FAQ

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.




Is physical punishment painful?


The purpose of physical punishment is to cause the child physical pain. In studies asking children about the experience, they have said things like: “It hurts you all over” (Dobbs, Smith, & Taylor, 2006). “It really, really hurts" (Saunders & Goddard, 2010, p. 152). “It’s like being squashed” (Saunders & Goddard, 2010, p. 153). It can even be more painful emotionally. Emotional hurt may be harder for parents to see, but it is real and can have long-term impacts on children’s mental and behavioral health. “Spanking doesn’t solve anything. It just makes you cry” (Vittrup & Holden, 2010, p. 215). A 12-year-old said, “Being smacked is like being treated like something very little and not important to the rest of the world” (Saunders & Goddard, 2008, p. 413). A 7-year-old said, “You feel you don’t like your parents anymore” (Willow & Hyder, 1998, p. 47) Another 7-year-old said, “You [feel] sort of as though you want to run away because they’re sort of like being mean to you and it hurts a lot” (Willow & Hyder, 1998, p. 47).




Shouldn’t parents have the right to raise their children the way they want?


Parents have both a right and an obligation to teach their children right from wrong, and how to treat other people with fairness and empathy. Physical punishment does not actually teach these things. It can make children afraid to be honest when they make mistakes, and it can teach them that hitting other people is ok. It can damage the trust that children have in their parents. Because of this, many parents feel very badly after they hurt their children and they want to find better ways to teach their children important values.




My parents spanked me and I’m okay. Spanking teaches children to respect their parents so why shouldn’t I spank my child?


Your parents probably spanked you because they thought it was the best way to teach you. Today, there is a large amount of research showing that physical punishment (including spanking) can lead to mental health problems (anxiety, depression), difficult parent-child relationships, increased aggression, anti-social behavior, slower intellectual development, low academic performance and possible brain impairment. Not every child is harmed by physical punishment - just as not everyone who smokes cigarettes gets cancer. But physical punishment has never been shown to improve children’s well-being – just as placing a child in a car without a seatbelt does not make them safer. Researchers have learned so much over the past few decades about what children need to thrive and what puts them at risk for harm. Just a generation ago, many parents let children ride in cars without seatbelts and many parents spanked their children. Now we know these are risky things to do. Just because our parents did them, that does not mean we should repeat the mistake. They did the best they could. Now our children can benefit from all that we have learned since then. We now know how to teach children effectively without harming them.




In my culture, physical punishment is how we raise children. What right do you have to tell me how to raise my child?


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 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.




My religion requires me to use physical punishment. What should I do?


There are religious texts that are interpreted by some clergy, theologians and religious scholars as requiring parents to physically punish their children. But there are many who disagree with those interpretations. Most parents want their children to learn the morals and standards consistent with their faith. Most parents also want the best for their children, not to cause them harm. Both of these objectives can be met with positive parenting techniques that teach children effectively and do not harm them.




Isn’t mild and infrequent physical punishment okay?


Many parents stop using physical punishment when they realize that physical punishment can cause harm even when it is mild and infrequent. Research from around the world shows that whenever parents purposely hurt children, it has a negative effect on the child’s mental health and on the parent-child relationship. In some cases, even one slap can cause damage to the child’s trust that is hard to repair.




Is physical punishment harmful to the parent-child relationship?


Research shows that children tend to mistrust and avoid parents who use physical punishment because they quickly become afraid of being hurt. When children are afraid, they are less likely to hear what their parents are telling them, which interferes with their learning. They are also more likely to start lying to avoid punishment, which damages the relationship further.




Isn’t it okay to use physical punishment if I also show love and warmth to my child?


Unfortunately, this is not the case. Researchers have found that parental warmth does not counteract the negative effects of physical punishment. Children can be very confused when they are hurt by someone expressing love to them. This experience can teach them that we express love by hurting others, which is not a lesson that we want them to learn.




I understand that in some states, schools are permitted to physically punish children so why shouldn’t parents be able to do the same?


It is true that some schools in the U.S. allow children to be hit or paddled to punish them. However, most schools have banned this practice. Whether physical punishment is done in the school or home, the effects are the same - it can lead to mental health problems, slower intellectual development, low academic achievement and increased aggression and behavior problems. Most adults (72%) in the U.S. do not approve of physical punishment in the schools (ABC News Poll, October 2018).




Aren’t there some children who will only learn through physical punishment?


No. In fact, physical punishment does not improve children’s behavior over time – it actually increases children’s aggression and behavior problems. This is probably because it provides a model of the behavior that we do not want them to learn. It also can lead to pent-up anger that is released on other children. There are much more effective ways to teach children what we do want them to learn.