and some are beginning to ban it in homes as well. Before 1970, most international human rights committees did not acknowledge abuse in the home, since it was “outside the jurisdiction of the law.” Post WWII feminism that emerged impacted the fight for women’s rights; this activism led to states beginning to intervene in domestic-type violence situations. Women’s and children’s issues tend to be linked; it has been proven that the percentage of women in Parliament is positively associated with bans on corporal punishment in schools and at home. Unfortunately, more diverse countries, such as the United States, tend to avoid using laws to ban this type of violence. However, formal condemnation of corporal punishment is becoming a norm across the globe. Sweden was the first country to ban corporal punishment after multiple child abuse cases came to light; the ban has been successful thus far in changing attitudes about acceptable disciplinary practices as well as changing the incidence of it. Since Sweden’s ban, 22 other countries have followed suit.

Corporal punishment as means of child discipline dates to the 17th century in the United States; there are historical, cultural, and religious traditions relating to its use. The Supreme Court has upheld the right of parents to raise their children however they see fit, as protected by the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The legal standing of corporal punishment in the United States reflects the thought process that children are essentially property of their parents. Many state laws provide clear illustration of the legality of corporal punishment. The Texas Penal Code states:

“The use of force, but not deadly force, against a child younger than18 years is justified: 1. if the actor is the child’s parent or step-parent or is acting in loco parentis to the child; and 2. when and to the degree the actor reasonably believes that force is necessary to discipline the child or to safeguard or pro-mote welfare.”

Similarly, the New Hampshire Criminal Code states:

“A parent, guardian or other person responsible for the general care and welfare of a minor is justified in using force against such a minor when and to the extent that he reasonably believes it necessary to prevent or punish such a minor’s misconduct.”

For years, corporal punishment as a right of parents has been anchored in legal precedent in the United States, with certain limitations as seen above. One of the major traditions relating to its use in this country is the high prevalence of religion. Protestants have had a huge influence on American culture; believing in heaven and hell, they believe that the center of the parental role is the obligation to “save” their child’s soul. This may involve corporal punishment to break the child’s “evil inclinations.” In contrast, Israel, another highly religious country, has banned the use of corporal punishment. Jewish tradition does not believe that children are born evil or need to be delivered from sin. Unlike Christianity, Judaism has evolved through interpretation versus being interpreted extremely literally like the Bible is.

By functional definition, punishment decreases the probability of an operant behavior occurring in the future, thus reducing misbehavior. However, a scientific understanding of human behavior has shown that it is not needed to discipline a child; their behavior can be shaped through positive reinforcement and punishment that does not involve physical harm. The main issue with corporal punishment is the lack of control on the side of the parent; this type of impulsive aggression towards children is a major cause of concern. The parent-child relationship is complex; this relationship should be based upon the parent’s love for their child and their desire to protect them, but when physical punishment comes into play, the relationship begins to represent a dominance hierarchy and the need of the more powerful person to control the dominant person.

Research has illustrated multiple negative effects of corporal punishment. It has been proven to not promote long-term compliance, but instead cause children to lack empathy for others. Evidence has also suggested that physical punishment may increase the likelihood that a child will act aggressively and antisocially, using force to achieve desired ends. Out of 13 studies included in an analysis of the link between corporal punishment and antisocial behavior, 12 studies found a positive association. Additionally, corporal punishment puts children at risk for negative mental health effects – it influences their mental health, their relationship with their parents, and their behavior as adults. An analysis of 12 studies found that the frequency and severity by which children received corporal punishment was positively associated with mental health problems in every single study. Subsequent studies confirmed the association of corporal punishment with anxiety and depression among children. They may carry the lessons of aggression as a problem-solving method into adulthood, causing them to be more likely to be abusive towards partners or their own children. Research has demonstrated the negative consequences of corporal punishment on school performance; it causes lower scores and less engagement.

Further, research has confirmed that children who are subjected to corporal punishment are at risk for delinquency, criminal behavior, and substance abuse. Parents who engage in this behavior inadvertently teach their children that aggression is a legitimate problem-solving method. Differential coercion theory states that chronic exposure to coercion can promote personality traits such as anger, belligerence, and aggression, and this increases the chances that a child will engage in criminal or delinquent behavior. Social control theory stresses the importance of the parent-child bond, and physical discipline deters this bond. If children see their parents as a source of pain, they will attempt to avoid the painful situation by avoiding their parents. This leads to the destruction of trust and closeness, ultimately destroying the relationship.

Some of the arguments in favor of corporal punishment include it being an effective way of eliminating undesirable behavior; the theory that avoiding a threatened punishment can be rewarding since it reduces anxiety; and punishment can be informative by providing useful feedback on behavior. There are a few requirements to engage in effective corporal punishment methods. One must distinguish between harsh and punitive punishment, and whether it is administered by a warm, caring parent. If a child is spanked lightly with an open hand, inflicting minor and temporary pain, it may be effective. But if a child is slapped, pushed, shoved, or hit with an object, this is violence. Corporal punishment administered by warm and supportive parents may be effective at obtaining compliance; this is a different scenario than if a cold, harsh and uninvolved parent administers it. In this case, it may foster defiance and aggression.

While many countries have progressed towards banning corporal punishment, there is an ongoing crisis in the Polynesian sovereign state of Tonga. On August 16, 2013, 14-year-old Malia Kolo died of septic organ failure because of multiple infected sharp and blunt injuries. Six days prior, Malia was physically punished by her mother and uncle for running away from home. She was unable to walk and left unattended with no medical attention for days. The physical punishment of children is a widespread practice in Tonga and many Tongans view it as an important part of traditional society that is unique to their culture. This level of violence is one of the highest in the world, with parents representing the highest source of violence against children. There have been multiple high-profile cases of the physical punishment of children leading to death. Parents have the right to use corporal punishment on their children however they see fit, and there are 4 statutes that allow it. The rate of childhood and youth suicide is alarming in Tonga, where the right to freedom from torture, cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment is not specified in the constitution.

A few strategies could reduce corporal punishment in the United States and abroad. To prevent parents’ use of corporal punishment, the public should be educated about its risks and about the benefits of using other disciplinary techniques. An effective example of this is the “Hitting Children must STOP” campaign in the UK led by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. The campaign aimed to educate the public about the risks associated with corporal punishment as well as alternative positive disciplinary techniques. Childbirth classes could be an ideal setting to educate new parents about the ineffectiveness of corporal punishment and effective alternatives. South Carolina has implemented a program known as the Triple P Positive Parenting Program; it is designed with 5 levels of intensity, beginning with educating at-risk families and ending with in-home visits and training. The program has been effective at decreasing children’s problematic behaviors. Professionals who work directly with children, such as child-care providers, doctors, psychologists, and social workers are in good positions to educate parents on effective disciplinary methods. They have frequent contact with families and are trusted figures. To dismantle the legal sanction of parents’ use of corporal punishment, there would either need to be a congressionally enacted universal ban, or each state would need to individually outlaw it. Another method would be that the punishment for corporal punishment equates to punishment for child abuse or criminal assault.

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