Does Corporal Punishment Motivate Our Children?


I never attended a Catholic school but I’ve heard many from my baby boomer friends. Many had been punished by being slapped in the face or hit with rulers when they were young. In fact, one friend told me of being hit in the hands by a nun with a ruler. He can’t recall why he received the punishment. However, he does recall his father taking him in hand back to the school, whereupon he threatened the teachers with a similar fate if they ever hit his son again. Corporal punishment occurs far less frequently now.

Is physical punishment in the school making a come back? Last week, a Christian school, the Georgia School for Innovation and the Classics, asked parents to give the school permission to paddle misbehaving children. Students from kindergarten through ninth grade were sent home with a permission form. The form is alleged to read “A students will be taken into an office behind closed doors. The student will place their hands on their knees or piece of furniture and will be struck on the buttocks with a paddle.” If a parent does not agree to paddling, the child will miss a week of school. One hundred parents returned the form and about one third of them granted their permission to paddle their child.

Let’s define our terms here. Corporal punishment is defined as the use of physical force with the intention of causing a child to experience pain but not injury for the purpose of correction or control of the child’s behavior. The American Academy of Pediatrics considers spanking with an open hand to be acceptable. It becomes unacceptable if it involves use of an object and extends beyond the buttocks, is conducted out of anger, or results in injury.

Corporal punishment was widely utilized in US schools during the 19th and 20th centuries as a way to motivate students to perform better academically and maintain objectively good standards of behavior. As of 2014, a student was hit in a US public school an average of once every 30 seconds. Studies suggest that boys, children of color, and children with disabilities are most likely to be victims of punishment.

The NIH (National Institutes of Health) published an article by Tomoda, “Reduced Prefrontal Cortical Gray Matter Volume in Young Adults Exposed to Harsh Corporal Punishments.” The bottom line is that frequent and harsh corporal punishment has negative impact to a child’s brain. Physical punishment actually alters the developing brain. They found children who were regularly spanked had less gray matter in certain areas of the brain that have been linked to negative outcomes such as depression, addiction and lower performance on IQ tests. The brain of a child who has been subject to regular spankings is less able to manage their emotions. And if they are less able to manage their emotions, they are more apt to receive harsh corporal punishment.

The American Academy of Pediatrics states “Corporal punishment may affect adversely a student’s self-image and school achievement and that it may contribute to disruptive and violent student behavior. Alternate methods of behavioral management have proved more effective than corporal punishment.” Dr. Robert Sege, a spokesperson for AAP and head of a Child Protection Program said “Corporal punishment is humiliating and is designed to be humiliating and that does not help a child develop their own sense of right and wrong and how they should behave.” Corporal punishment often teaches children that aggression solves problems.

If physical punishment is meant to increase motivation to perform better academically, it misses the mark. In fact, researchers have found a negative correlation between legality of corporal punishment and test scores. Students who are not exposed to school a corporal punishment exhibit better results on the ACT test compared to students in states that allow disciplinary corporal punishment in schools. Furthermore, there is no formal training of teachers in the appropriate use of physical restraints that takes into account the size, age, psychological profile of students, or those who may have existing trauma or mental health issues. The National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) opposes the use of corporal punishment in schools. They cited adverse effects on students’ self-image and school achievement, increased truancy, drop out rates, violence and vandalism. There is also a potential for injury to students and increased legal liability to the schools.

According to Gershoff and Font in a social policy report, “in any other context, the act of an adult hitting another person with a board would be considered assault with a weapon and would be punishable under criminal law.” Why then, would we allow our children to be assaulted?

Just say no to paddling.


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