The Lasting Impact of Corporal Punishment

Corporal punishment (any form of discipline that uses physical force and is meant to cause pain, however light [1]; e.g., spanking a child) has been a hot topic in the news lately, reigniting a long-standing debate over where to draw the line on the continuum of discipline and physical abuse. While many people view the decision to use or not use corporal punishment as very personal, my years as a child abuse pediatrician have given me a unique perspective on this issue.

I am completely convinced that hitting and spanking are definitely not effective forms of discipline, especially in the long run. In fact, I believe that hitting children is an act of violence and a clear violation of children’s human rights.

Everybody’s Doing It, So What’s the Problem?

I am very concerned about this problem because of its widespread use and acceptance in our culture.

Studies have shown us that:

  • Approximately 2/3 of parents with children between 1 and 2 years of age use corporal punishment [3]
  • 65% of children under 3 years of age have been spanked in the last month [4]
  • 51% of high school students have been hit with a belt or similar object [5]
  • 94% of parents admit to using some type of corporal punishment with their kids [6]

But does corporal punishment work? The short answer is a definite “no.” No studies to date have found any advantages in spanking a child. In fact, there is a long list of short- and long-term negative effects associated with it. [7]

Short-term Effects

  • Depression, anxiety, stress
  • Child aggression
  • Child delinquent and antisocial behavior
  • Poor quality of relationship between parent and child
  • Child mental ability issues

Long-term Effects

  • Risk of being a victim of physical abuse as an adult
  • Adult aggression
  • Potential for adult criminal and antisocial behavior
  • Later adult mental health issues
  • Risk of abusing own child or spouse

There are also new studies that link spanking, corporal punishment and physical abuse to health problems in adulthood, such as cancer, heart disease and chronic respiratory problems [8-10].

Despite the Harm It Causes, Corporal Punishment is Still Legal

Unfortunately, our legal system has a rather contradictory way of defining abuse and the use of corporal punishment. It is against the law to hit spouses, prisoners, criminals or other adults in the U.S. Ironically, it is still legal to hit children – at home, and even at school. The law in every state allows the use of “reasonable” corporal punishment. Federal law hasn’t banned its use in public and private schools, either. At the same, both state and federal law forbid serious non-accidental inflicted injuries, otherwise known as abuse.

Feel like something’s not right there? The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child agrees with you – it lists the uses of corporal punishment as a violation of children’s human rights.

Until our government’s laws can catch up with the standards the rest of the world has set, it’s up to every parent and caregiver to reject the use of corporal punishment on the children they know and love.

Looking for Constructive Forms of Discipline?

So you might be asking yourself, if spanking does not work, then what can or should I do when my children misbehave? Check back soon for my next post, where I’ll try to give some ideas of how to better discipline your child.

Let me end with this “food for thought”:

When a child hits a child, we call it aggression
When a child hits an adult, we call it hostility
When an adult hits an adult, we call it assault
When an adult hits a child, we call it discipline

-Haim G. Ginott

Norell Rosado, MD, is an attending physician in Lurie Children’s Department of Child Abuse Pediatrics. He is also an adjunct assistant professor of pediatrics-child abuse at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.


1. End Corporal Punishment. Available from:,.

2. American Humane Association. Available from:

3. Socolar, R.R., E. Savage, and H. Evans, A longitudinal study of parental discipline of young children. South Med J, 2007. 100(5): p. 472-7.

4. Taylor, C.A., et al., Mothers’ spanking of 3-year-old children and subsequent risk of children’s aggressive behavior. Pediatrics, 2010. 125(5): p. e1057-65.

5. Bender, H.L., et al., Use of harsh physical discipline and developmental outcomes in adolescence. Dev Psychopathol, 2007. 19(1): p. 227-42.

6. Straus, M.A. and J.H. Stewart, Corporal punishment by American parents: national data on prevalence, chronicity, severity, and duration, in relation to child and family characteristics. Clin Child Fam Psychol Rev, 1999. 2(2): p. 55-70.

7. Ferguson, C.J., Spanking, corporal punishment and negative long-term outcomes: a meta-analytic review of longitudinal studies. Clin Psychol Rev, 2013. 33(1): p. 196-208.

8. Afifi, T.O., et al., Harsh physical punishment in childhood and adult physical health. Pediatrics, 2013. 132(2): p. e333-40.

9. Felitti, V.J., et al., Relationship of childhood abuse and household dysfunction to many of the leading causes of death in adults. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study. Am J Prev Med, 1998. 14(4): p. 245-58.

10. Berger, R.P. and A.J. Zolotor, Is there an association between physical punishment in childhood and physical health in adulthood? Pediatrics, 2013. 132(2): p. e500-1.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInEmail this to someonePrint this page