Children and Physical Punishment: A Good or a Bad Idea?

Is spanking a child a good way to enforce discipline and punish childhood misbehaviors? There are many research studies on this subject, and there are many theories and strategies to be taken into consideration. This paper takes the position that physical punishment is not necessarily always a bad idea, but the age of the child and the degree of harshness can make it harmful.

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The Literature on Physical Punishment for Children

A recent study conducted by the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health reveals that a child that is physically punished “before the age of 2” is more likely to have “behavioral problems years later when they enter grade school” (Lallanilla, 2010, p. 1). The study examined the survey results of 1,966 children across the U.S., from households of ethnically diverse children. The mothers of those children were asked to point out any “behavior problems in their children” including a request from the school for a parent meeting that would indicate “a behavior problem with the child” (Lallanilla, p. 1).

Researchers were “surprised to find” that thirty-nine percent of “all children younger than two had been spanked at least once in the previous week” — and the children who had been punished were spanked “an average of 3.4 spankings in the previous week” (Lallanilla, p. 1). Dr. Eric P. Slade at Johns Hopkins said that “Spanking children under the age of 2 puts those children into a higher risk group for behavioral problems later” (Lallanilla, p. 1).

An article in the Journal of Family Violence points out that “there are gaps in the literature” with reference to physical punishment, should it be used, the context in which it should be used and “cross-cultural differences” in applying physical punishment (Chang, et al., 2006, p. 281). But there are plenty of research studies, Chang explains, that have documented “both the short-term and the long-term negative consequences of physical punishment” (p. 281).

Straus and Donnelly (1994) surveyed more than 9,000 families, according to the Chang article. The conclusion from the study of 9,000 families was that “…children who were spanked regularly were from two to six times more likely to be physically aggressive” (p. 281). Those regularly spanked children were also six times more likely to “become juvenile delinquents, and later as adults, to use physical violence against their spouses”; it is also asserted in the research that those same children tended towards “sadomasochistic” behaviors and were known to suffer from depression (Chang, p. 281).

The difference between physical punishment and “abuse” is significant, according to Chang. Physical punishment is meant to cause pain in the child, but abuse implies “injury.” Meanwhile, in a survey of Japanese and American college students conducted by Chang and colleagues, “U.S. respondents were more likely to perceive physical punishment as being appropriate discipline than were Japanese respondents” (p. 284). The survey participants included 120 U.S. college students and 107 Japanese college students. As to what kind of punishment they received, 91% of U.S. respondents said they had been “physically punished” and of those, 62% said they had been “hit with an object.” About 86% of the Japanese participants answered that they had been physically punished, and of those only 35% indicate they had been hit with an object (Chang, p. 283).


In some cases, restrained physical punishment can be appropriate for children who are old enough to understand why they are being punished. Perhaps a slap on the hand or a hard pat on the bottom sends the message effectively. But the studies show that frequent physical punishment on a child can lead to problems for that child later in life. It is also known that parents tend to lash out at children with physical punishment when the parent is frustrated or stressed. The rule of thumb for parents should be: use psychology whenever possible; take away privileges when appropriate rather than striking the child with a belt or a hand; and most certainly do not physically punish a child under two years of age, or even between two and three years of age. The facts are available: unreasonably beating of a child leads to aggression and deportment problems later in life.

Works Cited

Chang, I.J., Pettit, Rebecca W., and Katsurada, Emiko. (2006). Where and When to Spank: A

Comparison Between U.S. And Japanese College Students. Journal of Family Violence, Vol.

21, 281-286.

Lallanilla, Marc. (2010). Should Parents Spank Young Kids? Spanking May Lead to Behavioral

Problems Later. ABC News. Retrieved Dec. 24, 2010, from