The American Psychoanalytic Association condemns the use of physical punishment (corporal punishment) in the discipline of children and recommends alternative methods which enhance children's capacities to develop healthy emotional lives, tolerate frustration, regulate tensions, and behave in socially acceptable ways.
A Social Problem
Physical punishment is a serious public health problem in the United States, and it profoundly affects the mental health of children and the society in which we live. Studies show that over 60% of families use physical punishment to discipline children. Yet, the research shows that physical punishment is associated with an increase in delinquency, antisocial behavior, and aggression in children, and a decrease in the quality of the parent-child relationship, mental health, and the child's capacity to internalize socially acceptable behavior. Adults who have been subject to physical punishment as children are more likely to abuse their own child or spouse and to manifest criminal behavior (1).
Spanking is a euphemism for hitting. One is not permitted to hit one's spouse or a stranger; these actions are considered domestic violence and/or assault. Nor should one be permitted to hit a smaller and even more vulnerable child. Hitting a child elicits precisely the feelings one does not want to generate in a child: distress, anger, fear, shame, and disgust. Studies show that children who are hit identify with the aggressor and are more likely to become hitters themselves, i.e., bullies and future abusers of their children and spouses. They tend to learn to use violent behavior as a way to deal with disputes.
Internationally, there is increasing consensus that physical punishment of children violates international human rights law. Significantly, 24 countries have prohibited physical punishment in all settings, including the home. Among these countries are Sweden, Germany, Spain, Greece, and Venezuela. More than 100 countries have banned physical punishment in the schools. The United States has not banned physical punishment, but approval of physical punishment in the United States has declined gradually and steadily over the past 40 years. The United States has signed, but not ratified, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), an international treaty which expressly prohibits all forms of physical or mental violence(1).
Effective alternatives to physical punishment exist to help children tolerate frustrations, regulate tension, behave in socially-acceptable ways, develop appropriate ethical and moral standards, and improve self-esteem.
The American Psychoanalytic Association joins other mental health and medical organizations in strongly condemning the use of physical punishment with children. The American Academy of Pediatrics concludes: "Corporal punishment is of limited effectiveness and has potentially deleterious side effects. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents be encouraged and assisted in the development of methods other than spanking for managing undesired behavior" (2, p. 723).
Defining Physical Punishment
Physical punishment has been defined as "the use of physical force with the intention of causing a child to experience bodily pain or discomfort so as to correct or punish the child's behavior" (1, p. 9). This includes: spanking, hitting, pinching, squeezing, paddling, whipping/whupping, swatting, smacking, slapping, washing a child's mouth with soap, making a child kneel on painful objects, and forcing a child to stand or sit in painful positions for long periods of time. Physical abuse can be characterized by "the infliction of physical injury as a result of punching, beating, kicking, biting, burning, shaking, or otherwise harming a child" (5, as cited in 4, p 540). Behaviors which cause pain but not physical injury are considered physical punishment, whereas behaviors which risk physical injury are termed physical abuse. Both physical punishment and physical abuse must be condemned. Alternatives exist which are more effective in enhancing the healthy development of children.
These suggested alternatives provide parents with greater understanding of their children's development, present strategies which can lead to less violent behavior in children and adults, and decrease the frustration and helplessness in parents which often lead to physical punishment (see also Reference 2).
1. One of the most useful ways to achieve healthy child development is to promote words instead of actions.* Increasing the child's capacity to put words to feelings and actions results in increased tension regulation, self-awareness, and thoughtful decision-making. This process is accomplished by:
a. Talking and using words instead of actions – talk rather than hit. Talk with the child about what behaviors are acceptable or not, what is safe or dangerous, and why.
b. Listening to the child – find out why he/she did or did not do something.
c. Explaining your reasons – this will enhance the child's decision – making capacities.
2. The word "discipline" comes from the Latin word for "teaching" or "learning." Children's behaviors have meaning, and behaviors are directly connected to inner feelings. Thus, discipline is a process which addresses behaviors and the feelings which cause them.
3. Help the child label his or her feelings with words as early as possible. The nine inborn feelings (interest, enjoyment, surprise, distress, anger, fear, shame, disgust, and dissmell [reaction to noxious odors]) should be labeled with words. This will facilitate tension regulation and aid the transition to more mature ways of handling emotion.
4. Reinforcement – rewards and praise – will enhance the child's self-esteem when appropriate standards are met. Reinforcement is more effective in obtaining long-term behavioral compliance than frightening and shaming punishments.
5. Set a good example for the child. The child wants to be like the parents. Children identify with their parents, and they will put feelings and actions into words when they see their parents doing this. Who the parents are, and how they behave, will have a profound impact on the development of their children. Your child will follow your lead.
Approved by APsaA Executive Council January 14, 2010
1. Gershoff ET (2008). Report on Physical Punishment in the United States: What Research Tells Us About Its Effects on Children. Columbus OH: Center for Effective Discipline.
2. American Academy of Pediatrics – Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health (1998). Guidance for Effective Discipline. Pediatrics 101: 723-728.
3. Strauss MA (2001). Beating the Devil Out of Them: Physical Punishment in American Families (2nd Edition). Piscataway NJ: Transaction Publishers.
4. Gershoff ET (2002). Physical punishment by parents and associated child behaviors and experiences: A meta-analytic and theoretical review. Psychological Bulletin 128: 539-579.
5. National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect Information (2000). What Is Child Maltreatment?
6. Katan A (1961). Some thoughts about the role of verbalization in early childhood. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child 16: 184-188.
Gershoff (1,4) examined hundreds of studies and presented the results of meta-analyses of the association between parental physical punishment and child and adult outcomes. She found that in childhood physical punishment was positively associated with aggression, delinquent and antisocial behavior, and being the victim of physical abuse; it was negatively associated with the quality of the parent-child relationship, mental health, and moral internalization (child's internalizing of socially acceptable behavior); and associations with immediate compliance were mixed. When measured in adulthood, physical punishment was positively associated with aggression, criminal and antisocial behavior, and adult abuse of one's own child or spouse; physical punishment was negatively associated with mental health.
Gershoff (1,4) also summarized the various demographic and risk factors which are more likely to be associated with use of physical punishment: being single, separated, or divorced; excessive stress from negative life events; maternal depression; lower income, education, and job status; southern part of the United States; and conservative religious beliefs and affiliation.