Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Corporal Punishment: What Exactly are We Talking About Here?

The intriguing headline Physical Punishment Tied to Aggression, Hyperactivity headed a report by Reuters Health Information dated January 17, 2014.  The report summarized a study done in the African nation of Tanzania, where, it said, “physical punishment is considered normal.” The conclusion of the study was summarized as: “Regardless of the culture a child lives in, corporal punishment may do lasting psychological harm” and “primary school students who were beaten by teachers or family members in the name of discipline tended to show more behavior problems, not fewer.”

The article went on to summarize the findings:

Some people still believe, despite an overwhelming body of evidence, that corporal punishment in some cultures won't result in as many negative effects," George Holden told Reuters Health. "But, as this study shows, it's difficult to find support for that argument," said Holden, a professor of psychology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, who was not involved in the study. Past research, mainly in industrialized countries, has found that children and teens who experience corporal punishment may "externalize" their negative experiences in the form of bad behavior and emotional problems, Hecker and his colleagues write in the journal Child Abuse & Neglect.

To test whether the same is true in a culture where physical punishment is the norm and the law allows teachers to use it, the researchers interviewed 409 children between grades 2 and 7 at one private school in Tanzania, on the east coast of Africa. Participants averaged 10.5 years old. Ninety-five percent of the boys and girls said they had been physically punished at least once in their lifetime by a teacher. The same percentage reported physical punishment from parents or caregivers.

Nine percent of children had higher-than-normal levels of hyperactivity. About 11 percent of the kids showed less empathetic behavior than peers who had not experienced physical punishment.

Of course, as James Penston argues in his book Stats.con, correlational studies like this can be problematic. Still, as someone who argues that acting out, antisocial behavior, and hyperactivity are primarily responses to environmental family-of-origin issues - not the result of being a kid being born a genetically “bad seed” - I thought this study might be supporting evidence for my opinion.

But something about that story bothered me. "Corporal punishment?" Is that the right term the authors should have used?

I say no, because it is too vague. When the topic of corporal punishment for children comes up, there is a tendency of a lot of people to mix apples and oranges. In fact, in just about any controversial issue about almost anything, there is a generic tendency for a lot of people to fallaciously argue by conflating a variety of different factors, and then acting as if they are all talking about the same thing.  In particular, they ignore important qualitative and quantitative differences such as frequency and severity of certain phenomena. Arguments of this sort are yet another example of the art of misleading others.

Allow me to illustrate with this study. A little further down the article it spelled out what types of corporal punishment were being included in the study:

The majority of children, 82%, had been beaten with sticks, belts or other objects …Nearly a quarter of the kids had experienced punishment so severe that they were injured.
Corporal punishment? Well, yes. But the type of corporal punishment they describe is not exactly comparable to a swat on the rear administered by a parent to a toddler who just darted out dangerously into the street.  What is being described in this article is frank physical child abuse.
And yet I have seen the argument advanced that children should never ever be spanked, because spanking just teaches people to be violent or to use violence as their go-to problem solving skill.  Gee, I know an awful lot of people who had been spanked as children who are about as non-violent as they come.  Maybe I just hang out with wierdos or something.
While there are indeed some people who argue in print that no rod should ever be spared in not spoiling the child, no one I know is arguing the merits of beating the crud out of children. 

Apples and oranges. It’s really not all that hard to tell the difference between a spanking and a beating. 

It may very well be that mild spanking is ineffective as a form of punishment, or that there are better ways to accomplish the same disciplinary goal, or that it should be used only sparingly.  But causing kids to become violent in and by itself?  That’s just plain nonsense.

Whether you are for spanking or against it, equating light spanking with child abuse trivializes the latter. This then has a rather unfortunate side effect: People who read that spanking is included in the definition of child abuse often come to the conclusion that child abuse statistics must therefore be hopelessly inflated, so it cannot be nearly as big a problem as we know it actually is. So they lose interest. Losing the support of these people not only does not help the noble cause of reducing child abuse, it actively undermines it.


  1. Spanking or hitting a child (light or hard, if you see a difference) for their 'bad behaviour' is very shame inflicting and damaging to feelings of security...feelings of frustration and hurt go underground and come out later as counterwill "no I won't" "I don't care" (i.e. i'm still really hurt) - obviously child is unable to process this on a cognitive level yet. And the cycle continues... It isn't how we ADULTS 'intellectualize' this act, it's how a CHILD EXPERIENCES it that is the crux. And spanking as a punishment or to re-establish control or power or whatever (oh yeah, to teach a lesson, that's a good one - to a child with a fully functioning pre-frontal cortex at the time of being hit, that's always a good time for learning to sink in)... this is different than the example you gave which is to evoke immediate alarm in a toddler running towards a street - to keep the child safe.

  2. ps a good review (two pages):

  3. Parents don't spank to correct or punish a child--parents spank because they're pissed off and CAN spank a kid. If you can't smack a coworker for bad behavior, you shouldn't be able to smack your kid.