Corporal Punishment is not the Whole Story

A few words about corporal punishment before I get into something new on the subject. Bear with me. I promise, love it or hate it, I won’t bore you.

There’s been a lot of talk again lately, prompted by the Adrian Peterson story and it’s all good stuff, pretty encouraging. Here’s a great article, even if it does reference the racist aspect of the current spate of outrage:


That article breaks it down racially, which doesn’t interest me much, but it references one study that says that between 73% and 89% of most Americans (not all races are represented) stated that they spanked their children. These number aren’t changing very much. I think the big studies from decades ago give pretty much the same numbers. Corporal punishment of children is not going away, despite that the science is in, despite that we have known of the damage for years. Here’s what is probably the definitive metastudy regarding the damages of corporal punishment, from Elizabeth Gershoff:


Don’t follow that link if you’re already on board, if you already oppose corporal punishment. That information is good, but it’s old, and more to the point – it’s not helping as much as we might have hoped. Everything in it about the damage is good and correct, but here’s the issue, found in the first two points in the “Recommendations” section:


“1. That parents, caregivers, and all school personnel in the United States make every effort to avoid using physical punishment and to rely instead on nonviolent disciplinary methods to promote children’s appropriate behavior.

  1. That all public and private schools and institutions that care for children in the United States (including foster care agencies and group homes) cease using physical punishment and rely instead on nonphysical disciplinary methods to promote children’s appropriate behavior.”

(Gershoff, E. T. (2008). Report on Physical

Punishment in the United States:

What Research Tells Us About Its Effects on Children.

Columbus, OH: Center for Effective Discipline.)


The problem lies in these two terms: “nonviolent disciplinary methods” and “nonphysical disciplinary methods.” This is the trap that all the brilliant and well-meaning educators and parenting gurus have set for us. This is the myth, that there exists any such thing, or more to the point, that there can be any such thing or any such thing that actually works. I don’t deny that there can be instances of nonphysical discipline; we’ve all seen them. You don’t have to punish a child every time you want the child to do something. (That sounds like I’m advocating for punishment, but I’m not. I’ll explain before this is done.)

I deny that a program of punishment, a lifestyle of punishment, can exist without physical means.

I deny that a child willingly takes a punishment, I deny that a child willingly self-punishes. A child who takes his or her timeout, or early bed, or the loss of a toy, loss of screen time in stride, with only a word from the adults has learned his or her physical lessons previously. (This is the part you’ll hate. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.) When a child volunteers for discipline, most often that child knows it’s his or her best option; that child knows that compliance isn’t really optional, and that things will very likely escalate if the child resists. Remember what old-school discipline is. The old parenting books, before Doctor Spock, the religious child-rearing books, they had people swatting their babies, for the very reason that they were babies and babies can’t be talked to, they lack language. In that world, children know what happens when they resist by the time they can talk. Those families were able to demonstrate “nonphysical disciplinary methods” too, but their verbal control of their children was very much based in physical punishment.

Allow me to try to impress on you that all punishment is physical with a few rhetorical questions:

How do we non-physically place a two year old in timeout?

How do we non-physically stop a grounded teen from walking out the door?

So before I lose track, here is my point: punishment is inherently “corporal.” We are corporeal beings after all. I’m not OK with corporal punishment, that’s not what I’m saying when I say all punishment is physical, or based in the physical, impossible without a physical basis. When I say all punishment is corporal, what I’m saying is to end corporal punishment, we must . . . wait for it . . .

we must end punishment of children, all punishment of children – I mean if we want to end corporal punishment. Because these “nonphysical disciplinary methods” are a mirage, a weird dream.

I know that’s a big ask, not an easy answer. I know you see discipline as, uh . . . not optional. It is, though. It really is. It has to be, because the damages of corporal punishment are never-ending, and there really is no other kind. Not only that, but even if there were some kind of nonphysical disciplinary methods, even if it were possible to discipline without physically forcing it – again, there are instances of it, but there cannot be a program of it – even then, much of the damage isn’t the physical kind anyway.

Many of the well documented damages are non-physical. They are in fact, overwhelmingly emotional, psychological, and cognitive in nature. I know nobody really thinks the lion’s share of the damage wrought by corporal punishment is the physical damage, but to reason it along just a single further step, it is logical to acknowledge that physical damages are the only kind that require physical causes. It is the other aspects of discipline that bring on the other sorts of damage, again, namely, emotional, psychological, and cognitive damage.

So there you have it. Two arguments explaining why corporal punishment isn’t the problem, two arguments why punishment, period, is the problem. Love it or hate it, I beg you, just remember it. Of course, spread the word, re-tweet this, re-post. Spread the word. Try this idea on, look at these issues this way for a time, a day, a week, a month . . . you’ll see. These issues can make sense, when viewed this way, it doesn’t have to be an emotional, personal choice sort of thing. It’s not religion. It’s real-world stuff. It’s right in front of us.

My wife and I have raised two daughters without the use of any sort of punishing whatsoever. Our girls are still in school, one is a senior in high school and the other is in university, after two years of college. It’s not a controlled double-blind study, but we’ve proved it’s possible, and it’s looking pretty good at this point.

Thanks for reading. Really.

14 thoughts on “Corporal Punishment is not the Whole Story

  1. Pamela Spiro Wagner October 5, 2014 / 6:23 pm

    Punishment means justifying the imposition of your will on another human being, because you are bigger and stronger than they are and because you can, period. If you were not bigger and stronger than they, you could not punish them. This means that punishment involves humiliation and degradation by definition, whether it is physical, which it always is at first, as you mention, since no one could force anyone to take a time out “voluntarily” if there were not a tacit threat of physical force or some physical deprivation involved or the history of it, or whether it is “merely” non-physical as in having someone write sentences a hundred times or spend time alone in a barren room or simply be deprived of an enjoyable pastime. Either way, punishment is a form of violation, and to violate someone — as the root word implies — is to rape them psychologically as well as physically, male or female. The consequences of this to society, to the entire world, has been devastating. We are people who are so damaged and violated we cannot even see how to treat the utterly innocent, like little babies who cannot be blamed for anything they do, with the care and love that surely they at least deserve. We believe even they need discipline for their own good, and so we violate/discipline/punish/teach them consequences as we ourselves were so violated/disciplined and taught. Until people truly look into themselves and change, until we decide not to accept that damaged part of ourselves and that learned violence in ourselves, the cycle will continue…


    • neighsayer October 5, 2014 / 6:50 pm

      yes, thanks some more, and yes, the cycles of violence and abuse grind on, they are mechanical things. The cycles operate whether the violence in them is recognized as violence or not. It can’t be wished away, or denied away. These cycles function in reality, and are not subject to our wishes about whether consequences will happen or not. Things that most folks consider perfectly proper and unavoidable perpetuate these cycles. Again, whether we want them to or not.


      • Pamela Spiro Wagner October 5, 2014 / 8:32 pm

        The weird thing is that I think most people get a perverse pleasure out of the notion of punishing certain people, like prisoners and even mental patients…I know some of this from painful personal experience, alas. Comments like, They ought to “throw the book at that guy.” Or they should “put him away forever,” or Fry him!” tell the story loud and clear. But it isn’t always and only when it comes down to murderers and “criminals” who “deserve” such punishments…People say such things simply when they are angry about any miscreant who does things they don’t like. But they don’t hear the extreme and destructive anger in what they say, AND they most certainly do not recognize the concealed pleasure in it, that I doubt highly. If people ever became truly aware of this i think it might shock them, and perhaps bring some “sanity” back to their behaviors. Or not. Because whenever did a sadist choose to change his behavior just because it was pointed out as sadism? I am sorry but I believe that this sort of pleasure in punishment is a GREAT deal more prevalent than anyone in many societies dares to admit. What do you think?


        • neighsayer October 5, 2014 / 8:47 pm

          It’s not an aspect I’ve put a ton of thought into, but I’ll have a go! I guess it makes sense to me this way, that most folks have been abused, at least “legitimately,” that is, punished in a way and for things that society mostly agrees with, and so they have violent fantasies, a need for power, a la Alice Miller. Then, when something in life provides an excuse, a crime or something, they can let their power and violence lust out, again, “legitimately,” by “normal” standards.

          Sounds like you know Alice Miller?


          • Pamela Spiro Wagner October 5, 2014 / 9:08 pm

            Well, I remember reading some of Alice Miller quite a long time ago but cannot claim to have consciously understood her. I have been on certain powerful psycho-active drugs for such a long time that it is extremely difficult for me to read and concentrate, so all I can do in my present attempt to recover — from the abuse I have suffered as well as my own CMI, is to think about things…honestly and without flinching. What I have thought about, not just vis a vis my own situation (the extreme sadism I have encountered in psychiatric units and in my own “care”, the deliberate brutality and the glee taken in humiliating and degrading disempowered patients, just bogles the mind…) but in observing others and society and people at large, is this: I have used the exact same words that you used: VIOLENCE BEGETS VIOLENCE. Violence and violation are intimately related, with the sexual/pleasure component of sadism being the link that people won’t discuss or admit. It is there though, and if you ever saw Mr D spanking his son, outside on the front lawn, for public display in the 1950’s, as I did as a child, you would have sensed there was something else going on. Much more than any such nonsense as “pure” mechanical corporal punishment. Nobody inflicts that sort of sordid public humiliation on his children without some secondary and ulterior gain…which I still think was sadistic. However, my point is that I believe that ALL spanking, of any sort that is planned and deliberate is sadistic and reeks of this same thing. If people got a handle on their own feelings and motives and understood themselves better, maybe they would not unconsciously need to re-enact their own problems, including their sadistic tendencies on their children. This is the subtext of what I believe has not yet been said…But maybe you don’t want to go there. Lord knows, you have gotten enough flak, it sounds like, from people objecting to your position as it is!


            • neighsayer October 5, 2014 / 9:19 pm

              I’m sure you’re right about all of it! Yes, I need to add that to my crimes, it’s not enough I’m telling everybody they’re child abusers, I should tell them they’re all sexual predators too! Just in case one in a thousand listens to me, I should be sure to send them running as well. Ha.

              You know, my first thought is that the sexual aspect isn’t necessary for my theory, but maybe it does help explain why it has to be so unconscious, why so few people are able to view punishing with any reason or logic whatsoever. The sexual connection would exponentially increase the need to keep it unconscious, for sure. Was that you on Twitter the other day, about the sexual nature of spanking, from Australia?

              You’ve got me thinking about it, that’s for sure . . .


            • neighsayer October 5, 2014 / 9:21 pm

              the format of this blog is no good for conversations, it’s getting skinny. Let’s start a new thread next.


  2. Pamela Spiro Wagner October 5, 2014 / 9:32 pm

    Naw, I am not on twitter, not enough space for my words. and I am not into quite that brevity…I’m a poet, yes, but never a haiku writer, if you get my point. As for the sexual nature of spanking, ooh boy, that is quite a theory…I didn’t raise it, but it seems very likely to be the case, certainly when it is a deliberate act, thought-out and planned. I don’t know about the spontaneous acts of “violence” against children that people unthinkingly commit. Those do not seem to have the precisely same sexual component, but when someone sets out to deliberately and thoughtfully spank their child, as when they say, “I have thought this over and I have decided that you are going to get a spanking from me”…that is when I believe there is a sadistic component and not by any means a small one. BUT it is NOT something anyone wants to deal with, and that is where the secrecy and the silence wants to stay secret and silent and where one gets the hatred and the death wishers… You know what I mean? (I hope you do not get such things, but people who inflict this sort of violence on their children have that potential!)


    • neighsayer October 5, 2014 / 10:25 pm

      I’ll reply tomorrow, Pam, I’m off to bed. Good night.


    • neighsayer October 6, 2014 / 7:26 am

      I never try to say my stuff on Twitter – nothing worth saying can fit into 140 characters – although I comment on others. I think Twitter is best just used as headlines and links to articles or blogs, that seems to be the point of it.
      Regarding death threats, I keep thinking should be using my real name, that there’s no sense in trying to build a readership on a silly pseudonym, except my message does piss some people off, so I’m not sure yet . . .


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