Spanking or striking children as a method to correct bad behaviour has been widely used by parents in many cultures as a primary means of discipline, particularly among younger children. Lately, though, this disciplinary technique has been the subject of criticism among experts who have adopted a philosophy of ‘positive parenting’ even as the possibility of spanking or striking has been removed from the school’s arsenal of possible punishment techniques.
Corporal punishment seems a simple and effective way to punish children when they stray from desired actions. Children seem to respond much quicker to physical punishments or even the threat of this than they do verbal corrections. Many parents believe that spanking is an acceptable form of punishment and consider the practice as an indispensable component of child-rearing. Others believe hitting anyone is wrong including and maybe especially, a child. Physically abusing another adult is considered a crime and when it involves a child, is often considered reprehensible as well. It is argued that a civilized society should not permit a child to be abused simply because of a lack of imagination regarding less physical discipline techniques. Is corporal punishment a positive, healthy and effective way to discipline a child or does this practice teach the child that violence is an accepted way to handle problems? In light of increasing discipline problems within the classroom, interrupting or preventing instruction, it is necessary to consider alternative means of handling some of the problems we are facing with today’s youth. If we were to put corporal punishment back into our schools, a great deal of the problems with today’s youth could be eradicated.
The ‘spanking culture’ includes the majority of U.S. and U.K. households as evidenced by the fact that a majority of parents not only believe corporal punishment is the correct method for the home, they want it to be reintroduced in schools to tackle what they perceive is an increasing problem of classroom disorder. “Fifty-one percent of parents think reintroduction of corporal punishment is the answer to the problem. Among working class parents, 60 percent are in favour, 40 percent among middle class parents” (Carvel, 2000). The strongest supporters for corporal punishment in the United States are the National Association of Secondary School Principals, a large majority of fundamentalist churches and the American Federation of Teachers. As of 1985, 47 percent of the general American population were in favor of corporal punishment in the schools and 60 percent of school officials of various rank were also in favor of more physical disciplinary techniques in schools (“Corporal Punishment”, 2003). For most, it is believed that the threat of corporal punishment by teachers and administrators produces children who are “better controlled, learn appropriate appreciation for authority, develop better social skills, as well as improved moral character and learn to better discipline themselves” (“Corporal Punishment”, 2003). To a large extent, the research supports this contention when corporal punishment is carried out with reason, restraint and reliability among younger children.
Recent studies have indicated that long term effects of discipline techniques will depend to a great deal upon the method by which they are carried out and the parameters that determine the type of punishment given. According to Larzelere’s (2000) findings, whether children experience negative or positive outcomes from discipline techniques depends on the rate of recurrence of any disciplinary approach. This includes all types of discipline and does not single out corporal punishment. Consequently, it is determined to be excessive recurrences of bad behavior that is the root-cause of negative outcomes such as excessive punishment – children are not bad because they’ve been spanked but are spanked because they’ve been bad. Parents understand that recurring bad behavior will hamper their child’s chances for a successful life as an adult and feel compelled to diminish poor behavioral patterns with disciplinary techniques they believe to be most effective. It is the parents’ understanding that should be used as a guide as to how the schools should respond to behavior problems. However, unlike the schools that can depend to a large degree on available research, most parents find it necessary to resort to the advice of those older than they regarding how best to handle disciplinary matters, thus acting without the guidance of emerging research and theories regarding what motivates children and how best to redirect their behavior (Hernandez, 2007). For many of these groups, parents must either rely upon grandparent support and child-raising techniques or avoid raising their children altogether, leaving them to essentially raise themselves, as the parents must spend a majority of their time simply earning the necessary money to keep these same children fed, housed and clothed. This means children are either raised via archaic methods of punishment and behavior expectations or are raised without any boundaries, structure or cultural values. Without time or energy to research the latest knowledge regarding child behavior, what parents need is quality information regarding methods by which to effectively discipline their children and this information is most typically provided by the schools themselves.
As it turns out, the most effective punishment techniques are established on the basis of a relationship between the authority figure and the child that is positive and loving. The punishment methods are proactive but measured and administered with competency while being designed to both respect the misbehaving individual and present them with an opportunity to learn from their inappropriate behavior. Many of these concepts are based upon the teachings of Gandhi as they are outlined by R. Rajmohan (2000). According to Rajmohan, Gandhi believed that “Punishment and disciplinary action might make for an outer show of orderliness and progress, but that is all.” Corporal punishment in Gandhi’s view was not seen as an effective means of changing children’s behavior. Instead, it was seen to facilitate the hardening of their emotions, provide them with an outer shell of resistance and bring about little if any change in their fundamental behavior patterns. Although it did bring about speedy conformance to the rules when being observed, spanking typically resulted in no inner growth and a tendency for children to disobey the rules when not being watched. According to Gandhi, physical punishment designed to inflict pain first presented an opportunity for an abuse of power towards children by those who are placed in authority above them, such as their parents or teachers. It instills a sense of humiliation and intimidation in the mind of the child and removes them from the result of their poor behavior rendering the child incapable of learning the consequences their actions held for others. Finally, rather than encouraging children to think of how their actions might hurt other people, corporal punishment forces them to make a choice between the mechanical action of obeying the rules or the equally mechanical reaction of rebelling against them, again discouraging any opportunity for moral reflection or growth and reinforcing the idea that rules can or should be broken whenever one can do so without being caught (Rajmohan, 2000).
In contrast to the punishment technique, Gandhi suggested a more positive approach involving reasoning with the child regarding their behavior and thus encouraging self-awareness. Care should be taken toward the rearing of children and the correction of anti-social activities so that the child is able to learn something positive from the experience rather than reinforcing conceptions of control through physical force and pain. When acting in response to bad behaviour, an argument based on Gandhi’s approach indicates parents should apply mild corrective actions such as reasoning, grounding and time-out. “A constructive way of dealing with such errors … is not to punish those who committed them, but to help them acknowledge their mistakes and assist them to correct them in future. This method should be kind and sympathetic so it can help individuals transform themselves rather than make them feel bad about themselves” (Rajmohan, 2000). Unfortunately, this type of approach seems woefully inadequate for the teacher who is attempting to keep up to 30 students learning throughout the day or for principals who are only able to see the child when they are sent to the office for disciplinary measures. In these cases, something more immediate, less personal and memorable must be employed.
Spanking, if it absolutely must be used, has been shown to be most effective when it only used to re-enforce these milder corrective actions carried out in the home. Studies have demonstrated that spanking serves to increase the chance that the child will respond to mild corrective tactics. Sometimes it serves as a reminder to a mind not yet fully developed enough to fully consider the future consequences of actions and sometimes it is a deterrent to future similar behavior within a given setting. While children may learn they can do certain things at home, such as stand on furniture perhaps, this can be a dangerous activity in a busy classroom and may need more forceful reminders regarding what is not permitted in school. As a consequence of a child’s natural learning ability, spanking accompanied with efforts to ensure the child understands the reason for physical punishment, is needed less to control behaviour as the child grows older. “Spanking has consistently beneficial outcomes when it is non-abusive (e.g., two swats to the buttocks with an open hand) and used primarily to back up milder disciplinary tactics with 2- to 6-year-olds by loving adults… most detrimental outcomes in causally relevant studies are due to overly frequent use of physical punishment” (Larzelere, 2000: 215). Within the school system, these types of punishment techniques are frequently approached very systematically, ensuring that the child receives the explanation of why spanking is necessary and that the spanking given is not abusive, excessive or overly frequent without investigating other causes of behavior issues.
Many parents and researchers alike are of the opinion that “parents have to be the parents, you can’t let the children run circles around you, which they will. Kids want to push their limits” (Etheridge, 1997). This same consideration should be extended into the classroom where teachers must deal with not just one or two children but sometimes as many as 30, all of whom are expected to have a certain level of knowledge at the end of a short season of learning. In addition, there are safety concerns. If a child is repeating unsafe behaviour such as climbing the furniture or darting out into the street, teachers have to stop the child by any means necessary. If reasoning with the child is not effective or the child is too young to understand either the rationale or the danger, a quick swat on the backside may ultimately serve to save their life. These arguments are repeated in triplicate when the child enters school and there are numerous individuals jockeying against each other for social status within their grade level or institution. The argument holds that teachers must retain control of the classroom and the only way to provide them with this type of control, given the numbers of students they must contend with on a daily basis, is to provide them with the right to spank a child who is misbehaving. In schools where the possibility of corporal punishment has been removed, this has indeed been the case as students begin to realize that the school itself, and the teachers in it, can do nothing to force them to behave and begin to run wild about the classroom.
Many of the strongest complaints against the use of corporal punishment in the schools are based on people’s awareness of the possibility of abusing the right. Severe punishment, which is suspected in at least 30 percent of those families employing corporal punishment, is described as hitting which was “intended to or had the potential to or actually did cause physical and/or psychological injury or harm to the child” (Nobes, 1997). In the United States, it was determined through a Gallup Poll that 74 percent of children under the age of 5 had been hit by their parents by 1995 with 90 percent of the responding parents with children under the age of three reported having spanked their children as a means of disciplining them (Wauchope & Straus, 1990). These numbers are supported by a number of other studies in which it has been determined that the great majority of children in America have been subjected to spanking as a form of acceptable discipline. However, it is unclear how many of these cases involved what would be categorized as ‘severe punishment’ and it has already been shown how the use of corporal punishment within the school setting could be easily regulated to prevent such harsh treatment of a child when it is necessary.
When practiced with discipline on the part of the adult and used as a last resort when a child simply refuses to behave even after they have been made aware of the consequences to others, corporal punishment can be an effective tool to reinforce learning outcomes in children, particularly those who are younger and have less ability to reason or to think ahead. Allowing a systematic approach to spanking within the school systems would provide the teachers with a very real and potentially greatly effective means of regaining control over the classroom. Those who are not so well informed and choose to base their opinions on perhaps their own abusive situations as children argue against this claiming it is tantamount to criminal brutality. The majority of parents that spank their children are not abusive by nature. They do so because they are concerned about properly socializing and protecting their offspring, a natural inclination also found in most species of animals. Most parents would gladly opt for other forms of corrective measures if they only worked. Positive parenting methods such as those suggested by Gandhi that involve treating a child as if they are actually human beings with the capacity for reasoned thought and the right to be respected can work well for older children, but there is a general perception that the still underdeveloped minds of young children are not capable of grasping the fine nuances of such measures.
The evidence has shown that sustained spanking leads to future behavioural problems but an occasional swat to those children under seven years of age used only as a last resort complemented with sound judgment and a loving environment is probably the favorable method by which to discipline children whether at school or at home.
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