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.