By: Carla Vestal
Events within the National Football League (NFL) have once again brought up an age old argument: How should parents and schools discipline children? Within the past weeks, you may have heard a friend or family member say, “I was whooped and I deserved it,” “No-one is going to tell me what to do in my home with my kids,” “The Bible says, ‘Spare the rod. Spoil the child,’” or other similar remarks.
The effect of corporal punishment is far more than the immediate physical pain a child will feel. Corporal punishment breeds a culture of violence, has been directly linked to mental and emotional health issues, and continues a legacy of racial discrimination in the South.
What is Corporal Punishment?
Corporal punishment is defined as, “the infliction of physical pain upon a person’s body as punishment for a crime or infraction . . . In a broad sense, the term also denotes the physical disciplining of children in the schools and at home.” Spanking, whooping, whipping, and paddling are all forms of corporal punishment. Often times this type of action is carried out by the adult using their hands, belts, switches, paddles, and, in extreme cases of abuse, electrical cords, spatulas, and wooden cutting boards.
What is the law?
All states allow parents to physically hit their child as long as the force used is considered “reasonable.” When cases of corporal punishment become extreme enough to constitute abuse it is likely the Department of Social Services (DSS) or the court system will become involved. In these instances what is “reasonable” varies by geographic region and community standards.
Currently, nineteen states allow for corporal punishment in the public school system. Interestingly, the majority of these states are in the South and are commonly referred to as the “slave states” or the Bible Belt. In these states, corporal punishment is administered in a racially and ethnically biased manner which targets African American, Native American, and Special Education children.
What do the statistics tell us?
Multiple national surveys of parents report almost identical results. In one cross-sectional study from Child Trends, 77% of men and 65% of women agreed that corporal punishment is appropriate for children. The results of a study conducted on North Carolina parents showed that 74% of North Carolinian mothers admitted to hitting a child under two-years old and 5% admitted to using corporal punishment on a child younger than three months old!
A comprehensive study conducted by the American Civil Liberty Union (“ACLU”) and Human Rights Watch concluded that in schools where corporal punishment is allowed, the punishment is administered in a racially biased manner. African Americans make up roughly 17.1% of the public school population yet sustained 35.6% of reported corporal punishment. Males were paddled more frequently than females, but African American girls were paddled at a rate of 2:1 to Caucasian girls.
Another alarming finding of the study dealt with students with disabilities. Children who need special education services in Texas comprise only 10% of the student body yet received 17% of the beatings by school administrators.
What is the science behind the spankings?
Empirical data analysis conducted over a twenty year span links physical discipline, in any form, to an increase in a variety of mental health issues which may not even develop until later in life. Mood disorders, anxiety disorders, aggressive/violent tendencies, depression and bi-polar disease, and alcohol and drug addictions have all been linked with having been hit as a child. It does not matter whether the corporal punishment rises to the level of abuse in a legal sense. The injury to the child’s developing psyche occurs when hit with any force.
In the school setting particularly, corporal punishment serves to legitimize violence. Students have to suffer the humiliation and indignation of having other students know that they were forced to bend over a table or chair, sometimes with exposed buttocks, to get hit. Peer-to-peer and student-to-teacher relationships erode. As a result of the student’s lack of trust in educators, students withdraw academically. This eventually leads to a higher drop-out rate in school districts that use paddling.
In either environment, corporal punishment changes the trajectory of brain development. In layman’s terms, children who received corporal punishment have less grey matter in their prefrontal cortexes. It is well-established that less grey matter in the prefrontal cortex is an indicator of mental and emotional psychosis. This area of the brain is also responsible for cognitive development. Researchers also have found a significant correlation between corporal punishment and lower IQ scores on standardized tests. The end result of the study conducted by The National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health concluded that the grey matter children need to develop into mentally and emotionally healthy adults who exhibit self-control is being eroded with each strike of corporal punishment. Corporal punishment has the exact opposite effect on children than what the discipline technique is intended to encourage.
Why do parents and schools still use corporal punishment in spite of the scientific evidence against it?
The answer to this question has deep societal roots. Many parents continue to spank and whip their children because, as children, they were subjected to corporal punishment themselves. This is how the cycle of ineffective parenting and in extreme cases abuse is passed from generation to generation.
Elizabeth T. Gershoff, the nation’s leading advocate of alternative parenting techniques which do not include physically hitting a child, has concluded that corporal punishment is the result of lower educational levels in parents and geographic location. Her research, which has spanned fifteen years, posits that corporal punishment in the South is a remnant of slavery and the concentration of conservative Christian religions.
When parents possess a college education, the use of corporal punishment in the home drops drastically from 55% to 38%. This is due to the parents understanding the long term negative effects of spanking, having better coping techniques and using alternative methods of discipline.
Conservative Christian religions, which are heavily concentrated in the Bible Belt, often recite the “Spare the rod, spoil the child” mantra found in the Old Testament. Focus on the Family, a conservative religion website, even goes so far as to teach parents how to hit their children without leaving evidence of bruising or welting of the skin and what type of “wooden spoon or paddle” to use.
Moving Forward and Repairing the Damage
As of now, corporal punishment will remain a choice for parents and schools. As more of the public becomes educated about the adverse effects of physical punishment, parents will hopefully do some self-reflection and explore other avenues to help their children respect boundaries in the home and school.
Public school systems in the South should be open to review their policies on corporal punishment, to absorb the scientific data on its use in the academic setting, and examine the links between slavery and how societal norms across the country no-longer support paddling in schools.
It is a difficult endeavor to challenge parents to think differently about corporal punishment when they use religious convictions to justify its use. However, this relates back to education and particularly scientific breakthroughs. The often cited “Spare the rod, spoil the child” defense goes back to the time of Solomon (roughly 3,000 years ago). Grey matter in brain development could not be monitored through MRIs 3,000 years ago as it is today.
In the end, the use of corporal punishment will remain a heated debate among parents, educators, church groups and society in general. One thing is for sure: it is a personal choice that each person in the position to administer corporal punishment will have to weigh out in his or her consciousness.
If you feel that you have been subjected to extreme corporal punishment in the form of physical abuse, please contact your nearest police department immediately.
National Domestic Violence Hot-line: 1-800-799-7233
National Child Abuse Hotline: 1-800-4-A-Child (1-800-422-4453)
 States that allow corporal punishment in the public school systems include: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Wyoming.
 For statistics applicable to North Carolina: http://www.carolinaparent.com/articlemain.php?Who-s-Getting-Spanked-in-N.C.-Public-Schools-3299.
 For a more in depth analysis of special education and corporal punishment see: https://www.aclu.org/impairing-education-corporal-punishment-students-disabilities-us-public-schools-html.
 For a meta-analytic review of how corporal punishment discourages positive long-term behavior and encourages a lack of self-realization see: http://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/bul-1284539.pdf.
 Interestingly, Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, went on to become a tyrant of a ruler whose subjects revolted against him. He exhibited signs of extreme aggression and lacked empathy for his people. “Whereas my father laid upon you a heavy yoke, so shall I add tenfold thereto. Whereas my father chastised (tortured) you with whips, so shall I chastise you with scorpions. For my littlest finger is thicker than my father’s loins; and your backs, which bent like reeds at my father’s touch, shall break like straws at my own touch.” (1 Kings 12). This adds weight to the scientific evidence that we have today that hitting children leads to anti-social behaviors and mental disease.