SPANKING - Questions and answers about disciplinary violence
Olivier Maurel


1 - A Brief History of Disciplinary Violence  


Does corporal punishment exist among our cousins the apes?

Mother bonobos (the primate most closely related to us) do not "punish" their offspring. They simply keep them away from possible danger. Striking with the palm of the hand is not in their vocabulary of gestures either. If certain females mistreat their young, not mishandling but rather neglecting them, it seems to nearly always be because they themselves were abandoned or neglected when young. The only time they will intervene violently against their young is when the adolescents are pushing their younger siblings around. Hitting one's children is therefore not likely instinctive at all. It is a human behavior, culturally acquired through imitation. It is also a mistake to think of child abuse as acting like a beast. The animal nature we harbor has nothing to do with this behavior.

Do non-literate human societies practice corporal punishment?   

The few ethnological studies we have on children seem to show that certain tribes of hunter-gatherers practiced corporal punishment, while others did not, and that the latter were more peaceful than the former.    

This is borne out on every continent. One may suppose that insofar as their behavior was fairly close to that of the great apes, pre-hominids did not mishandle their children any more than bonobos do.    

But the more human societies have evolved and taken on behaviors far removed from innate behavior (perhaps especially during the transition to farming), the more duress humans must have been led to impose on their children, including painful ordeals (cruel initiation rituals, sacrificial rites), for which their biologically programmed behaviors evidently left them unprepared.    

Later on, the children who had suffered this treatment found it natural and necessary, due to repetition compulsion, to apply them to their children. In this way, the cycle of "disciplinary" violence ended up behaviorally programmed over the course of upbringing in the very brain of each child who had been a victim of it.     

Did the first great civilizations practice corporal punishment?   

There seems to be not a single exception. From Sumer to Egypt to China, from ancient India to pre-Columbian America, from Athens to Rome, children were hit. Oral and then written traditions universally came to postulate this behavior in proverbs that are found on every continent. The ones that had and continue to have greatest influence are the biblical proverbs attributed to King Solomon. For example: "Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child. But the rod of correction shall drive it far from him (Proverbs 22:15).1   As these proverbs were believed to be inspired by God, disciplinary violence was made into something sacred. Hitting children became a religious duty, and for some it still is.    

This quadruple seal (obligation to inflict duress upon children, repetition, oral and written tradition, sanctification) explains why disciplinary violence has for thousands of years been impossible to eradicate.    

Is there support in the Gospels for corporal punishment?   

The Gospels do not say anything specifically about corporal punishment. But for Jesus, children are no longer flawed and corrupt beings who must be corrected. They are a model to follow and to be thoroughly respected: "Such is the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 19:15). And for him who causes one of these little ones to stray, "better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea" (Matthew 18:6). It is hard to see how these two verses could be compatible with the idea of punishing children (do models need punishment?), all the more so when it risks leading them astray by setting an example of violence. This revolutionary outlook does not appear to have registered. The Epistle to the Hebrews, long attributed to St. Paul, returns to the idea of a God who punishes because he loves, in reflection of earthly fathers. (Hebrews 12:7-8).    

St. Augustine, among the most influential Fathers of the Church, recalls clearly in the first chapter of his Confessions the physical chastisements he endured at school and how his parents would tease him when he complained. Yet he considers these chastisements to have been beneficial for him, given that school enabled him to find God. In the very same chapter, he rejects the notion that children could be innocent. He thereby imposed onto Christianity a belief in original sin that, in conjunction with the proverbs of the Bible, has served as extra justification for corporal punishment.    

Once educated about the effects of disciplinary violence, it is fairly easy to see why Jesus' words regarding children never really got through to people. His disciples, who presumably were raised with violence as Proverbs advises and carried it inscribed in their neurons as being the best method of instruction, were literally incapable of seeing that these remarks cast doubt on it.   

Who were the first people to challenge the use of corporal punishment?   

Throughout the ages, there must have been men and women who did not suffer physical punishments and, being able therefore to judge them as unacceptable, disapproved of the practice. But it is in first-century Rome that the earliest written expressions of disapproval for this custom appear. Quintilian (30-100) and Plutarch (46-120) denounced the violence and even the perversity of schoolteachers. It is unknown whether their criticism had any influence whatsoever on their contemporaries, but it did have some in Europe during the Renaissance several centuries later.     

Were children hit during the Middle Ages?   

Despite the assertions of some historians who see the Middle Ages as an exemplary period, numerous written and iconographic documents bear witness to the use of corporal punishment in the schools of that era. Teachers are almost always represented with rods in their hands. Concerning the family, there is less documentation, but everything points to children being hit in medieval European Christendom, like everywhere else. A few scattered protests likely had no impact on the practice. "It was a society that never loved children," historian Phillipe Ariès would say.   

What did the Renaissance change for children?   

In the 15th and 16th centuries, there was a revival of interest in Greek and Latin texts, among them those of Quintilian and Plutarch mentioned above. Montaigne, raised gently by his father, was able to see the cruelty in academic customs and also denounced school corporal punishment. "How much more decent it would be to see their classes strewed with green leaves and fine flowers, than with the bloody stumps of birch and willows!" The great humanist Erasmus, for his part, wrote: "This would be better described as a torture chamber than a school. All one hears is the crackling of ferules, rods whistling, screams and wailing, ghastly threats." The prestige of these humanists probably led certain readers to question corporal punishment, from whence a slow evolution began.     

What changes did the Reformation bring?   

Unfortunately for children, at the same time Greek and Latin texts were being rediscovered, there was also a movement towards a literal reading and application of Biblical texts--which on the subject of raising children prescribe hitting them above all! The idea that children must be beaten for the good of their souls therefore became widespread under Protestantism. Countries that were under England's influence for long periods of time are still deeply marked by it. In this domain, the New World has followed the Old with a faithfulness that endures even to this day in the United States and Canada.

What part did Catholic education play?

From the 16th to the 18th century, even though corporal punishment was widely practiced, Catholic education was more moderate than the Protestant tradition. The main religious orders dedicated to teaching (the Jesuits and the Christian Brothers) and leading educational theorists, instead of referring to Proverbs, sought to reduce the use of corporal punishment as much as possible. Hence, they contributed to a new way of thinking about this subject when it came to schools. But they made no pronouncements regarding family discipline. The result: Having been beaten as children themselves, teachers scarcely heeded the calls for moderation, because repetition compulsion is more powerful than theoretical precepts of moderation.

What developments came with Rousseau?

In Émile (1762), Rousseau advises tutors to "inflict no chastisement of any kind on children," though his condemnation was less than absolute; in a notation, he suggests that if a child gets it into his head to strike an adult, the blows should be "paid back with interest." In his Confessions, he talks at some length about his childhood and of the devastating effects produced by a spanking he received which made him into a masochist. His ideas on education have influenced a great many pedagogues (Pestalozzi, Froebel, Maria Montessori), whose work has oriented education toward a growing esteem for children. His autobiographical narrative also led a great many authors to recount their childhoods, often recalling things they had suffered. A new awareness was thus set into motion.

Nonetheless, while 19th century literature mentions corporal punishment fairly often, most often these were punishments dealt by schoolmasters or cruel stepmothers. It would not be until Jules Vallès' The Child (1879) that an author would recall at length being hit by his own parents. Up until that point, scarcely 125 years ago--and keeping in mind that domestic corporal punishment had been the norm for millennia--this was a taboo subject. Talking about it was not prohibited, but just the same, nobody cared to do so on account of the same forces which today keep us from taking seriously the effects of disciplinary violence.

When did the state begin to intervene?

In 1793, Poland becomes the first country to ban school corporal punishment. In 1834, for the first time in France, [Minister of Public Education] Guizot issues a Statute of the University, Article 29 of which states: "Students shall not be struck." This prohibition was certified in 1887.

In terms of the family, however, it would not be until 1979 that a country, Sweden, outlawed the use of corporal punishment. Eleven other nations, most of them European, have followed suit, whether by passage of an amendment to the civil code or a ruling by the country's Supreme Court. These countries are Finland (1983), Norway (1987), Austria (1989), Cyprus (1994), Denmark (1995), Italy (1996), Latvia (1998), Croatia (1999), Israel (2000), Germany (2000), and Iceland (2003). In several of these countries, the ban's enactment was accompanied by critical informational campaigns, extending to ethnic minorities, as well as measures to assist struggling parents. [NOTE: Since this book's writing, the list of nations which have abolished corporal punishment has grown to include Ukraine (2004), Romania (2004), Hungary (2005), Greece (2006), Netherlands (2007), New Zealand (2007), Portugal (2007), Uruguay (2007), Venezuela (2007), Spain (2007), Costa Rica (2008), and the Republic of Moldova (2009). Updated information is available at]

How do the courts handle cases of mistreatment of children?

In France, their response has long been one of great indulgence toward parents, including in cases of fatal injury, up until 1914. Sentences remain light, as they do for that matter in cases of sexual violence. "It is only in the 1920's," writes Jean-Claude Caron, "that the prosecution of violence against children becomes well-established—light though the penalties remain." And according to Jacques Trémintin, "Violence is condemned only where you have a willful intention to cause death (by blows, lack of care, undernourishment)."  But even then, he adds, "Judges and juries show astonishing leniency toward parents who murder."    

It should also be noted that barely two years after the Education Minister's notice in 1887 which bans school corporal punishment, France's High Court, as of February 1889, confers on teachers and tutors the same right of correction which parents are allowed. Slaps and backhands to the face were therefore tolerated insofar as there was no excess or risk to the child's health. This opinion was recently confirmed. A group of parents brought suit against a teacher who would pull his students' hair and ears and smack them. On July 7, 1982 The Court of Appeals in Caen rejected their claim: "Certainly, kicks to the backside, elbowing, ear-pulling or hair-pulling, clouts, slaps, and even blows with a ruler, if such violence is done by parents, would not be considered to exceed their right of correction, so long as there are no resultant medical consequences, nor any trace of evidence pointing to brutal excess, for that matter." Thus we have the Court of Appeals, quite significantly, granting teachers the right to hit on the very basis of parents' ongoing right to hit.    

When does medicine begin to concern itself over the effects of children being hit?   

In the 19th century, medical examiners in France began to bring attention to children who were killed or gravely injured by their parents, as well to victims of sexual abuse. But those were extreme cases involving fatality, and their studies did not question the physical punishment that the majority of children were subjected to.    

It was only in the latter part of the 20th century that a growing number of doctors, pediatricians in particular, advised against the use of these punishments. This was notably the case with Françoise Dolto. Today, the childcare handbooks that can be purchased in supermarkets generally advise not to spank or smack. But certain authors, often with leanings toward the psychoanalytical school of thought, continue to recommend hitting.    

What is Europe's political stance?   

On June 24, 2004, the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly, by a vote of 37-3, called upon every government in Europe to establish national laws completely prohibiting the corporal punishment of children. It states: "The process of eliminating corporal punishment requires explicit legislation linked to awareness-raising of children's rights to protection and promotion of positive, non-violent forms of discipline."

Where does the Convention on the Rights of the Child fit in?   

Passed on November 20, 1989, by the United Nations General Assembly, the Convention on the Rights of the Child is a cause for great hope. Article 19 calls for all states to protect children "from all forms of physical or mental violence" And the Committee on the Rights of the Child, to which each nation must present a report every five years on what it is doing to abide by this convention, makes it clear that the nations must take steps to ban not only abuses subject to court action but the most common of corporal punishments: spankings, smacks, and face-slapping.    

The Committee defends the right to a childhood of physical integrity "without exception for any degree of violence toward children." One must "implement literally article 19, paragraph 1 of the Convention . . . Even limited resort to physical force, a light slap for example, can be the first step down the path to veritable abuse." One member of the Committee emphasized this point to the delegate from Great Britain, "To draw an analogy, no one would argue that a 'reasonable' level of wife-beating should be permitted . . . The notion of a permissible level of corporal punishment was thus best avoided" (paraphrase of member comments offered in Committee report), as well as "other humiliating forms of discipline which happen too often within the family, at school, or in other institutions and which are not compatible with the Convention . . . The methods used to teach children should exclude all injurious, brutal, disrespectful or degrading treatment, as well as every type of humiliation or exploitation."    

With this "innovative approach to combating the violence suffered by children, the Convention and the Committee offer new hope of reducing numerous forms of adult violence that put people's safety at risk." Essentially, the hope is to "break the cycle of violence the often perpetuates itself from generation to generation in the name of tradition and custom . . . If society wants to solve the problem of violence", including political violence given that "children subjected to such treatment don't often make good citizens . . . necessary action should be undertaken as soon as possible within the family", as a matter of promoting "an ethic of non-violence." It is a question of "educating parents to raise their children without violence and in a spirit of communication and mutual respect."    

To reach this goal, perfectly clear laws must be established. The countries with legislation plainly banning corporal punishment are sending a message to children. This ban has not brought about a flood of criminal cases, but it has served to educate parents. The law functions as a catalyst in doing away with the notion that corporal punishment is something normal.   

Recommendations to the nations include several approaches:  

  1. initiate studies on family violence, child abuse and child neglect in order to measure the scope and nature of these practices;
  2. adopt appropriate policies and measures (prohibition of corporal punishment in particular);
  3. contribute to changes of behavior by educating parents on the consequences of corporal punishment;
  4. in cases of violence, conduct proper investigations within a framework of court proceedings adapted to children, with sanctions imposed on those who commit such acts;
  5. take measures to monitor
    • child advocacy in court proceedings                                                     
    • physical and psychological readjustment
    • the social reintegration of abuse victims;
  6. request technical assistance technique, particularly from UNICEF, the WHO, and NGO's.

Member nations themselves are obligated, possibly without yet realizing it, to eventually enact a law of prohibition. And a good many of them have begun to take some encouraging steps. The signing of the Convention is therefore a great event in the history of corporal punishment and, perhaps, in the history of mankind, considering the toxic influence this type of punishment has had upon virtually all people up to the present. But if these laws are to be enacted and then applied universally, pressure from citizens and organizations will be crucial, because politicians are scarcely inclined to take unpopular initiatives with no electoral advantage.   

In France, moreover, despite Article 55 of the Constitution which states that a convention ratified by our leaders supersedes the laws of the Republic, a judgment by the High Court of France on March 10, 1993 (the Lejeune decision) maintains that "clauses of the Convention may not be invoked before the courts, being that this Convention, which creates obligations binding only to the states that are party thereto, is not directly applicable to domestic law."   

What does this history of corporal punishment show?  

It shows that violence streams down from parents to children, generation after generation, and that this transmission could continue for a long time to come. In a country like France, it has taken about one-and-a-half to two centuries for the threshold of tolerance for disciplinary violence to lower from the bastonnade to slapping and spanking. But in most of the world, the threshold still goes beyond the bastonnade. At this rate, by the time children are given the essential respect they need, the excess of violence infused into society by the practice of corporal punishment risks destroying mankind and the planet. Political action is vital so that it will no longer be possible for anyone to be unaware of the destructive nature of corporal punishment in whatever form and so that parents have the benefit of help in the task of raising children.  

Until such time as the laws have universally banned this custom, each person can at least break the chain of violence with their own children and take part in initiatives for the abolition of disciplinary violence.

Proceed/return to:


1 – A Brief History of Disciplinary Violence
2 – The Nature of Disciplinary Violence and Opinions on the Matter
3 – Why we must stop using corporal punishment
4 – How can we raise children without hitting?
5 – Why is it necessary to ban disciplinary violence?
6 – What to do?
7 – Question for the author
8 – Questions for the reader

World geography of disciplinary violence by continent and country

I – Introduction for the EMIDA Family Education Program
II – Why the Church must denounce ordinary disciplinary violence
III – Resistance every advocate of a spanking ban can expect to face
IV – Declaration against "disciplinary" violence



1. See also: Proverbs 13:23, 19:18, 23:13; Ecclesiastes 30:1, 30:9; 30:12. Not to mention Deuteronomy 21:18-21 and 22:20-21, which calls for the stoning to death of rebellious teenagers and of girls who are unable to prove their virginity.