Child corporal punishment: Spanking
"Plain talk about spanking"
An essay by Jordan Riak
This essay was written by Jordan Riak of
Parents and Teachers
Against Violence in Education (PTAVE). 1
About the word "spanking:"
'Spanking' is a euphemism. That is, it is a pleasant-sounding word for a
practice that is anything but pleasant. We use it here because it is the
most commonly recognized term in our language denoting violent behavior by
adults toward children. 'Hitting,' 'beating,' and 'battery' are more
accurate and more honest words, but we've decided to stay with 'spanking'
here for ease of understanding.
About this essay:
Parents and Teachers Against Violence in Education (PTAVE) offers Plain
Talk about Spanking for the benefit of children everywhere. The ideas that
you will read in this booklet are not new or revolutionary. There have always
been wise and perceptive people in every civilized culture who have advocated
nonviolent methods for socializing children. But, for the most part, their
good advice has been ignored or rejected and the consequences to humanity have
been incalculable. In these few pages we have attempted to extract the essence
of their message and offer it once again.
We express our deepest gratitude to our many friends for their enthusiasm,
expert counsel and generous support.
...The Babe that weeps the Rod beneath
Writes Revenge in realms of death..
William Blake (1757-1827)
Auguries of Innocence, Lines 73, 74
Today one finds no support for spanking in the scientific literature.
This opinion, shared by mental health and child development experts, and other
professionals in related fields, has been evolving for many decades and its
beginnings can be found centuries ago.
That is not to say there are no advocates for physical punishment of
children, as indeed it would be false to claim there are no advocates for
physical punishment of wives. Both practices are widespread and people who hit
other people usually believe they have valid reasons.
The Lasting Effect on Children
Some researchers claim that every act of violence by an adult toward a child, no
matter how brief or how mild, leaves an emotional scar that lasts a lifetime. To
some extent we can demonstrate this from personal experience. Most of us must
admit that the most vivid and most unpleasant childhood memories are those of
being hurt by our parents. Some people find the memory of such events so
unpleasant they pretend that they were trivial, even funny. You?ll notice that
they smile when they describe what was done to them. It is shame, not pleasure,
that makes them smile. As a protection against present pain, they disguise the
memory of past feelings.
In an attempt to deny or minimize the dangers of spanking, many spankers have
been heard to argue, ?Spanking is very different from child abuse,? or ?A little
smack on the bottom never did anybody any harm.? But they are wrong.
A good comparison to spanking is exposure to chemical compounds containing
lead. In earlier generations, most people lived in houses painted with lead
based paint, and most survived with no apparent ill effects. Were they smart, or
just lucky? Today, we don?t do that anymore. We know better. Likewise, informed
parents recognize that spanking children is like exposing them to a dangerous
toxin. No good can result and the risk is great.
But some parents will ask, ?How can you claim to be a responsible parent if
you don?t grab the child who is about to run out into traffic and deliver a good
smack so that your warnings about the danger of the street will be remembered??
In fact, being spanked throws children into a state of powerful emotional
confusion making it difficult for them to learn the lessons adults claim they
are trying to teach. Delivering a so-called ?good smack? may indeed serve an
adult?s need to relieve tension and anger, but at the expense of the child.
While the adult?s relief is temporary, the effect on the child is permanent.
Spanking does not teach children that cars and trucks are dangerous. It teaches
them that the grown-ups on whom they depend are dangerous.
The spanked child is less able to regard the parent as a source of love,
protection and comfort which are vital to every child?s healthy development. In
the child?s eyes the parent now appears to be the source of danger and pain.
Resentment and mistrust, that result from spanking, sabotage the child?s
feelings of attachment to the most important adults in his or her young life.
The child who is thus betrayed, like the child who is denied adequate food,
warmth or rest, suffers and fails to mature in the best possible way.
Some parents rarely spank or don?t spank at all, but are always threatening to
do terrible things. ?If you don?t keep quiet while I?m on the phone, I?m going
to sew your mouth shut with a big needle,? or ?Better watch out, or somebody is
going to chop your fingers off. That?s what they do to naughty children who are
always touching other people?s things.? They find it easy to manage children by
these means ? at least temporarily.
At first, while children believe adults? threats, they obey out of fear. But
they soon learn to sneak and tell lies in order to evade the terrible
punishments they believe are in store for them. Later, as they discover the
threats are empty, they conclude (correctly) that the grown-ups they once
trusted are in fact not trustworthy.
When trust between children and their closest caretakers is damaged in this
way, the children?s ability to form trusting relationships with others is also
damaged. This may render them incapable of ever achieving cooperation or
intimacy with anyone. People who have been damaged in this way tend to see all
relationships as negotiations, as deals to be won or lost. They see innocence,
honesty and trustfulness in others as weaknesses to be exploited, exactly as it
was once done to them.
Spanking teaches children that human interaction is based on force, that might
makes right. The more a child is spanked, the greater is the likelihood that
that child will become an adult who deals with others, not by reason and good
example, but by force. What kind of person are we describing?
The bully is such a person. The rapist is such a person. The wife beater is
such a person. The quack, the cheat, the con artist, the crook ? each of these
is such a person. And so are cowards and hangers-on who derive their power
secondhand by clinging to such people as those we?ve just listed.
Spousal Battery and Spanking
In the overwhelming majority of cases, husbands and wives whose relationship
includes violence are also violent toward their children. Such parents surely
were spanked when they were little and witnessed others being spanked.
Battering and battered spouses who spank their children are raising them to
be batterers and victims exactly like themselves. The children learn from their
parents? example that the way to vent frustration, express disapproval and
assert authority is by hitting someone smaller and weaker than themselves. They
see this principle demonstrated every time they witness their parents fighting,
as well as every time they are on the receiving end of violent punishments.
They learn that once they are big enough and strong enough, they can control
others by threatening or hurting them. They learn that it is okay for husbands
and wives to batter each other and for adults to batter children.
When children, whose personalities have been formed in violent households,
grow up and produce children of their own, they find it very difficult to break
free from the behaviors they have witnessed and experienced. The skills they
apply to family life will be the poor ones they learned from their parents and
they are likely to carry on the cycle of violence through their own innocent
As spanking disappears from family life, other forms of domestic violence
will also disappear. Not before.
Sexual Molestation and Spanking
Spanked children don?t regard their bodies as being their own personal property.
Spanking trains them to accept the idea that adults have absolute authority over
their bodies, including the right to inflict pain. And being hit on the buttocks
teaches them that even their sexual areas are subject to the will of adults. The
child who submits to a spanking on Monday is not likely to say ?No? to a
molester on Tuesday. People who sexually molest or exploit children know this.
They stalk potential victims among children who have been taught to ?obey or
else? because such children are the easiest targets.
Spanking the Buttocks and Sexual Development
Spanking of the buttocks can stimulate immature sexual feelings in some
children. They have no control over those feelings, nor do they understand what
is happening to them. The tragic consequence for some of these children is that
they form a connection between pain, humiliation and sexual arousal that endures
for the rest of their lives. Even though they may marry, raise families, hold
responsible positions in the community and show no signs of emotional
disturbance, they may be secretly and shamefully tormented by a need which, in
some cases, compels them to hire prostitutes whom they spank or from whom they
receive spankings. The pornography industry does a thriving business catering to
the needs of these unfortunate individuals.
Medical science has long recognized, and documented in great detail, the link
between buttocks-beating in childhood and the later development of unnatural
sexual behaviors. This should be reason enough never to spank a child.
Physical Danger of Hitting the Buttocks
Located deep in the buttocks is the sciatic nerve, the largest nerve in the
body. A severe blow to the buttocks, particularly with an instrument such as a
piece of wood, could cause bleeding in the muscles that surround that nerve,
possibly injuring it and causing impairment to the involved leg.
The very delicate tail bone at the base of spine is also susceptible to
injury when a child is hit there. And when children are required to bend over
for beatings, their sex organs may be injured. Dislocation of the tail bone and
bruising the sex organs as a result of violent punishments are frequently
reported by hospital authorities.
Some people, in their attempt to justify battering children?s buttocks, claim
that God or nature intended that part of the anatomy for spanking. That claim is
nonsense. No part of the human body was made to be violated.
Physical Danger of Hitting the Hands
The child?s hand is particularly vulnerable because its ligaments, nerves,
tendons and blood vessels are close to the skin which has no underlying
protective tissue. Striking the hands of younger children is especially
dangerous to the growth plates in the bones, which if damaged, can cause
deformity or impaired function. Striking a child?s hand can also cause
fractures, dislocations and lead to premature osteoarthritis.
Being shaken can cause a child blindness, whiplash, brain damage and even death.
Spanking at Home, Performance in School
Most teachers will tell you that the children who exhibit the most serious
behavior problems at school are the ones who are the most mistreated at home.
Children who are spanked at home have been conditioned to expect the same kind
of management by authority figures outside the home. For these children, the
battle zone which is their home life extends to include school life. This sets
them up for academic failure and dropout, and clashes with juvenile authorities
and eventually with the criminal justice system.
In their attempt to erect a shield against what they see as a comfortless,
hostile world, these children naturally seek the company of other children with
similar problems. ?My parents and teachers don?t understand me; my friends do,?
they say. And they have good reason to believe that. This is one reason street
gangs evolve and why they are especially attractive to children whose
self-esteem has been ruined by spanking, whupping, paddling, switching,
humiliation, insults, threats, relentless criticism, unreasonable restrictions
and physical and emotional neglect.
We should not be surprised that many youngsters reject the adult world to the
degree they believe it has rejected them. Nor should we be surprised that
adolescents, who throughout childhood have been the brunt of violence, will
utilize violence as soon as they are able. As it often turns out, the
aggressiveness that many young people cultivate because they believe it is
essential to their survival propels them toward failure or catastrophe. Our
crowded prisons are proof of this.
Some teachers work tirelessly to redirect the aggressiveness which
violence-ridden children have far too much of, and instill trust which
violence-ridden children have far too little of. But that is a monumental task
requiring specialized skills and a level of dedication which not all teachers
possess or can maintain for extended periods. It requires extraordinary
resources unavailable to the public school systems of the United States.
School dropout and juvenile delinquency would cease to be major problems
wracking our nation if only it were possible to persuade parents and other
caretakers to stop socializing children in ways guaranteed to make them
antisocial and/or self-destructive. In other words, to stop the spanking and
start the nurturing.
Spanking, Smoke, Drink and Drugs
To be spanked is a degrading, humiliating experience. The spanked child absorbs
not only the blows, but the message they convey: ?You?re worthless. I reject
you!? That message powerfully influences the child?s developing personality. It
Sooner or later every child is exposed to substances that promise instant
relief from feelings of worthlessness and rejection. Everywhere people can be
seen putting things into their bodies to make themselves feel good. It is
difficult to convince a child who is suffering that such relief is an illusion,
that one cannot restore self-esteem by means of something swallowed, inhaled or
injected, but can easily bury it deeper under the weight of new problems.
Spanking and Criminal Behavior
Everyone is familiar with the list of social maladies believed to be at the root
of violent criminal behavior: poverty, discrimination, family breakdown,
narcotics, gangs and easy access to deadly weapons. And it?s clear that every
item in the above list contributes to violence and crime. However, one key
ingredient is rarely acknowledged?spanking.
In 1940, researchers Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck began their famous study of
delinquent and nondelinquent boys. They discovered how certain early childhood
influences cause children to develop antisocial, violent behaviors. They showed
that the first signs of delinquency often appear as early as three?long before
children come into contact with influences outside the home. The Gluecks showed
that parents who fail to manage their children calmly, gently and patiently, but
instead rely on physical punishment, tend to produce aggressive, assaultive
The more severe and the earlier the mistreatment, the worse the outcome.
The Gluecks also found that the lowest incidence of antisocial behavior is
always associated with children who are reared from infancy in attentive,
supportive, nonviolent, non-spanking families.
The message here for all parents who want their children never to see the
inside of a jail or prison is a simple one: guide gently and patiently?never
Spanking, Racism and Collective Hatreds
Spanking fills children with anger and the urge to retaliate. But this urge is
almost never directly acted upon. Even the most severely spanked children, as a
general rule, will not strike back at those who have hurt them. Instead, they
are likely to seek relief in fantasy where they can safely vent their anger
against make-believe adversaries. Sometimes younger brothers or sisters, or
family pets serve this purpose. Popular entertainment also caters to this need.
As children grow and come under the influence of the prejudices of their
community, their anger can be easily channeled toward approved scapegoats. Hate
cults and extremist political factions beckon to them with open arms, offering
an opportunity to convert fantasy into reality. In every generation, more than a
few seize that offer. Their behaviors constitute the worst fallout of the
Spanking at School
Throughout the developed world, spanking by teachers has almost disappeared. It
is illegal in every European country. (In Austria, Croatia, Cyprus, Denmark,
Finland, Germany, Israel, Italy, Latvia, Norway and Sweden, no one, including a
parent, may legally spank any child in any circumstance.) Among the major,
developed industrial nations, the United States is the most resistant to reform
in this regard. But gradually more states are banning school corporal
punishment, and in the states that allow it, a growing number of school
districts are wisely forbidding the practice.
Still, there remain many teachers and school administrators who, like many
parents, are unenlightened on this issue and persist in believing that it is
okay to manage pupils by means of physical violence or the threat of it. What
should enlightened parents do?
If you knew that a school bus had bald tires and faulty brakes, you would not
let your child ride that bus and you would demand that your school authorities
correct the problem immediately. If you knew that the air ducts in your school
were contaminated with asbestos, you?d remove your child immediately and alert
other parents to the danger. Corporal punishment is no different. It is very
dangerous and all sensible people in the community should unite in opposition to
As a parent you have a right and an obligation to protect your child from
known danger. Inform your local, regional and state education authorities that
no one has your permission, nor the moral right, to endanger your child at
What the experts say:
?Any form of corporal punishment or ?spanking? is a violent attack upon
another human being?s integrity. The effect remains with the victim forever and
becomes an unforgiving part of his or her personality ? a massive frustration
resulting in a hostility which will seek expression in later life in violent
acts towards others. The sooner we understand that love and gentleness are the
only kinds of called-for behavior towards children, the better. The child,
especially, learns to become the kind of human being that he or she has
experienced. This should be fully understood by all caregivers.?
Ashley Montagu, Anthropologist
?Corporal punishment of children actually interferes with the process of
learning and with their optimal development as socially responsible adults. We
feel it is important for public health workers, teachers, and others concerned
for the emotional and physical health of children and youth to support the
adoption of alternative methods for the achievement of self-control and
responsible behavior in children and adolescents.?
Dr. Daniel F. Whiteside, Assistant Surgeon General, Department of Health &
Human Services (Administration of President Ronald Reagan)
?Punitive measures whether administered by police, teachers, spouses or
parents have well-known standard effects: (1) escape ? education has its own
name for that: truancy, (2) counterattack ?vandalism on schools and attacks on
teachers, (3) apathy ? a sullen do-nothing withdrawal. The more violent the
punishment, the more serious the by-products.?
B. F. Skinner, Ph.D., author, Professor of Psychology, Harvard
?Corporal punishment trains children to accept and tolerate aggression. It
always figures prominently in the roots of adolescent and adult aggressiveness,
especially in those manifestations that take an antisocial form such as
delinquency and criminality.?
Philip Greven, Professor of History, Rutgers University
?I have always been an advocate for the total abolition of corporal
punishment and I believe the connection with pornography that is so oriented has
its roots in our tradition of beating children.?
Gordon Moyes, D. D., Pastor of the Uniting Church, Superintendent of the
Wesley Central Mission, Sydney, Australia
?The much-touted ?religious argument? to support corporal punishment is built
upon a few isolated quotes from the Book of Proverbs. Using the same kind of
selective reading, one could just as easily cite the Bible as an authority for
the practice of slavery, the rigid suppression of women, polygamy, incest and
infanticide. It seems to me that the brutal and vindictive practice of corporal
punishment cannot be reconciled with the major themes of the New Testament which
teach love and forgiveness and a respect for the beauty and dignity of children,
and which overwhelmingly reject violence and retribution as a means of solving
Thomas E. Sagendorf, United Methodist Pastor, Toledo, Ohio
?The development of self-control, which we call conscience, results from the
appropriate interaction of children with their caretakers. Children?s experience
of love and respect promotes the development of conscience, whereas the
experience of fear or pain, as results from spanking and paddling, interferes
with this development. Physical punishment of children must end if our society
is going to become one that is governed by conscience and self-control rather
than be governed by their absence.?
H. Patrick Stern, M.D., Asst. Prof. of Pediatrics, Psychiatry and Behavioral
Pediatrics, University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences
?Infliction of pain or discomfort, however minor, is not a desirable method
of communicating with children.?
American Medical Association, House of Delegates, 1985
?Chide not the pupil hastily, for that will both dull his wit and discourage
his diligence, but [ad]monish him gently, which shall make him both willing to
amend and glad to go forward in love and hope of learning... Let the master say,
?Here ye do well.? For I assure you there is no such whetstone to sharpen a good
wit and encourage a love of learning as his praise... In mine opinion, love is
fitter than fear, gentleness better than beating, to bring up a child rightly in
Roger Ascham, (Tutor to Queen Elizabeth I), The Schoolmaster, England,
published circa 1568
?The birch is used only out of bad temper and weakness, for the birch is a
servile punishment which degrades the soul even when it corrects, if indeed it
corrects, for its usual effect is to harden.?
Saint John Baptiste de La Salle, On the Conduct of Christian Schools,
?Children ought to be led to honorable practices by means of encouragement
and reasoning, and most certainly not by blows and ill treatment.?
Plutarch, circa 46-120 CE, ?The Education of Children,? Vol. I, Moralia,
?It is a disgusting and slavish treatment... When children are beaten, pain
or fear frequently have the result of which it is not pleasant to speak and
which are likely subsequently to be a source of shame, shame which unnerves and
depresses the mind and leads the child to shun the light of day and loathe the
light... I will spend no longer time on this matter. We know enough about it
Quintilian, circa 35-95 CE, Institutes of Oratory, Ancient Rome
Questions and answers:
Q: What do juvenile delinquents all have in common?
A: They have been raised by spankers.
Q: What was a common feature of the childhoods of Hitler, Stalin, Pol
Pot, Saddam Hussein and Charles Manson?
A: Each one was relentlessly, severely, physically punished as a child.
Q: What do prisoners on death row all have in common?
A: Plenty of spankings during childhood.
Q: What do rapists, arsonists, terrorists, torturers, serial killers,
mass murderers, sex murderers, serial bombers, kidnappers, snipers, assassins,
muggers, product tamperers, vandals and stalkers have in common?
A: Violent upbringing.
Q: Which child is destined never to join the company of felons?
A: The one who is nurtured, not spanked.
Q: To turn a friendly puppy into a vicious guard dog, what must you do
A: Restrict its movement and beat it often.
How you can make a difference:
There are people in your community who have never heard the ideas expressed
in Plain Talk about Spanking. It?s time they heard, don?t you agree?
You can help plant the seeds of a more caring, more cooperative and less
violent next generation by sharing this publication with others--with friends,
neighbors, relatives, the parents of your children?s friends, community leaders,
religious leaders, your children?s teachers and your representatives in
government. We believe everyone should hear this message.
We know that some people in your community will reject our conclusions about
spanking. Some people will refuse to think about it or may even become annoyed
or hostile because this information makes them feel very uncomfortable. That
doesn?t discourage us. It shouldn?t discourage you. There are others who want to
know why the old familiar method of socializing children works so poorly. Also,
there are those who already are raising their children without violence but who
need to be reassured that they are doing the right thing. Your role is to reach
out to those people and to let them know what you know about this matter. Two
easy ways to do that are by putting a copy of this booklet in their hands or by
sending them to the Web address
http://www.nospank.org/ where they can read it
We are confident that some day soon civilized humanity will look back with
astonishment and pity at the time when people believed hitting children was good
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
Plain Talk about Spanking is available as a 12-page booklet from Parents and
Teachers Against Violence in Education (PTAVE), P.O. Box 1033, Alamo, California
94507-7033. Would you like a sample copy? E-mail us an address and we'll send
one immediately. Write to [email protected]
Need quantities? Call for details at 925.831.1661.
PTAVE?s Web site ?Project NoSpank? at
http://www.nospank.org has been widely recognized as one of the most
valuable resources for parents, students, researchers, journalists, health care
professionals, educators and education policy makers.
Copyright is waived on this publication by the author
Latest revision: 2001-JUL
Author: Jordan Riak