SPANKING - Questions and answers about disciplinary violence
Olivier Maurel

2 – The Nature of Disciplinary Violence and Opinions on the Matter  

What does corporal punishment consist of exactly?

In addition to the blows struck against all parts of the body, either with bare hands or hands armed with all sorts of objects (sticks, rods, switches, rulers, wicker canes, paddles, chicottes, straps, belts, hairbrushes, electrical cords, martinets, whips, etc.), we have subjected children, and continue to subject them, to treatment of all kinds.  

They were in the past and perhaps even today are lifted by their hair (Ireland) or by their cheeks (France) until crying in front of their schoolmates, made to kneel on broomsticks, gravel, peas, four-sided wooden or metal rulers, arms crossed and a Bible in each hand (France, certain religious schools at least until about 1970); they have been forced to remain still inside a circle drawn in the middle of the schoolyard, or better yet, confined in a wheel cage in the classroom during their lessons; they have been made to stand in the "ham" position (knees bent half-way, sometimes standing on one leg, arms crossed and a pile of books in each hand; they have been made to lick the ground; they have had their mouths spat into (France, 19th century).  

Today as in the past, they are pulled by their ears, hair, and noses. Held by the ear, their heads are knocked against the teacher's desk; they have hot pepper put in their eyes (Africa); they are enclosed in dark rooms; they are made to place their fingers on the edge of a drawer to be slammed (Morocco). The soles of their feet are beaten with a cane (Maghreb), or their legs are beaten bloody with a dried stingray tail (New Caledonia). They are denied use of the bathroom to the point where some will suffer from urinary retention or sexual troubles their whole lives. They are made to hit one another. They are shackled and chained at the feet, sometimes for several months, until they can walk no longer, and burning coals are stuck in their ears (Koranic schools in Senegal). Just a short time ago in France, there was an incident in which a schoolteacher tied up a child in a chair with scotch tape over his mouth. And as overwhelming as it is, this list is far from complete. No animal species has ever tried to "raise" their little ones by treating them this way. In countries where the cruelest torments are found, the arguments used to justify them bear a strong resemblance to those we use to justify spankings, smacks, and face slaps.

What are the stated goals of corporal punishment, and how has it been justified?

The most archaic justification, yet one which is still current among certain Jews, Christians, and Muslims, is that children have wickedness, sin, and the very devil inside them, and that beating them is necessary to rid them of all this. Corporal punishment is thus good, safe and effective. This justification has enabled even the death of a child to be sanctioned. The second justification, devoid of religious connotations, holds that a child is a small animal that must be trained and domesticated as such. Hitting is essential, though it should be in a non-abusive manner. The third one, more recently, recognizes that hitting is not the best solution but finds no way of avoiding it, or concludes at least that people living in certain situations cannot do without it. In other words, the way we view corporal punishment is evolving toward discredit and growing criticism of this type of punishment along with greater value placed on the child. This evolution is ongoing among opponents of corporal punishment, since some allow for other types of punishment ("time out," for example), while others think that all punishment can and should be avoided, even as firm boundaries are maintained.

What part does religion play?

Religions are immensely responsible for the treatment allotted to children the world over. In the beginning, they only had to reflect the morals of the time and to theorize them in the form of proverbs. But these proverbs have taken on a sacred value, and even today a great many Jews, Christians, and Muslims consider a ban on corporal punishment to be an attack on religious freedom. Religions have also conveyed the notion that children are depraved creatures to be corrected and trained. The first people to contest the use of corporal punishment were cultured free spirits, whether under the Roman Empire or during the Renaissance. Based on the example of Montaigne, their sensitivity was most likely preserved by their exceptionally gentle upbringing, which allowed them to see the cruelty in how children were punished and not to consider it normal. From the 16th to the 18th century, Catholic pedagogues had a rather moderating influence. But it was the traditionally Protestant countries that in the 20th century were among the first to ban corporal punishment in the home. Unfortunately, in some countries (Great Britain and South Africa, among others), it is the Catholic and Protestant schools and communities who seek at all costs to keep corporal punishment whenever the state tries to ban it. In Muslim countries, apart from the books by Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasreen and a few films, there seems to be a scarcity of accounts describing the punishments that children endure at the hands of their parents and teachers. Those that have surfaced, particularly about the falakha and about Koranic schools, reveal a daily routine of abominable treatment. It would be good to have many more such accounts. Like the Christian churches, Islam in many countries opposes the abolition of corporal punishment; some Muslims, however, are beginning to put more stock in Mohammed's love for children than in the disciplinary value of the stick.

There seems to be only one religion that is an exception to the rule: the Baha’i faith, which originated in Iran. The founder of this religion spoke out against the brutal punishments of the Koranic schools in the early 19th century and called upon his disciples not to hit their children. Curiously, Rosicrucians (disciples of the Rose Cross) also quite forcefully denounce corporal punishment, under the notable influence of Max Heindel (1865-1919).  

Where do philosophers stand?

In theory, philosophers are the members of society who should best be able to approach human truth and ultimate values. At the moment, it appears that no philosopher has a philosophy that is mindful of the fact that mankind as we know it has, for millennia, undergone such violent training right at the stage of highest malleability and sensitivity. It is stunning to realize that centuries of discourse on human nature have not taken into account how this nature has almost everywhere been hammered, distorted, slashed, and stunted by the most widespread method of discipline. Imagine if animal experts, considering horses or dogs that had been beaten by their owner to the point of making them pathologically fearful or mean, spoke in a learned fashion about these animals' aberrant behavior and attributed it to a corrupt nature, to their "impulses," without any misgivings about how they were treated when young. And if philosophers have this apparent blind spot, it is surely due to their having gone through the same training, which desensitized them to children's suffering of this type. It would not be going too far to say that all philosophy should be reevaluated once an awakening takes place. 

What has psychoanalysis contributed?

The position of psychoanalysts regarding corporal punishment is ambiguous due to the ambiguous position of Freud himself. He was a proponent of raising children strictly. In the course of his early research, he recognized at first the serious impact of sexual abuse on children and how it could lead to the development of mental disorders. To avoid implicating fathers in general and his own father in particular, however, he later reckoned that these abuses were "fantasies" generated by the illness. As a result, psychoanalysts have very little interest in the reality of inflicted traumas, whether it be sexual trauma or physical mistreatment. They often assert that incidents of abuse (physical or sexual) have been "fantasized" by the child, but moreover that children, who harbor an "infantile sexuality," are not innocent. Freud views babies as "polymorphously perverse" and ascribes to them a "death instinct" that makes them criminals waiting to emerge. Melanie Klein spoke of their "cruelty." And a work recently written by a collective of psychoanalysts states: "We know that the desire, so common in fantasies, to be beaten by one's father is closely related to this other desire, to have passive (feminine) sexual relations with him, the former being simply a regressive distortion of the latter." The child would ultimately "ask to be beaten in order to take pleasure in the equivalent of a sadistic sexual relationship."1

But psychoanalysis also involves listening to patients. And through this listening, a number of psychoanalysts, in particular Sandor Ferenczi and Alice Miller, have come to challenge Freudian dogma. Françoise Dolto, for her part, though she remained an adherent of psychoanalysis, often condemned the use of corporal punishment.2  Her daughter, Catherine Dolto Tolitch, unfortunately holds that "when moms and dads get angry and give a little smack on the hand, this helps to check themselves. There's a feeling that it should go no further than that, and it's actually kind of reassuring [for the child]"3 . One has to wonder if she would likewise argue that if her husband gets angry and smacks her hands, it is "reassuring."

Aren't children violent by nature? Isn't a measured dose of violence necessary to subdue their natural violent tendencies?

Like all living beings, children have energy within them. But it is a misuse of language to characterize this energy as violence, which means an abuse of force. The fact that a child's crying may be hard for parents to take does not legitimize comparing it to an act of violence, as some people do. For the child, it is actually an essential signal that allows him to communicate a need or a discomfort to the adults on whom he depends. And since his nervous system is incomplete, the child may be overwhelmed by his anger or his expression of suffering, so much that he cannot stop crying. In that case, he needs the arms of an adult to rock him, to calm him, to soothe him, to hold him, to reassure him. It is only very gradually that the child's developing frontal lobes allow him to have self-control.

For a child, the act of biting is not usually a sign of violence. In exploring the world around him, a child will put everything in his mouth and close his jaws much like he clasps an object with his hand. So it is necessary to explain to the child that nobody likes to be bitten, while at the same time cuddling and reassuring him (as well as the bite victim!). A little girl whose mother had used this method got into the habit, rather than biting, of huddling up against her mother and telling her, "Mommy, wanna bite Louis." This tendency very often stops with the acquisition of language, thus supporting the theory that when children bite and roughly accost each other, it is their way of trying to communicate.

What is the opinion of medical doctors?

Doctors in France have not made any collective official statement on the subject. But in the United States, the American Academy of Pediatrics urges parents, teachers, school administrators, and lawmakers to ban corporal punishment in every state and encourages the use of alternative methods. The Canadian Pediatric Society, which represents 2000 Canadian pediatricians, advises against resorting to corporal punishment and stresses that corporal punishment is especially harmful if used on infants or teens.

As for the World Health Organization, its November 2002 report on violence prevention is unmistakably clear: "the use of harsh, physical punishment to discipline children are strong predictors of violence during adolescence and adulthood . . . parental aggression and harsh discipline at the age of 10 years strongly increased the risk of later convictions for violence up to 45 years of age. . . harsh, physical punishment by parents at the age of 8 years predicted not only arrests for violence up to the age of 30 years, but also – for boys – the severity of punishment of their own children and their own histories of spouse abuse." (p. 33)

"Corporal punishment is dangerous for children. In the short term, it kills thousands of children each year and injures and handicaps many more. In the longer term, a large body of research has shown it to be a significant factor in the development of violent behavior, and it is associated with other problems in childhood and later life." (p. 64)

The report then catalogs the consequences of this violence:

On children's health: Alcohol and drug abuse, cognitive impairment, delinquent, violent and other risk-taking behaviours, depression and anxiety, developmental delays, eating and sleep disorders, feelings of shame and guilt, hyperactivity, poor relationships, poor school performance, poor self-esteem, post-traumatic stress disorder, psychosomatic disorders, suicidal behaviour and self-harm.

Longer term consequences: Cancer, chronic lung disease, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, ischaemic heart disease, liver disease, and other health problems.

The report goes on to cite the financial burden that comes from resorting to corporal punishment as a means of discipline:

  • expenditures related to apprehending and prosecuting offenders;
  • the costs to social welfare organizations of investigating reports of maltreatment and protecting children from abuse;
  •  costs associated with foster care;
  •  costs to the education system;
  • costs to the employment sector arising from absenteeism and low productivity.
What it does not say sufficiently, on the other hand, is that harmful effects start with the lightest of blows.  

What can animal experts tell us?

Those who specialize in training animals long ago abandoned all forms of violence, whether in the training of dogs, horses, or wildcats. They point out, especially when it comes to horse training, that every act of brutality on the part of the trainer is experienced by the horse as a predatory act and that such a mindset should therefore be avoided if one wants to establish a relationship of trust with him. A child is different from an animal, admittedly, but the family to which we belong, i.e., primates, has flight instincts that are adapted to the fact that, vis-à-vis wildcats, we used to be their prey. Further on we shall see how hitting and threats of hitting, which automatically set off the flight instinct, combined with the fact that children are not exactly in a position to flee the parents who hit them, have literally destructive effects on their bodies.  

"The recipe to make a dog vicious is the same one used to make a human being vicious: deprive it of affectionate bonds, keep it socially isolated, add a pinch of trauma, shake well, and you've got yourself a public menace." -- Veterinarian interviewed on [Channel 5 France] in early 1999.

"For those who are still unconvinced that corporal punishment produces violent teenagers, try tying up a dog (especially a potentially aggressive one like a Doberman or a Pit Bull) and beat it regularly. In time you'll have an attack dog. Do we really want attack children?" Dr. Ralph Welsh, author of studies on child abuse.

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. Le lien groupal à l'adolescence, by Jean-Bernard Chapelier et al (Dunod, 2000), p.22

2. Concerning the debate over psychoanalysis, see the exchange of letters between Olivier Maurel and psychoanalyst Michel Pouquet, entitled Œdipe et Laïos : Dialogue sur l'origine de la violence (L'Harmattan, 2003)

3. Les Bêtises, by C. Dolto Tolich, Colline Faure-Poirée, and Joële Boucher (Gallimard Jeunesse, 1994).