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Corporal Punishment

Experts & readers debate physical discipline



(page 1 of 2)

Corporal punishment has been the subject of renewed debate since NFL star Adrian Peterson made headlines last fall, when he was arrested following an incident during which he struck his son with a switch. Peterson claimed he didn’t do anything wrong and that he was disciplining his son just as he had been disciplined as a boy in East Texas. Peterson left the 4-year-old with cuts and bruises on his legs, back and buttocks. 

“People have very strong feelings on this subject,” says Bahira Trask, PhD, professor of human development & family studies at the University of Delaware. “As a rule, the majority of Americans believe in some form of corporal punishment, spanking or more.” One recent study found that 70 percent of parents say they spank their children. Though upper middle class parents tend not to use corporal punishment, it is a misconception that only minorities spank, Trask says.

Corporal punishment includes everything from a spank on the bottom or a slap on the wrist to striking with belts, switches, books or whatever’s around, says Christian Joy Dozier, MA, a therapist at the Center for Growth in Philadelphia. 

Because intensity and severity varies widely, at times the line between discipline and child abuse is murky at best. Most agencies consider it abuse when it leaves a mark. 

What’s behind the instinct to use corporal punishment?

“We never find it acceptable to hit a spouse or coworker, so why children?” asks Charlene Scott, MS, a psychotherapist at the Mindful Therapy Center in Marlton, NJ. Perhaps one explanation is what Scott calls “a low tolerance for frustration because of our busy lives.” Striking a child may release some frustration for parents, she says. Parents don’t know what else to do, and because they were never taught another way, they do what their parents did. Furthermore, corporal punishment is easy; it’s done quickly without much thought.

Dozier understands why many parents use corporal punishment: “It’s an immediate response to what the child is doing wrong. It’s quite clear to the child what the punishment is for.” 

Say a child reaches toward a hot stove; a slap on the outstretched hand sends an unambiguous message about the seriousness of the situation. 

Scott compares this approach to applying a Band-Aid. “It may stop the behavior in the moment, but in the long term it doesn’t solve the behavior issue” because it doesn’t teach why the action is wrong.

Perhaps more worrisome, corporal punishment shows children that they don’t need to consider the well-being of other people, says Scott.

Next page: pitfalls of and alternatives to corporal punishment + reader thoughts

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