Frequently Asked Questions
What is the difference between physical punishment and physical abuse?
Physical punishment is any act intended to cause physical discomfort or pain to correct or control a child’s behavior. Under the laws of most states, physical punishment is considered abusive when it causes injury to the child. In most cases, physical punishment and physical abuse are not different behaviors. Rather, they are just lighter and harder forms of hitting and hurting children. Any time an adult physically punishes a child, there is a chance that the child will be injured. The distinction between physical punishment and physical abuse is actually arbitrary. Often, it is a matter of chance that the child is injured. Most of what we call ‘physical abuse’ is physical punishment.
How strong is the research on the impact of physical punishment on the child’s development? Is the research based solely on correlations?
In 2016, a meta-analysis was published that was based on more than 75 studies conducted over 50 years that involved 160,927 children (Gershoff & Grogan-Kaylor, 2016). This meta-analysis found that even normative ‘spanking’ is reliably associated with higher levels of child aggression, antisocial behavior, and mental health problems; lower levels of self-esteem and academic performance; and poorer relationships with parents. Prospective studies that follow children over time consistently show that spanking increases behavior problems as children grow older. Experimental studies have shown that children’s behavior improves after parents stop using physical punishment.
If physical punishment is the norm within a child’s culture and tradition, does this reduce the possible harm it may have?
Researchers across the US and all over the world have found that physical punishment can lead to harm regardless of the cultural context. They also have shown that all children learn best when they are not afraid of being hurt. In some places, physical punishment has become a tradition, handed down across generations. Most traditions are important to maintain because they preserve cultural knowledge and values. Physical punishment does not pass on unique cultural knowledge and it can be harmful. This recognition has led many cultures around the world to end this practice. These include countries in South America, Africa, Europe and Asia.
In many cultures, physical punishment is a lasting legacy of oppression, slavery and colonization. It did not exist in many Indigenous cultures before they were colonized. Over time, it became normalized within those cultures. In many Indigenous cultures, people are reclaiming their traditional approaches to parenting, which were based on modelling, storytelling, and including children in the work of the community.
Given that physical punishment by parents is legal across the U.S., how can I tell parents not to hit their children?
US laws have not caught up with research findings. Many professional organizations in the US and other countries recommend that parents not use physical punishment because it puts children at risk for harm. These include the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children, and National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. Laws that allow corporal punishment do make it harder for professionals to give a clear message to parents. But it’s very important that parents understand the many harms to which it can lead. When they understand its impact, they can make a more informed decision.
As a professional, how can I start this conversation with parents?
First, it’s important that you feel knowledgeable about the research. You can read some key studies here. Second, it helps to remember that most parents really love their children and want them to grow up happy and healthy. When they realize that corporal punishment is actually harmful to their children’s development, they are likely to want to make a change. Third, it’s important to read about positive discipline approaches based on neuroscience, emotion coaching, and collaborative problem-solving. These approaches are based on knowing how children’s brains, emotions and behavior develop over time. Fourth, be aware of the parenting programs in your area that promote healthy development
and strong relationships instead of punishment.
What should I say to a parent who tells me, “I was hit as a child and I turned out okay”?
Physical punishment is a risk factor. This means not everyone is harmed by getting hit as a child, just like not everyone who smokes will get cancer. The more a parent spanks, the higher the risk—just like those who smoke more have a higher risk of getting cancer. Researchers who study child development have learned so much over the past several decades about what children need to thrive and what puts them at risk for harm. Behaviors parents may have done a generation ago, such as spanking or letting children ride in cars without seatbelts, are now known to be risky. Just because our parents engaged in them, that does not mean we should repeat the mistake. They did the best they could with the information they had at the time—our children can benefit from the decades of research since when you grew up.
If I talk with parents about corporal punishment, the parent may disclose information which I have to report to Child Protective Services. What should I do if I don’t want to take that risk?
We are mandated to report so that we can help prevent future harm to children. It’s very important to understand what’s going on in the home to safeguard children and to help parents become better parents. Many parents disclose abusive behavior because they want help. You can approach this conversation in a supportive way, letting the parent know that you are obligated to get them the help they need and ensure the child is safe. If you think that the parent is motivated to change and is receiving help, you can advocate for them.