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Dr. Lynne Namka
Licensed Psychologist


What The Research Literature Says About Corporal Punishment

Lynne Namka, Ed. D. © 2002

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Should you spank your child for misbehavior? Psychologist, Elizabeth Thompson Gershoff examined 55 studies of corporal punishment to determine the long lasting effects. She reviewed the studies and found more negatives than positives regarding spanking. Corporal punishment was defined as using force and physical pain to get the child to control his behavior.

Discipline is the use of an aversive consequence to decrease or eliminate negative behavior, but does not involve physical force. Discipline teaches the child what to do and how to behave the next time. Discipline helps the child internalize your standards and values so that he will have internal reasons to act appropriately. You discipline every time you reason with your child explaining what he did wrong and use a natural consequence so that he will refrain from the undesired behavior in the future.

The Undesirable Side Effects Of Corporal Punishment

Physical punishment serves as a model for aggression. Children imitate or model what they see adults due to them. Aggression begets aggression.

Punishment for hitting, shoving and kicking may stop the child's misbehavior temporarily, but it stimulates further aggression in the child. He will learn that it is all right to hurt others. Spanking does not teach the child the'moral message' that you should not hurt or abuse people.

The punishing adult may be identified as a negative and aversive person. When punishment is paired with criticism, name-calling or verbal abuse, the child may become afraid of the punisher. The parent loses trust with the child.

The effects of punishment have been shown to last only for a short time. While the child may stop the inappropriate behavior, the punishment does not teach the child what to do in the future.

After being punished, the child is left in emotional turmoil and resentment. He may focus on fantasy and revenge, which then can grow into hatred.

The child learns not misbehave when the parent is around. The punished behavior may stop only in the presence of the adult. The child may continue the negative behavior when the adult is not around.

The child may stop the behavior for which he is punished and substitute another aggressive act. He may stop the negative behavior such as hitting but then increase other aggressive behavior such as verbal abuse of the person he is upset with.

The frequent use of punishment may cause a child to withdraw or regress into acting younger. He may become non trusting and fearful of others.

The child may lie or become sneaky to avoid being punished. He will not learn to take responsibility for what he did wrong, but may justify it or minimalizes it.

The child may develop negative beliefs of himself that are associated with the frequent use of punishment such as " I'm a bad person. I'm mean." These negative beliefs result in further lowered self-esteem.

When punished, the child may strike back at the person or h e may take his anger and displace it at an object, animal or another child.

When the parent threatens the child with a terrible consequence that is not carried out, there can be several responses. The child can become excessively frightened or the child learns to distrust the parent and view the parent as a liar.

Guidelines to Make Punishment More Effective

Sometimes punishment is chosen to stop a behavior that is harmful to the child or another person. There are situations where punishment is chosen because other methods of correction do not work. When the child's misbehavior gives him something he enjoys and does not want to give up, (attention, feelings of power), positive methods of correction may not work well with him. Sometimes powerful reinforcers such as payoffs from the behavior keep the child acting out.

When considering using corporal punishment ask yourself, " Can I get the desired result to get my child to stop doing the misbehavior by using another technique that is less harmful to my child's self esteem? When I use in this particular form of punishment, what message am I sending to my child?'

Effective punishment should be clearly outlined to the child in advance. He needs to know clear rules about what is and what is not allowed. Clear direct consequences for a specific misbehavior could be given so that when the child misbehaves, he is making a choice to get the consequences.

Dispense the punishment in a calm, neutral voice. If you yell, you are training your child to refrain from minding until the adult yells at him.

Punishment should be consistent and applied every time that the child engages in the misbehavior. Punishment must be given depending on the child's actions, not your mood on your fatigue level.

Give the punishment immediately after the misbehavior to make the association between the act of wrongdoing and the consequence of punishment.

Use of warning signal to tell the child what he is doing wrong before administrating punishment. Give the child a choice to stop his misbehavior before giving him the consequences.

Effective warnings do not threaten, but gives clear information about what will happen if the child does not stop the acting out.

One verbal warning is enough. The research shows that if you give the child three chances (or ten) before you move in, the child will wait until the third warning (or tenth) before he stops the misbehavior. Saying things like,'Did you hear what I said? Don't make me tell you one more time.' actually make your child resistant to following through on your commands. Repeated warnings train your child to become amazingly'parent deaf!'

If You Believe That You Must Spank

Physical abuse is associated with long-term negative effects on children. The research does not point to an occasional spanking as causing long-term harm in children. If you must use spanking, use it sparingly to make a strong point that you will not tolerate potentially harmful behavior. Use spanking with a clear purpose in mind after you have tried other methods of discipline.

If you have been raised in an angry home, you may inadvertently perpetuate some of the abuse you suffered. Do not apply corporal punishment when you are frustrated or angry. You may not know the boundaries and when to stop spanking. It is too easy to get out of control when spanking a child and lose your sense of reason. For this reason, parents who have experienced severe discipline methods as a child may decide not to use corporal punishment. They choose to stop the generational violence that has been passed down to them.

Some parents save corporal punishment for those times when the child does something that is dangerous to himself or others. This includes continuing to play with an electric plug or playing in a busy street. Punishment is used only to make a strong statement. For example, one mother spanked her five-year-old son when he ran away to play in the deep drainage ditch filled with water. Because she rarely used corporal punishment, the child learned that his mother meant business and would not tolerate life-threatening behavior.

Other times, a child seems to increasingly accelerate the misbehavior and ignore verbal warnings, time out and other forms of discipline. He appears to be testing the limits to see how far he can go in acting out. My mother used to say that this child with frenzied energy and behavior out of control needed to have a'knot jerked in his tail.' It is the surprise of the spanking, rather than the force that breaks the child's escalating acting-out-behavior.

As a mother with three young children thirty years ago, I was not trained as a psychologist. When my oldest child reached the age of seven, we decided that he was too old to be spanked, and we needed to find more other ways to discipline him. Talk about frustration! I had to come up with creative ways of discipline such as reasoning, taking away privileges and Time Out. At this time, I returned to the University to get my master's degree in Child Psychology. My training in Behavior Modification helped tremendously. I used charts and stars as a token system to provide positive reinforcement to motivate my children to do their chores and be kind to each other.

My article for a parent of angry children is available at parent8.htm

Parent and Teachers Against Violence for Kids links many web site on alternatives to violence at

Alice Miller, a psychologist and well-known writer, discusses how violence committed to children results in hatred, terrorism and dictatorships. Her writings can be seen at

Shame is the major emotion that lingers after corporal punishment. For two fine papers on shame, go to

What should you do when you see someone hitting his or her kid? For ideas, go to

If you find yourself challenged with your child's misbehavior, take a parenting course. There are great courses to help parents learn the necessary skills to helping children develop good self esteem as well as stop misbehavior. I recommend taking a course when your child is two and a half and another when your child is twelve. The courses are low cost and meet once a week for six weeks. Call your local school, church or mental health center to find a course. I taught Systematic Training for Effective Parenting as a graduate student back in the seventies. Great stuff!



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