Three Things You Should Know About Corporal Punishment


Corporal punishment has been debated recently in the media and parents often call my office hoping to get help understanding the boundaries within the law around corporal punishment. I have a policy that I am always upfront with clients about and that is that I do not counsel parents to use corporal punishment. Instead, we work together using other methods that really work. As my clients know and learn, the grey area around what is legal and what is not is too questionable to venture into. Just as I would not advise clients to drink and drive, with the hope that they don’t take it too far, I don’t advise parents to hit their children.

But the law aside, there are so many other good reasons not to hit children. The effects can be life long and literally damaging to their brains and their psyches. Here are some things you probably don’t know about corporal punishment but should:

1. Confirmation Bias Affects Parents Who Believe Spanking Is Okay

Many parents who were spanked believe that spanking their own children is fine because they turned out “okay.” This is an example of confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias is a cognitive process by which we focus on information and findings that support what we already believe is true and discount information that conflicts with our established beliefs. We are all subject to confirmation bias. It is part of how we process information that is new to us in reference to what we already know. The problem with confirmation bias is that it prevents us from accepting new, truthful and sometimes better information.

Adrian Peterson believed that the whippings he gave his son were acceptable because his parent whipped him. He believed that his success as an adult was due to this punishment. There was no way of course that he could attribute his success to one single factor in his life but this was, nonetheless, his belief. I have heard other parents say that their own children’s success is because the have hit them. They believe that by hitting their children they taught them right from wrong. But this is merely anecdotal evidence, at best. All of the psychological studies show that corporal punishment increases aggression and harms impulse control which would not lend itself to these anecdotal outcomes.

The good news is that once you are aware of confirmation bias, you can consciously consider new information with insight into how your experiences impact how you think about that new information. The same goes for new parenting techniques.

2. Discipline And Punishment Are Not The Same Thing

All children need discipline. Discipline is the process by which parents guide children as they encounter new experiences and learn how to get along in the world. It is a parent’s job to help children learn what conduct is socially acceptable and what is not. Failure to provide that sort of guidance is neglectful parenting.

On the other hand, punishment is a way to control a child’s behavior by imposing an external (and not logical or natural) consequence for a child’s action. Punishment and rewards are two sides of the same coin and punishment controls the child’s actions through fear or some other negative stimulus. Corporal punishment uses fear or the actual infliction of pain to control a child’s behavior. It is a short-term solution that is counterproductive in the long run. Instead of teaching children to use self-regulation, through punishment, the parent teaches the child to behave a certain way in order to avoid being punished. This does nothing to instill ethical behavior in a child when no parent is around.

The stronger our relationship with our kids, the more likely they will listen to us and follow our directions. Physical punishment gets in the way of that and does nothing to help our relationship of trust with our children.

3. Spanking Hurts Kid’s Brains Too

Besides hurting the parent-child relationship, spanking has a negative impact on a child’s brain. Physical punishment is associated with an increased likelihood of mental health problems like mood and anxiety disorders, alcohol and drug abuse and personality disorders. Spanking literally decreases the gray matter volume in the brain. The gray matter is ironically the part of the brain that is responsible for impulse control. The more gray matter you have in the decision-making part of your brain, the better you are able to evaluate consequences. With less gray matter, an individual is also subject to a greater risk of depression and substance abuse. One unintended but tragic consequence of spanking is that this impact on the brain actually makes it harder for children to make good decisions, manage impulses and have a happy, protective lives.