The role of a parent is multifaceted. Tasked with taking offspring from infancy to functional independence, a care provider faces an evolving developmental landscape with new challenges during each successive stage. All parents share the same core responsibility of acting as a teacher to their children. As the child gains in motor skills and coordination, their innate curiosity about the world induces commensurate exploration. Presumably, during these times come the first instances a dependent will require direct intervention to preserve them from a yet to be understood harm.
This emergent danger also marks the appearance of the parental responsibility of establishing, reinforcing, and, upholding of boundaries in the effort to limit, and in the future, avoid, something that would injure their child. This responsibility is critical for a child’s welfare during their bumpy learning process, however, if not conducted properly, can have a lasting negative effect. Corporal punishment is intended as a disciplinary tool to teach children right from wrong, but research shows that it is no more beneficial to a child’s learning than other disciplinary methods and instead increases the likelihood of counterintuitive behavior like aggression, mood disorders, and substance abuse issues.
Discipline, from the Latin discipulus meaning “student, pupil, or follower,” has come to be understood as the orderly conduct that results from training, and its achievement may come in myriad forms. The most effective forms of discipline are employed with the child’s age and needs in mind, are positively reinforced, and provide structure for children within an atmosphere of nurturance. Ultimately, the goal of parental discipline should be to develop an understanding the child, so when it is time to rectify an unacceptable behavior, they are able to recognize the cause and assist the child in making adjustments to said behavior (Bigner, 2013, p.84).
Arguably the most polemical of disciplinary methods is corporal punishment, and not for reasons of merit. For this discussion, corporal punishment (CP) is defined as “causing a child to experience pain, but not injury, for the purpose of correction or control of the child’s behavior’ (Straus, 1994a, p. 4). This practice of violence as discipline occurs in various degrees across the globe, and while not limited to any one particular group, there are remarkably strong correlations between societal and cultural factors to the increased likelihood of corporal punishment.
To quantify the demographics of American families that use CP, Murray Straus (1999) conducted a study of one thousand parents in the United States in 1995 who had used CP in the previous year. In this study, he measured corporal punishment in terms of prevalence, chronicity, severity, and the duration of the punishment all within a one-year reporting limit. A shorter termed reporting limit, such as one week, was not used as it increased chronicity, but decreased prevalence.
Independent variables included the age of child (up to age 17), age of parent, single parenthood, socioeconomic status, ethnic group, gender of both parent and child, and the region of the family’s residency. The resulting data showed that the peak age a child received CP was between years 4 and 5, and that CP was most chronic by parents of 2-year-old children. There was a correlation between age of the child and severity of punishment, with the less severe punishment (i.e. spanking) occurring with toddlers, and the more severe punishment (i.e.. hitting with belt) being utilized more frequently with teenage children.
Male children experienced both greater prevalence and chronicity of CP than female children with similar familial variables. The study also found that the use of CP was highest among parents in the lowest quintile of the socioeconomic scale and decreased with increasing socioeconomic status. Additionally, CP was found to be more commonly utilized by younger parents (particularly mothers) and minority families, and is most accepted as a form of discipline throughout the South in comparison to other regions of the United States. (Straus, 1999)
This study demonstrates that corporal punishment remains prevalent and widespread in present time, even in a society that does not condone physical violence against others and punishes those that commit such acts. Children are the only persons viewed as proper objects of corporal punishment, and this hypocritical idea has been only been further perpetuated socially by euphemisms such as “a good, hard spanking.” Even the word “spanking” softens the meaning of the action itself, as do other related synonyms like “smack, slap, cuff, whip”.
Language has been found to greatly influence parental views on corporal punishment. In a study where participants were asked to read several vignettes on parental reactions to child misbehaviors and rate the parents’ response, “spank was rated as the most common, acceptable, and effective response, followed (in order) by swat, hit, slap, and beat” (Brown et al., 2018). This reinforces that our lexicon has a definitive impact on the interpretations of such verbs, and in turn, can normalize behaviors that would otherwise be socially rejected.
Research also demonstrates that the more engaged a society is towards culturally approved violence, the more likely parents of such a society are to engage in CP (Straus, 2010). Current U.S. law supports corporal punishment by granting parents immunity from prosecution for assault when “reasonable force” is employed. “Reasonable force” has been ruled in many states to include severe CP, as long there is no lasting injury. Specifically, Connecticut state law lists specific injuries that are considered abuse, some of which are as follows: “bruises, scratches, lacerations; burns, and/or scalds; reddening or blistering of the tissue through application of heat by fire, chemical substances, cigarettes, matches, electricity, scalding water, friction, etc.; and injuries to bone, muscle, cartilage, ligaments”.
However, these laws also include catch-all nomenclature in citing legal evidence of physical abuse, such as “excessive physical punishment” and “cruel punishment”. The line between punishment and abuse is then further obscured considering evidence is only ruled in after “accounting for the child’s misbehavior, surrounding circumstances including the parent’s motive; the type of punishment administered; the amount of force utilized; and the child’s age, size, and ability to understand the punishment.” (Connecticut General Statutes §17a-93)
This distinction between punishment and abuse is subjectively defined and influenced by cultural norms. In an attempt to keep the definition “objective”, researchers and governments alike most commonly use physical injury to determine the point at which punishment can be distinguished from abuse (Gonzalez et al., 2008). A survey was given to a group of 619 family physicians and pediatricians in which they were asked about their stance on corporal punishment, and whether or not they offer “anticipatory guidance” to families on discipline. The resulting data showed 70% of family physicians and 59% of pediatricians support the use of corporal punishment. Additionally, 52% of family physicians and 90% of pediatricians stated they “include discipline issues either always or most of the time when providing anticipatory guidance to parents” (McCormick, 1992).
The legislation and research above both suggest that punishment and abuse are not separate phenomena, but are instead constructs by which to measure the degree of injury sustained by the child. Physical assault does nothing to communicate why a child’s behavior is considered wrongful, nor does it explain what would have been the appropriate action for the child to have done instead. Instead, corporal punishment only reinforces good behavior when at risk of physical harm, and does nothing to encourage acceptable, social behavior when there is no threat present.
This is an ineffective form as discipline as is it inconsistent, rigid, and explosive in nature. It is a very unlikely scenario that a parent is always present and therefore able to be consistent in hitting their child after any wrongdoing. Also, by relying on such an inflexible strategy, there is no established hierarchy of reactions in which a child is able to interpret the seriousness of their offense (Bigner, 2013, p.99).
It can be assumed that a parent typically engages in corporal punishment with the intent to control a child’s behavior (weak transition). This goal can be short-term, such as preventing the child from doing something that could cause immediate harm, or long-term, where the goal is to stop the child from repetitiously engaging harmful behavior. However, there is no compelling evidence that supports physical violence against a child as a better method of discipline in comparison to non-violent forms. In an effort to quantify the effectiveness of CP and nonviolence in the short-term, multiple studies (Day, Roberts, 1983; Roberts, 1988; Roberts, Powers, 1990) were conducted to observe the effects of three potential methods of parental enforcement.
In their experiments, the parents were given a list of commands for their child, and had to put the child in time out if they disobeyed them. The study was divided into three groups: the “parent-release” condition, where the parents were instructed to spank the child if they left time out; the “child-release” condition, where the child would leave the chair on their own when they felt ready; and the “barrier-release” condition, where the child would be put into a small room with a barrier to prevent their leaving.
The results revealed the “child-release” condition to be the least effective in obtaining child compliance, and concluded that the “parent-release” and “barrier-release” conditions were, at most, equally effective. Roberts (1988) therefore concluded that “physical punishment was not an important component of compliance training procedures” since child compliance could be obtained sans violence.
Furthermore, studies of the long-term compliance of a child after being subjected to corporal punishment have only proved this method of violence as discipline to be even more inferior. A meta-analysis by Gershoff (2010) found that thirteen of the fifteen studies analyzed found that a parent’s use of corporal punishment was “significantly correlated with less long-term compliance and less moral and pro-social behavior” (p. 37). More simply, not only is it ineffective, but CP is actually counterproductive to parental goals.
Arguably the most important aspect of corporal punishment is that it has been proven to be considerably harmful to the child’s wellbeing. The most obvious effect of this maltreatment is the risk of physical injury the child. Research shows that corporal punishment and physical abuse share much of the same origin within the family dynamic, and that using physical violence as a form of discipline is a primary predictor of abusive behaviors to follow. For example, studies of physical abuse against children have found that between 66% and 85% of the cases actually began as CP (Gonzalez et al., 2008), and that parenting stress can predict future child abuse potential only among parents who believe in the value of physical punishment (Crouch & Behl, 2001). These studies demonstrate that the support for, and use of, physical punishment itself is a primary predictor of abusive behavior.
The effects of physical abuse are not only as superficial as injury and the risk thereof implies, but can actually result in long-term damage to victim. In most studies, it is reported that a child is most often spanked in response to a child’s own aggressive behaviors. The irony of this action makes it difficult for a child to process what is an appropriate response, as their poor behavior is only being reinforced by the very same behavior. In response to physical punishment, children often report fear, anger, and sadness (Dobbs, Smith, & Taylor, 2006). These attitudes are not the result of a supportive atmosphere in which children are able to receive and internalize the message of what might be acceptable behavior, and instead only perpetuates a cycle of poor behavior and fear-based responses to such methods of discipline (part from book about being able to internalize message?).
Child abuse has been found to predict a wide range of negative outcomes during all stages of the child’s life. Children who have been maltreated are at relatively high risk for internalizing problems such as depression and anxiety, externalizing problems such as aggression and delinquency, and academic problems such as poor grades and absenteeism (Stouthamer-Loeber, Loeber, Homish, & Wei, 2001). Correlational research has also revealed other side effects such as fear of the teacher and/or school, and feelings of helplessness, humiliation, aggression and destruction at home and at school (Cryan, 1995). Bryan and Freed (1982) reported that community college students who received a high amount of CP reported lower grades and higher aggression, delinquency, depression and anxiety.
These effects can be pervasive and last long after the period of abuse, and can cause victims to be unable to handle expected, developmentally-appropriate stresses and challenges of life. Those with histories of abuse were found to be at a high risk of early initiation of substance abuse, and that a child almost always begins this behaviour during adolescence. Straus (1994) used a sample of 6,002 families from the 1985 National Family Violence Survey and measured how the prevalence of corporal punishment affects depression, suicidal thoughts, alcohol abuse, and future situations of child abuse and wife assault in adolescents.
Of all the families surveyed, there were 2,149 families with a minor child living at home, which was then used as the sample number to report on corporal punishment. Families with more than one minor living at home did not report twice, and instead went through a randomized procedure to select which child they will report on. In this study, 49.8% of children reported “having been physically punished one or more times” (p. 545). The data showed that gender is the most significant predictor of alcohol abuse, and overall revealed that the probability of alcohol abuse is greatest among men, younger persons, and those of lower socioeconomic status.
In a study examining the correlation between child maltreatment (CM) and the age at first alcoholic drink, Hamburger et al. (2008), 44% reported any CM and 59% reported ever drinking alcohol” (p. 293). Childhood maltreatment was divided into three separate categories: witnessing domestic violence between guardians, experiencing physical abuse by guardians, and experiencing sexual abuse by anyone. Experiencing each type of CM was “associated with approximately a twofold (p < .05) increased likelihood of ever drinking alcohol” (p.293).
Additionally, the study also compared the group who reported no history of CM to those who reported positively to CM and found that “those who experienced two or more types were three times more likely to report ever using alcohol” (p.293). Although this study does not limit variables to physical abuse experienced by child, they do include adjusted odd ratios for each type of maltreatment. Out of the 2,084 persons who reported that they drank alcohol before the age of 13, 51.4% reported physical abuse from their guardian.
Hamburger’s study found differing results from Straus’s regarding gender, in which in which females who experienced corporal punishment before the age showed a positive correlation to substance abuse, whereas it did not seem to affect the male population in her study until later in adolescence. However, the data did show that males who experienced more traumatic assault both physical and sexual in nature reported to engage more in heavy episodic drinking than females, in which Hamburger attributed to being a maladaptive coping mechanism.
Following these studies, Hovdestad et al. (2011) built upon the preexisting body of literature that correlates child abuse and subsequent substance abuse and aimed to answer which model may best explain why child maltreatment is such a strong indicator of risk for substance abuse.
The scope of the child maltreatment problem are widely-agreed to be underestimates, because most maltreatment is understood as undisclosed due to perpetrators’ efforts to avoid detection (e.g., by telling the victim that they deserved or desired the maltreatment) and due to young victims’ relative social powerlessness, efforts to self-protect
Substance use and abuse among adolescents must be distinguished because it is considered normative that the majority of adolescents experiment with alcohol and many experiment with other substances. Thus, to define “abuse” as “use” implies that virtually every adolescent requires some sort of drug abuse intervention and creates a definition of “abuse” that is too heterogeneous to be meaningful. This paper distinguishes between adolescent substance use, which is common at low levels to the extent that it can be considered normative, and abuse which is more intense and/or more frequent and thus poses risks to safety, health and/or development in the short and/or long-term. Substance abuse can be both a manifestation of and a contributor to a person’s inability to cope.