For several years, the Academy has co-sponsored a conference on corporal punishment with the National Committee for Prevention of Child Abuse.
At these conferences, studies have been reported showing that corporal punishment of students is not only ineffective in changing undesirable behaviors, but has undesirable results. Schools in which corporal punishment is used have a higher incidence of aggression and vandalism. Students punished by or even exposed to corporal punishment of others show symptoms of a post-traumatic stress disorder. The use of physical violence to control behavior gives a message to children that this is the correct and preferred method. The child remembers this message when he or she grows up and becomes a parent.
If corporal punishment is wrong as a discipline measure for school children, why do we approve of its use for parents? Part of the problem for schools is that once respected, effective teachers and administrators who hit students are no longer respected and effective teachers. They become feared and objects of revenge. We know that this occurs with parents who hit.
If we advocate doing away with corporal punishment, do we advocate doing way with discipline? Certainly not! Learning discipline is a very important part of maturing. There are alternative forms of discipline that are effective and safe. They may take more time and more self-control than striking out or threatening to hit. What about the occasional swat to "get the child's attention?" The swat gives the message that the parent has to hurt the child to change his behavior. "My parents spanked me, and I turned out all right!" Yes, many children survive the trauma of being hit by those who they love and respect. Many do not survive unharmed, however.
"If you don't behave I'll tell the doctor to give you a shot!" "I'm going to tan your hide if you do that again!" "When your father gets home, you're going to get a whipping!" This is the American way of child discipline. Threaten to hurt, give a little hurt to get their attention, or if it is a major offense (one that really makes us mad) let them have it! After all, we are not only smarter but bigger and stronger than they are and they should mind us! Besides, we get angry and frustrated when they are out of control. They need to know how we feel!
The problem is that children do learn how we feel. They learn that we are angry and frustrated. They know that we are strong and powerful. That they did something wrong does no impress them much. What does impress them is how scary and confusing it is when a big strong person they love and respect threatens to or does hit them. Often the hitting and yelling get out of control. They learn that it is all right to be out of control when you need to control other people's behavior.
Don't we have enough violence in our society today? A recent newscast tells of a man in Florida whose car was repossessed. He went to the finance company, shot and killed eight people and committed suicide. Our entertainment media thrive on violence. The heavy metal lyrics, the movies and TV that appeal to our young people are full of violence. Why do we as professionals guiding parents in raising children not only condone but also recommend violence as a discipline measures? We know that there are more effective methods. We know that these methods work, but they take much more time and effort than a swat.
Children need to be taught to control impulsive behavior. Do we teach them by giving in to our impulse to hit when we are frustrated because they will not behave?
Abolishing corporal punishment
What is the position of the Academy regarding corporal punishment and where do we go from here? The Academy has joined some 20 other national organizations in making a clear position statement favoring the abolition of corporal punishment in schools. It is time for the Academy to make a positive statement that we as professionals should teach effective methods of discipline that do not harm children. These include rewards for good behavior and non-violent punishment for breaking the rules.
We also need to recognize that corporal punishment is wrong and make a statement to that effect. We need to help parents give up the notion that children are inherently evil and need to be beaten. Corporal punishment is prohibited in prisons, hospitals, nursing homes, and the military. It is prohibited in the schools in 19 states and in most developed countries. It is prohibited entirely in Sweden. We need to tell parents of our patients about ways to discipline that will not cause physical and mental harm. We need to tell them that hitting may be a temporary expedient but can be harmful and counter-productive.