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May/ June 1999 - Volume 2 - Issue 5

The Use Of Physical Discipline
Provided by the American Humane Association

The American Humane Association, as a matter of policy, opposes physical punishment of children in their homes and in the school setting. Many child development and child welfare professionals believe that spanking, hitting, or slapping is not effective and is damaging to the self-respect and self-esteem of children. The Children's Division encourages parents and other care givers to explore other techniques and solutions to provide discipline for children in their care.

The practice of physically disciplining children, in the form of spanking, as a way of communicating parental anger, is a method of discipline that is widespread and has been practiced for generations. In two national surveys, Murray A Straus, co-director of the Family Research Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire, found that 90% of parent of 3- and 4-year-olds had struck their children and that 22% of the parents of children under 1 year of age said they had also hit their children.

A 1997 study found that 44% of mothers reported spanking during the previous week, and they spanked during the previous week, and they spanked approximately twice a week. Children in the study whose parents used corporal punishment to reduce antisocial behavior actually experienced the opposite in the long run: an increased probability of aggression and other antisocial behavior (Strauss, Sugarman, & Giles-Sims, 1997)

The argument is frequently used that spanking is a quick, convenient, and sometimes effective method of discipline in the short run. However, most child development experts would argue that this method is not effective in the long run. Rather, it teaches unwelcome lessons such as violence is a way to solve problems or that fear is all that motivates obedience. AHA believes that children must learn to take responsibility for what they do. If rules are broken then consequences must be enforced. Sometimes parents have no recourse but to punish certain behaviors. How this is done can make all the difference in future behavior and in the self-esteem of a child. No one likes to be beaten or humiliated and it's just not necessary when there are so many good, non-violent alternatives to the use of physical discipline.

Why Do Parents Use Physical Punishment?


For many parents, spanking is the only form of punishment that is used. They believe that physical punishment in the form of a "good spanking" lets the child know who's the boss and communicates to the child that the parent does not like a particular behavior. The accompanying belief is that children who aren't spanked will become spoiled. However, disciplining children with physical punishment does not facilitate learning; rather, physical punishment teaches children what not to do and fails to teach children what is expected of them. It has very little long-term effect in the teaching of "good" behaviors. In addition, physical punishment is usually given when the parent is stressed or frustrated - the very conditions that can easily get out of control and lead to abuse. Sometimes parents will say that it's all right to spank children as long as the parent isn't angry. If that's the case, and the parent feels that he/she has calmed down enough not to strike the child, then there are many more effective ways to teach a child how to manage and take responsibility for his/her behavior. Time-out, loss of privileges, allowing the child to experience natural non-life-threatening consequences for undesirable behaviors, and parental disappointment can be far more effective and consistent in teaching children how to reduce undesirable behavior while learning alternative, appropriate actions.

Religious Practice

An often misquoted Biblical verse that is frequently used as justification for hitting children actually reads: "He that spareth his rod, hateth his son; but he who loveth him, chasteneth him betimes." The actual notion of sparing the rod and spoiling the child was suggested much later by non-biblical sources. The Hebrew translation of the actual quote from Proverbs 13:24 suggests that there are several interpretations for the word "rod" and for "chasteneth." The rod was frequently a symbol of power, not of violence. Latter day shepherds had a considerable investment in their livelihood, which was their sheep. The rod was a curved staff used by shepherds to guide their sheep - not beat them. Many modern day clergy interpret Proverbs to mean that children must be cherished as a "gift"from God and therefore guided, not raised with violence.

An act of love

According to Family Development Resources, Inc., in Utah, some parents believe that hitting a child is an act of love that comes from concern for the child's well-being. They may use phrases like "I'm only doing this for your own good - because I love you" or "This will hurt me as much as it hurts you." These phrases, accompanied by hitting, send mixed messages to the child and may actually teach the child that people who love you hurt you, or the way that love is shown is by hitting. Many women who are victims of domestic violence have chosen husbands or boyfriends who "love" them the way that their parents did.

Cultural practice

Every culture has referred to its own traditions to justify the generational use of physical discipline. Parents in some cultures believe that because their parents hit them that a cultural tradition is being passed on and that hitting is therefore the only acceptable way to control children. Other cultures pass on a tradition of physical discipline as a method of survival in a hostile society. Dr. James P. Comer, a child psychiatrist at the Yale Child Study Center and Coauthor of the book Raising Black Children, says in the March 1993 edition of Ebony magazine that "during slavery and other repressive periods in this country, Blacks felt a need to control kids, hoping to prevent them from acting up or getting out of place. This child-rearing practice has persisted over time, he says, to the extent that some Black parents still believe that they can "beat the badness out of their kids".

They "deserve" it

No child deserves to be hit. If an adult hit another adult, that adult might pursue legal recourse. Hitting or spanking simply teaches the wrong messages. It teaches that bigger, more powerful people can hit smaller people. That hypocrisy is never more evident than when a parent spanks a child for hitting. Robert B. McCall, Ph.D., Director of the Office of Child Development at the University of Pittsburgh, writes, "Spanking injures the relationship between you and your child." He concludes that , after a spanking, some adults interpret the hug that they receive or the statement that the spanking was "deserved" as acts of contrition. What they really are the child's earnest attempts to "reestablish the loving and trusting relationship they so desperately need, which the spanking has just ruptured."


Straus, M.A., Sugarman, D.B., & Giles-Sims, J. (in pres).  Spanking by parents and subsequent anti-social behavior of children. Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.

Straus, M.A. (1994). Beating the devil our of them: Corporal Punishment in American families. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass/Lexington.


Family Research Laboratory
University of New Hampshire
126 Horton Social Science Center
Durham, NH 03824
Family Life Development center
Cornell University
G20 Martha Van Rensselaer Hall
Ithaca, NY 14853-4401 Phone: 607-255-7794

Reprinted: FACT SHEET, American Humane Association, Children's Division, 11/97

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