Severe Parental Punishment and Aggression:
The Link between Corporal Punishment and Delinquency

Ralph S. Welsh, Ph.D.

Revised Web edition, January 1998. Originally published in Corporal Punishment in American Education: Readings in History, Practice and Alternatives, Editors: Irwin A. Hyman and James H. Wise, Temple University Press, Copyright 1979 (pp. 126-142).

This essay is a summary of the work my assistant and I have been doing with juvenile delinquents for more than nine years, culminating in the formulation of a theory1 of juvenile delinquency. Although the "Belt Theory" of juvenile delinquency has been viewed by some of my colleagues to be too simplistic, we are becoming increasingly certain that the theory has far-reaching implications for the ultimate reduction of juvenile delinquency in particular, and human aggression in general.

Early in my clinical career I became alarmed to discover an unusual number of juvenile delinquents who were reporting severe parental punishment (SPP)2 when giving their development histories. When I began carefully to question the delinquents or their parents, and tabulate the information regarding parental punishment practices, I was astounded to find that the recidivist male delinquent who had never been exposed to a belt, board, extension cord, or fist was virtually nonexistent. Although puzzled and skeptical viewing my own data, I was, nevertheless, intrigued. I began to explore the ramifications of the relationship between SPP and delinquency. With the help of several associates and consultants, to date we have surveyed more than four hundred subjects, including juvenile delinquents, their parents, high school service club youths, PTA members, adult education students, and laundromat patrons. Armed with information obtained from the above studies, and utilizing supportive data from the literature, I constructed a behavioral model which I frequently refer to as my "Belt Theory of Juvenile Delinquency" (Welsh, 1976a).

SPP and Aggression: The Growing Evidence of a Relationship

For years learning theorists have known that punishment, as a means of behavior control, is highly complex. In fact, the same punishing stimulus may accelerate or retard performance of the same behavior, depending upon whether it is given in such a way to produce responses that are compatible or in conflict with the behavior (Fowler & Miller, 1963). In other instances, punishment may serve virtually no purpose because its inhibiting effects tend to wear off (Skinner, 1938). Recently, its aggression-inducing effects began to be appreciated by those working in the animal laboratory; Ulrich (1966) and Azrin (1964) showed that experimentally induced pain can produce a violent aggressive attack in a wide variety of animal species, including rats, pigeons, and monkeys. Of course, the pain-induced aggression they observed was reflexive, and delinquent aggression is not. However, field studies with humans are starting to show that SPP might be a potent precursor to the development of habitual instrumental aggression.

Sears, Maccoby, and Levin (1957) found that mothers who severely punished aggressive behavior in their children had more aggressive children than mothers who lightly punished aggressiveness, and Eron et al. (1971) found that schoolchildren who were rated by their peers to be the most aggressive in the classroom tended to have parents who used the most corporal punishment. When studies of criminals and juvenile delinquents are made, the findings are similar. In a multidisciplinary approach to violence among 158 female prisoners, Climent et al. (1973) found five nonmedical variables associated with violence, one of which was severe parenting; and Langner et al. (1916) were able directly to implicate the belt and the stick when they found that punitive parenting (the use of a stick or belt, and the frequent withholding of privileges) was the most powerful predictor, and the behavior it predicted best was antisocial misconduct.

Cultural Differences and Severe Parental punishment

If SPP is a significant variable in the development of socially aggressive behavior, other cultures should reveal a strong relationship between cultural childhood disciplinary practices and the level of aggression in that particular culture. Whiting (1963) has shown that cultures with a high crime rate invariably use corporal punishment as their chief socialization technique, but in cultures with a low crime rate, corporal punishment is de-emphasized. Sollenberger (1968) and Porteus (1951) report two practically crime-free cultures, both of which were almost free of SPP.

Bolton (1973a) initially implicated hypoglycemia as the primary factor contributing to the high level of aggression in the Qolla Indians of Peru; yet, in a private communication, Bolton (1973a) confirmed my suspicions that the Qolla are unusually aggressive parents. O'Hanlon (1975) suggests that the violence in Northern Ireland, exemplified by the Irish Republican Army's terrorist tactics, can be traced back to the brutal child-rearing practices of the tense, distressed, and remarkably aggressive parenting of the poor Irish Catholic mothers and fathers.

In our own society non-whites have consistently shown higher crime rates than whites (Time, 1975). If socio-economic status is the primary reason white and non-white crime rates differ, non-white and whites matched for class status should exhibit similar crime rates. However, Wolfgang et al. (1972) found that lower socio-economic status non-white delinquents had committed more than twice as many crimes as the lower SES whites, and higher-socio-economic status non-white delinquents had committed more than twice as many crimes as higher socio-economic status whites. In fact, for every age level from ten to seventeen years, lower SES whites committed fewer crimes than higher SES non-whites (Wolfgang et al,, 1972). Since we have no reason to believe one race is inherently more aggressive than another race, we have a strong hunch that aggressive child-rearing practices peculiar to the non-white culture may be a more important variable than socio-economic class, per se, in the development of delinquent and criminal misconduct.

The Problem of Aversive Conditionability in Psychopathy

It has been known for some time that adult psychopaths and delinquents condition poorly (Hare, 1965, 1968; Lykken, 1955, 1957; and Franks, 1961). Eysenck (1964) has argued that the psychopath is a neurotic extrovert whose poor conditionability is probably an innate personality trait. The psychopath's general impulsivity, insensitivity to others, lack of moral values, and failure to profit from past experience or respond favorably to psychotherapy are well known. Schachter and Latan (1964), Schlichter and Ratliff (1971), and Hare (1968) have all shown that the psychopath is particularly poor in learning pain-avoidance tasks, although he seems to learn with positive reinforcement as well as normals. Hare (1974) writes: "The picture of psychopathy that emerges, therefore, is of a disorder in which there is ready activation of psychophysiological defense mechanisms when aversive stimulation is threatened or anticipated."

Since we are relatively confident from our own findings that all recidivist male delinquents have been exposed to SPP, we immediately began to suspect that SPP might be the environmental precursor that causes this blunting of autonomic reactivity which apparanly services to reduce the emotional impact of a situation. Unfortunately, this may result in a person who fails to profit from aversive experiences, producing a person who habitually engages in behavior for which he has previously been punished.

The Search for a Theory of Delinquency Based on SPP

In our first controlled attempt to investigate the prevalence of SPP among delinquents, we sampled nineteen juvenile court-referred girls and twenty-nine juvenile court-referred boys (Welsh, 1974). We were surprised to find that all twenty-nine boys had been exposed to SPP, although only twelve of the nineteen girls had. Since we had no idea how prevalent SPP was in the general population, we constructed and administered a multiple-choiced questionnaire to 132 laundromat patrons, specifically asking them what kind of discipline they would use on an eight-year-old child who had seriously misbehaved. We found that 54 percent of the minority non-college subjects and 33 percent of the minority subjects with some college were willing to use a strap on their child. Only 15 percent of the white, non-college subjects and 11 percent of the white subjects with some college were willing to use the belt if they were parents of an eight-year-old child. The difference between the two groups was statistically significant. Apparently our uneducated black and Puerto Rican subjects were three times more willing to use a belt on their children than were uneducated white subjects, and the same ratio (3 to 1) held for our educated subjects. These data, showing a higher use of SPP by educated minority subjects than uneducated whites, strikingly parallel the puzzling delinquency statistics reported earlier by Wolfgang who found higher crime rates among higher SES non-whites than among lower SES whites.

Since we later realized that the question asked of the laundromat sample was too indirect (we were a bit restrained in our early probing), we feel that data obtained on a later group of subjects probably reflect the use of SPP by the general population better than the data obtained from the laundromat sample. However, we still feel that the relationship among SPP, race, and socio-economic level obtained from the laundromat sample is still valid.

To obtain a better estimate of the use of the belt in a typical white middle-class community, we asked fifty members of the PTA of a medium-sized, industrial Connecticut town if they felt they had ever been pushed to the point where they had to use the strap on one of their children. Twenty-one of the fifty subjects (42 percent) admitted having used the strap at least once on their child, but twenty-nine of the subjects (58 percent) had not.3 We also found that significantly more of those who had used the strap on their children reported having at least one aggressive child than those who had not used the strap. In even a smaller sample, eleven inner-city high school service club students, the three subjects reporting that they had been suspended from school or had been arrested on at least one occasion, all had been raised on a belt, but none of the five subjects free of exposure to SPP had ever been suspended or arrested. We now feel confident in stating that any group of subjects who use a belt on their children will report having significantly more aggressive children than a comparable group of subjects who do not use SPP, even in small samples barely large enough to make statistical comparisons.

Since our first study with juvenile delinquents was rather crude, the decision was made to gather additional data on severity-seven consecutive juvenile court referrals, including fifty-eight boys and nineteen girls. The sample included nineteen black and Puerto Rican males, and seven black and Puerto Rican females, thirty-nine white males, and twelve white females. The blacks and Puerto Ricans were grouped together because of their minority group status.

As a group the sample exhibited the same discouraging characteristics so commonly found in other groups of delinquent children. Approximately 60 percent had at least one alcoholic parent. 84 percent were reading below expected grade level, and 34 percent were representative of a minority group. On the other hand, nine of the fifty-eight males had parents classified as professional-managerial, including five of the most aggressive subjects in the delinquent sample. Rather surprisingly, fifty-six out of the fifty-eight male subjects were found to have been raised on a belt, board, extension cord, fist, or the equivalent, with only two exceptions representing only 3 percent of the sample. The two non-SPP youngsters, moreover, were inappropriate referrals and could not readily be considered delinquents.

Two independent judges were asked to classify the subjects according to severity of parental punishment. Severe was defined as the parental use of the belt to the rear, the belt having been terminated prior to referral; very severe punishment was defined as the continuing use of the belt, or anything more severe than a belt to the rear, including frequent beatings, the use of extension cords, boards, fists, or the equivalent. The SPP data was obtained by simply asking the subjects to specify what their parents normally did when they misbehaved. When the subject failed to mention anything more severe than a hand, the subject was asked if he had ever been struck with a belt. If the answer was positive, the subject was asked to explain the circumstances under which it was used, and was also asked to recall at what age his parents stopped using SPP. If the subject claimed that he had never been hit with anything other than a hand, he was pressed no further.

Aggressive level was determined from the offense record provided by the juvenile court. The subjects were placed, according to their crimes, into one of the three following categories: very aggressive, including crimes against persons (assaults, purse snatchings, constant fighting in school, etc.); moderately aggressive, including crimes involving objects or property (auto theft, bicycle theft, shoplifting, vandalism, etc.); and mildly aggressive (parental defiance, running away from home, suspensions from school for nonphysical defiance, etc.). Two independent judges were asked to place the subjects into their appropriate aggressive categories. Inter-judge agreements on aggressive categories were 87 percent. Where there was a disagreement, the lesser of the aggressive categories was chosen. The relationship between aggressive level and severity of corporal punishment in male delinquents was highly significant, and SPP was found to be related to delinquent aggression, as we had defined it for the purposes of this study. On the other hand, the same relationship was not significant within the sample of delinquent girls, although the trend was in the expected direction.

Perhaps there are common correlates to SPP and aggression yet undiscovered, but at present it is difficult for us to believe that a parent can have a delinquent male child if SPP was not used on that child during the developmental years.

Since we have long suspected that SPP is a better predictor of aggressive level than is socio-economic class, we compared our minority subjects and our white subjects along the dimension of severity of discipline. As predicted, significantly more of the minority subjects were found to have been exposed to SPP than whites, consistent with the laundromat data. Our delinquent subjects were then separated into two SES levels, those whose parents were blue collar workers or in the trades, and those who had parents in the professional-managerial area. A comparison was made between those who had received severe parental punishment, but the difference was not significant. Clearly, within our sample of delinquents, SPP was related to minority group status, but not social class. We are now quite confident that minority group subjects are more aggressive because more of their parents use SPP than do the parents of whites. Delinquent aggressive level would appear to be no respecter of class, but of SPP.

Since delinquency appears to follow a developmental pattern, we were curious to find the age at which SPP terminates. Within our sample of fifty-eight boys, thirty-eight subjects were no longer receiving SPP, two subjects were never exposed to SPP, and eighteen subjects were still receiving SPP. Coincidentally, SPP appears to terminate4 at precisely the same time the delinquent is building up aggressive steam. Violent crime appears to reach its peak at fifteen (Time, 1975), and trails off thereafter (West, 1968). We also found that fewer girls received SPP than did the boys, but girls tend to be hit longer when they are exposed to SPP.

The Belt Theory of Juvenile Delinquency

Although the belt theory of delinquency was developed primarily for its heuristic value, it has proven to be of considerable value in my clinical practice in formulating treatment plans for my patients, working with schools, and for advising the parents of aggressive children. Essentially, the theory states that delinquency develops in three stages: from zero to three the hitting is minimal, except for the rare aberration of true child abuse; from about three to five, the parent believes the child is old enough to understand, and, therefore, can now learn from hitting, which usually involves the open hand. The first sign of aggression and defiance tends to surface at this age. During the early school years, from five to about thirteen, the child may exhibit hyperactivity and behavior problems in the home and school, but criminal activity is rarely seen during this period. Yet, it is during these years that parents tend to escalate from using the open hand to wielding a tool of discipline such as a belt, board, extension cord, or the fist. In fact, many of my delinquent patients report exposure to the belt for a few short years just prior to the onset of adolescence. Coincidentally, SPP tends to terminate around the 14th year, according to our data, or at approximately the same time the delinquent is building up aggressive steam. (See West, 1968, and Time, 1975.)

Prior to the termination of SPP, the delinquent has already started to habituate to the punishment, and starts to exhibit the poor conditionability to aversive stimuli which has so frequently been seen in the psychopath (Schachter & Latané, 1964; Schlichter & Ratliff, 1971; and Hare, 1968 and 1970). Having been physically punished so often, and having grown insensitive to the social expectancies of our society, he is now unable to gauge the effect his negative behavior has on others, and is even unable to understand the embarrassments and anxieties others experience (see Widom, 1976). If the child is beaten enough, he may become the cold, impersonal psychopath described by Cleckley (1955). The various studies l have conducted suggest that the following propositions are true:

  1. The level of reported aggressive behavior in males is a function of the severity of their corporal punishment histories.
  2. Severity of corporal punishment in the home is more important than socio-economic class as a precursor to delinquency.
  3. Corporal punishment produces both fear and anger; when the fear habituates, anger is left in its place.
  4. The more aggressive a culture, the more probable the members of that culture will be found to utilize corporal punishment as their chief socialization technique.
  5. Since the effects of corporal punishment are no respecter of group, race, or social class, so-called normal parents will have aggressive children proportional to the severity of corporal punishment they utilize on their offspring.
  6. Parents of delinquents are, contrary to popular opinion, "hard liners" on discipline rather than overpermissive, although they are often neglectful; permissiveness and neglect are not the same.
  7. Although SPP appears to be a necessary precursor to delinquent aggression, family violence, especially between the parents, produces a powerful modeling effect, accentuating the anger already implanted in the child.
  8. The well-documented differences in conditionability between delinquents and normals are probably due to fear habituation, reducing the delinquent's ability to rely on anticipatory fear responses, and avoid potentially delinquent situations. It is speculated that this process of habituation or "negative perception" is primarily due to the delinquent's early exposure to severe parenting.
  9. Poverty appears to be a major source of frustration in families with high rates of delinquency. However, poverty probably produces crime indirectly, apparently acting as a catalyst for aggressive parenting.

What Corporal Punishment Probably Does to a Person's Ability to Cope with Stress

Although many of our colleagues are not so convinced as we are of the detrimental effects and ubiquitousness of severe parenting in our society, our work with delinquents has convinced us that corporal punishment, and to a lesser extent other types of parental punishment, exerts a profound effect on the young child's ability to cope later on in life. Although we admit that a link has yet to be established between the poor conditionability of delinquents on pain-avoidance tasks, Hare's work (1974) suggests that the psychopath seems to be unusually adept in modulating aversive cues, which, in turn, reduces the emotional impact of a situation. Lykken (1967) has also noticed this, calling it "negative perception." It would appear then that the delinquent's inability to respond normally to threats of punishment may be an adaptive response to a punitive environment. One has to eat and sleep, and if home is likely to be miserable, one learns to ignore the misery. Unfortunately, this seems to produce a human being unable to profit from punishment, and unable to avoid it.

In most cases of delinquency, the following scenario appears to unfold. As the child gets bigger, more menacing, and is able to grab the belt out of the parent's hand, the corporal punishment ends, and the child has dramatically been reinforced for aggressive behavior. With the lid off the pressure cooker, the anger pours out. At this point, total alienation can occur between parent and child with a youngster growing into adulthood full of angry frustration that his parents never understood, and parents who want nothing to do with him for having spoiled their lives. Everyone expects the child to fail, including himself, so he does.

The school situation parallels the home. The child shows his defiance, and the school retaliates. Often, when the child arrives home, the parents retaliate, too. It is probably less than coincidental that those who have studied high school dropouts find that most of them are budding delinquents (see Liehter et al., 1962).

Societal Supports for SPP

When the above findings and theory have been discussed with my colleagues, they are often met with either skepticism or, on occasion, contempt. Interestingly, my most vehement critics are usually forced to admit that their own parents had thrashed them with a belt quite soundly when they were young, but they usually insist that the thrashings did them no harm. They also point out, as do the parents of my delinquents, one can only expect that the most violent youngsters were hit the most; after all, they were the bad ones who invited their parents' wrath. There may be a grain of truth in this argument, but I seriously doubt that a child is born bad. Rather, it would appear that the studies showing that delinquents more commonly exhibit evidence of neurological dysfunction than other groups (see Razavi, 1975, pp. 223-25) implicate hyperkinesis as the behavioral condition that most commonly invites SPP. Since our data clearly indicate that parents of delinquents are, contrary to popular opinion, the antithesis of permissiveness in their disciplinary practices, hyperactive youngsters raised in these high punishment families probably have an unusually high probability of becoming delinquent. In fairness, it should be emphasized that the SPP parent is not an ogre, however. He or she is frequently a well-respected member of the community who simply believes that his child needs firm discipline--in fact, a rather typical American. No matter what the media say, the American parent is not permissive now, wasn't even permissive during the so-called Spock era of the forties and fifties, and apparently has never been permissive from the time the dreaded schoolmaster first brought the birch rod with him from England, when he came to this continent to settle (see Welsh, 1976c).

Also, we currently have one of the most punitive criminal justice procedures in the world, and there is a growing fear of crime in America that far exceeds the amount of personal injury that Americans risk each day from sources other than crime (Brooks, 1974, p. 241). The fact is that an enormous myth exists, the myth that hell-raisers are raised by parents who let their children do as they please, which is clearly an outgrowth of the all-too-common practice of ignoring the child while he knocks all the cereal boxes off the supermarket shelf, but later thrashing him soundly behind closed doors in the home.

Another interesting discovery that parallels the findings of those working in the child abuse area is the fact that at least one of the parents of a delinquent male child was exposed to SPP during his or her childhood (Welsh, 1975). I am now gathering data on more than 100 parents of juvenile delinquents (mostly mothers); these parents of delinquents have reported having been beaten with such items as: belts, fists, sticks, cat-o'nine-tails, extension cords, wooden spoons, broom handles, 2x4s, rubber hoses, and "anything my parents could pick up." Clearly parents learn to discipline from their own parents and not from child-rearing manuals. One of my patients was a fifteen-year-old boy who had broken into four houses, stolen a gun--shooting it randomly into several houses--and tied a boy to a tree with wire, then beat him with a stick. In describing her childhood, his mother reported, "My father was an alcoholic, worked at a rubber company, and made a cat-o'-nine-tails out of rubber strips he brought home. He was very abusive, and we were all terrified of him. My husband was just beaten with the belt." The mother of a fifteen-year-old boy who had stolen two cars, broke into a house, and claimed to have had fist fights with his father, reported, "My mother knocked my teeth out with a hairbrush. She used to hit me with a belt, a wooden spoon . . . anything she could get her hands on." The businessman father of a twelve-year-old boy arrested for breaking and entering and vandalism recalled, "I was raised in an orphanage. They used to beat me every day for wetting the bed," and the mother of a drug-dependent fifteen-year-old boy who had been arrested for breaking and entering and car theft said "My mother used to use a wide leather belt with diamonds on it which she would then monogram our rears with."

A factor I had failed to emphasize in my earlier work was the strong effect of modeling. Although my data on more than one hundred delinquents and their parents are not yet fully analyzed, it appears that the child who was exposed to SPP, and also observed his mother being battered by his father, is the most aggressive youngster of all. Typical is a fifteen-year-old Puerto Rican youth who has repeatedly been involved in breaking and entering, had verbally challenged a police officer, and had assaulted a teacher. His passive, meek mother was raised in a happy, pleasant home, but married a man who had been brutalized by his father with "an extension cord or anything he could pick up." The father episodically beat up the mother in front of the children, putting her in the hospital on one occasion. Another eleven-year-old boy who had frequently watched his father brutalize his mother smashed numerous windows in the school after his teacher had grabbed him by the hair and said she was going to beat him if he didn't behave. It is, of course, ironic that the child who starts to become aggressive invites further aggression from the home, the school, and the community. The fact that the poor, the mistreated, and the children most in need of understanding and support are those most often singled out by the punishment-oriented school personnel, has been observed before (see Glasser, 1969; Fosters remarks in Welsh, 1976b); and Welsh, 1978).

What about the Effects of SPP versus the Effects of Violence on TV?

A highly popular area of research and public interest has been the effects of violence on TV and in the media. We suspect that this interest is probably unwarranted. Although the portrayal of violence may temporarily increase a child's aggressive play, and decrease his sensitivity to the problems of others, I must agree with Singer (1971), whose exhaustive survey of the literature led him to conclude: "A careful scrutiny of the formal scientific literature does not yield evidence that warrants a judgment linking the increased violence in the United States to the portrayal of violence in fiction or news reporting on T.V. or movie film" (Singer, 1971, p. 54).

Kaplan and Singer (1976) in a more recent survey of the literature are even more skeptical about the influence of TV on violent behavior, stating:

It is unlikely that war, murder, suicide, and the battered child syndrome, other violent crimes, and man's inhumanity to man stem to any marked degree from television viewing....

Instead of castigating the networks, it might be more useful to ask why the public is so fascinated by programs portraying violence. (Kaplan & Singer, 1976, p. 64)

Further, Gelles (1974) has shown us that violence in the American home is remarkably common (57 percent of his agency families and 37 percent of their neighbors reported at least one violent act of one family member against another). Our work leads us to suspect that SPP is the most significant precursor to violent behavior, and general family violence is next. Other family factors may also be important, but we doubt that TV viewing numbers among the more significant ones. It should not be too surprising that real-life violence, not contrived Hollywood violence, is the factor that most directly influences a child's aggressive behavior.

What Can Be Done

If we are correct that the single most important factor in the development of delinquency is severe parenting, then the direction is clear. In recent years the social cost of crime has become enormous, costing business alone more than 23.6 billion dollars per year, and homicide claims 20,000 people annually. The vandalism rate in our schools is estimated at 500 million dollars a year, and crime continues unabated. If a dent could be made in these statistics by teaching our society less punitive parenting, a strong effort in this direction should probably be made. Unfortunately, recent societal attitudes are not in keeping with this philosophy. People are scared; they are clamoring for a return to corporal punishment in the schools, tougher laws, and a return to capital punishment. We find this trend very alarming, and one that can only exacerbate the delinquency problem, with the juvenile delinquent becoming the one with the most to lose.

Assuming the belt theory is essentially valid, a community assault on the problem is needed. The following recommendations are suggested:

  1. The negative effects of corporal punishment must be well publicized, and recognized by the public at large as well as the clinical community, resulting in a social atmosphere condemning it.5
  2. Schools need to be well staffed with family therapists who can enter the home when a child has been found to be unusually aggressive, or has shown other evidence of parental maltreatment. The dangers of severe parenting must be pointed out, and other alternatives to discipline provided. Other family stresses could then be identified and reduced. The schools are in a unique position to provide this service, since they see, practically every day, the consequences of bad parenting.
  3. The aggressive-hyperactive child should not be medicated and then forgotten if his behavior improves. If SPP continues, puberty could very well bring the anger to the surface again.
  4. Schools that still practice corporal punishment and other punitive practices must be required to stop these destructive procedures immediately, the 1975 and 1977 Supreme Court rulings allowing corporal punishment in the schools notwithstanding. A school cannot provide supportive services if the school itself is also an aggressor.
  5. Training for parenthood should be government-mandated and should begin in the early grades. The use of corporal punishment should he repeatedly and resoundingly condemned in these programs, with appropriate alternatives to discipline being provided. Of course, this does result in a dilemma. The U.S. government has traditionally avoided becoming involved in local education, and the general public appears to be oblivious to the insidious long-term effects of corporal punishment exemplified by the growing "back to basics" movement, pressing for the old-fashioned discipline (see Egerton, 1976, and Hand, 1975). In the present climate, local school boards are likely to be slow in implementing such programs, unfortunately.
  6. Police need to be better trained in handling and understanding delinquent misconduct. Many a policeman has told a parent of a delinquent, "What your kid needs is a good whack on the ass!" Frequently, the youngster has a parent who is at his or her wits' end, and open to any and all suggestions. The policeman who tells the parent to go easier on the kid, rather than harder, to do a bit more patient listening, and less issuing of commands, would be doing everyone a service.
  7. Battered wives, and to a lesser extent battered husbands, need assistance. The fact that a group of battered wives recently banded together in New York because of the cavalier way the criminal justice system had treated them exemplifies a serious problem that exists in every American community (see Barden, 1977). It is clear that every time an angry parent strikes another, their children's aggressive thresholds drop a little more (see Gelles, 1974).
  8. Family therapists need to teach parents of delinquents to express hurt rather than anger when their child misbehaves. If the child is to learn guilt, and to love the parent, he must not be treated in such a way that alienation is guaranteed.
  9. All poor, minority, and other high-risk SPP groups in our society urgently need to be apprised of the risks involved in severe parenting. Ethnic leaders should be enlisted to lead the educational campaign.
It is our suspicion that the most effective way of eliminating the aggression that fuels juvenile delinquency is to prevent the problem from ever starting, rather than dealing with it later on. In fact, Langner et al. (1976), suggests that early punitive parenting, even when it is eliminated before the child grows up, will still contribute to a child's later aggressiveness. Our work suggests the same. There are many adults who are "hot-heads" who were raised by aggressive parents and are now unhappy with their acting out, but unable to control themselves. We have growing evidence that many alcoholics are physically punished people who have tried to deal with their angry and inadequate feelings by tranquilizing themselves with alcohol, which unfortunately often causes that anger to break through.

It would appear that we will have to work harder if we ever expect to achieve the highly advanced society psychohistorian Lloyd deMause thinks we have been heading toward where "children are neither struck nor scolded, and are apologized to if yelled at under stress" (see deMause, 1974, p.52). It is hoped that this country's current fixation with the "hard line" approach is only a momentary pause, as does Dr. David Friedman, who strongly urges that we all work toward the development of alternatives to striking children (see Welsh, 1976b). In response to New York Times reporter Richard Flaste (1977), Friedman remarked, "I just don't think adults have any right to hit children. And in the best of all possible worlds, they wouldn't."

We believe the term permissive parenting will have to be eliminated from the clinical literature because of its present strong negative connotation. Parents never seem to have been able to discriminate between permissiveness and neglect. Perhaps "consensual parenting" might be a good alternative term, since it implies a cooperative relationship between the parent and child which many of the "modern" parents of the permissive era failed to understand. Obviously, all children need values, direction, and guidance, but they also require a generous amount of freedom in which to learn how to make choices and find their own way. "Modern" permissive parents may have made a few mistakes, but they never deserved the ridicule and denunciations the advocates of authoritarianism have heaped upon them. A national reversion to strict, punitive childrearing patterns in response to the permissive strawman would be an American tragedy indeed.


  1. Perhaps the use of the term "theory" is presumptive. Nevertheless, my data force me to conclude that the relationship between severe parental punishment and delinquency is strong, has been largely neglected in the literature, and needs to be better documented, explored, and understood.
  2. Severe parental punishment (SPP) is defined as any type of physical discipline utilizing an object capable of inflicting physical injury. Included are belts, boards, extension cords, fists, or the equivalent.
  3. This was slightly higher than the data obtained by Adah Maurer who found that 32 percent of a sample of college freshmen reported previous exposure to the strap during their development years (Maurer, 1975). We consider either figure too high, however.
  4. The mean age of termination of SPP among the thirty-eight boys no longer being hit was 14.14 years (SD =1.29).
  5. I have repeatedly suggested that all belt manufacturers stamp on the back of their belts, "Caution: This belt is an article of clothing only. Its use to punish a child is dangerous to the child's mental health."

See Delinquency, Corporal Punishment and the Schools by Ralph S. Welsh, Ph.D.
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