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Sunday, February 5, 2012

Puzzlement About Punishment

A kind reader called my attention to further evidence on our confused beliefs and assumptions about corporal punishment. The Toronto Globe and Mail ( has quoted the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, as speculating that parents feel anxious about discipline because of anti-spanking laws. He was speaking in support of other politicians’ claims that  British riots were the long-term result of lax parental discipline – an interesting counterpoint to the suggestions of some that riots and other violence result from excessive parental punishment.

According to the Globe and Mail, surveys of Canadians suggest that parents simultaneously use physical punishment and believe that it’s not a good thing to do. This would also seem to be the case in the United States, and I would guess that one of the reasons for this apparent paradox is that parents feel under social and internal pressure to Do Something, and they see physical punishment as the “gold standard” for Doing Something. Sally Provence, one of the doyennes of the early childhood movement, used to say, “Don’t just do something. Stand there and watch.” She felt it was easy to follow impulses to interfere with what a child was doing, but both harder and more constructive to observe the situation and the child.

 Parents rarely hear Provence’s maxim, though, and if they watch and reflect on what’s happening, they’re likely to have friends, neighbors, teachers, and grandparents tell them that they are lax and creating trouble. One mother was telling me a few days ago that her young daughter very occasionally talked back to her teacher, and the teacher would send home a note demanding to be told what the mother had “done about it”--   the message was that some punishment at home was required, whether physical punishment, loss of privileges, whatever. When a note describing the punishment was sent back to the school, the teacher was satisfied--  until, of course, the next time this unsolved problem became apparent.

Multiple sources tell parents to Do Something. Whatever they do, other voices will tell them it was the wrong thing--  some that physical punishment causes anger and violence, the others that lack of physical punishment causes anger and violence. And whatever capacity parents have for reflection and considering the best approach to take with their children, that capacity will be diminished by the social and emotional pressure they experience both inside and outside their families.
All that confusion is worsened by our apparent inability to even agree on the terms we use. I think I’m in line with some authors when I define spanking as one or two smacks on the bottom or legs (clothed or unclothed) with the adult’s bare and open hand. But a recent off-blog correspondent has said that she thought of “spanking” not as a smack, but “serious authoritarian whopping”. I recently read an account of a religious ritual in which a mother was told she should now spank her uncooperative child, and she said she couldn’t, she didn’t have a paddle--  so the clergyman suggested her shoe, and she used that. (What ritual?? I’ll save that for another time.) We just don’t seem to have any shared language, understood by everybody, that discriminates between a mildly painful and physically safe event at one extreme, and clobbering the child with a large object at the other extreme. When someone says “I gave him a tap”, we can’t tell whether that was a quick smack on the hand, or the belt or razor strop (if anyone besides me is old enough to remember those thick leather straps).

For anyone who wants to think seriously about physical punishment, it’s important to be aware of how punishment is differentiated from abuse for research purposes and in law. The fourth national incidence study of child maltreatment in 2010 listed specific actions that would be considered abusive; these are discussed at

The Toronto Globe and Mail article cited earlier described a 2004 ruling of Canada’s Supreme Court about the “justification” of physical punishment (I am not sure but what this might have been better stated as “acceptability”). Here are the circumstances in which physical punishment of a child is legally acceptable under the Canadian criminal code:

The punisher is a parent, not a teacher.

The child is between 2 and 12 years of age.

The child is capable of learning from the physical punishment.

It involves “minor corrective force of a transitory and trifling nature”.

It does not involve blows with objects or blows to the head.

It is not “degrading, inhuman, or harmful” (and I would appreciate any glosses on those words that any readers can provide, because I am really unsure what would be “inhuman”.)

It is corrective rather than due to the caregiver’s “frustration, loss of temper, or abusive personality”. (This too is unclear--   does it mean that a person who is frustrated cannot also seek to correct a child’s behavior?)

The Canadian list seems to cover a number of the points that discriminate between what I call spanking and what I’d call beating. There are still some issues that I would think need to be established, though. For example, how often does such punishment occur? Is it possible for a simple spanking to move to the abuse category if it occurs ten times a day, and no other corrective measures are used?

Well, we can’t really depend on the law to answer these questions. Nor, I submit, are psychologists ready to answer almost any specific questions about the safety (in emotional terms) or effectiveness of physical punishment.  It does seem that all answers will have to come from looking at punishment in context: what happened before the punishment? What happened afterward? How are the cultural differences in attitudes toward physical punishment played out in outcomes for children of different groups? Yes, it’s complicated --  not like Doing Something. But we do seem to have made enough progress to begin to ask what the “gold standard” for discipline really is.



  1. This kind of comment is fairly typical of the right wing in the UK - despite the fact that it is not actually against the law here to smack your child within reasonable bounds.

  2. True on this side as well, and this is part of a difficulty in thinking about punishment-- not only is empirical evidence hard to put together, but ideological positions color most people's conclusions. I cited this comment to show what a wide range of beliefs are at work here.

  3. Well, that article was very interesting, and I agree with the general sweep of it, that we are very conflicted on the issue of spanking. Some of the blogger comments were spot on about stating the current state of trouble we’re all having with it.
    I noticed something, though, which might not be helping the confusion, and can you guess what? We’ve decided as a society that physical punishment is unhelpful, even wrong – so we pass a law about it and threaten to punish the transgressors. I’m not saying that’s crazy, or that I have a better answer, but that’s kind of ironic. It’s a fractal sort of thing:
    You want to teach a kid not to hit, hurt or steal, so you hit him;
    We want to teach a parent not to hit in the head, or with a weapon, so we jail or fine him;
    For someone who has ceased to believe in the theory of punishment, the disconnect is obvious.

  4. I want to nourish an infant, so I provide a diet that's largely milk-based. I want to nourish a toddler, so I reduce the milk and provide more calorie-rich non-milk foods, but I'm cautious about keeping the solid foods small in size. I want to nourish an adolescent, so I increase the number of calories provided by a factor of 2 or 3. I want to nourish an adult and keep him healthy, so I reduce the number of calories and am cautious about the proportion of dairy products included.

    Nutritional requirements don't just scale up with age, and it's possible that factors in learning don't either. The punishments we use for adults usually don't seem to work, and this may be because adults are developmentally different from children-- or it might be because punishments are delayed, in which case they don't work for children either.

    Or maybe it's because we no longer use physical punishments on adults! If I'm not careful, I'm going to suggest bringing back flogging, it would seem.

    Seriously,though,you can't assume that the needs, abilities,and responses of children are necessarily the same as those of adults.That way of thinking is called adultomorphism, and it's an abuse of analogies unless you can show that the two groups really are similar in relevant ways.

    1. OK, I've read that over and over, and I've got a few things.
      First, I'm not so sure I like your tone, young lady! ;)
      Second, I think you, as I do, think of punishment behaviour as being an order of magnitude more toxic than milk. I'm back to the smoking analogy. I expect there is not a large incidence of lung cancer due to tobacco smoking among children 2 to 5 years old, but it really would follow from lung cancer and respiratory disease from smoking stats that it's not good for anybody, no? And again, not everyone dies of smoking, but it's enough to say it's bad, right?
      Now, you're right, I do sometimes forget that you're anti-hitting generally, and I start feeling argumentative, but I think people lose sight of my focus too, which is not about spanking, not about particular forms of punishments at particular ages, but simply about the logical premise behind the practice of punishment in any form.
      I am not arguing about particular forms of it, or appropriate versus inappropriate instances of it, I am concerned that the premise is simply flawed, simply wrong, and I think that idea can make many tricky child-rearing conundrums simple.
      That's right. I'm trying to put people like you out of a job.
      Hey, I saw a July, 2009 article in PT about time-outs by you, excellent stuff!

    2. True, I do forget how broad your position is. Unfortunately, I think it's so broad that it becomes impossible to seek the reality checks that come from testing a hypothesis against observations. Jerome Kagan in "Three Seductive Ideas" refers to "abstractionism", the habit of assuming that a statement that's true about one situation is also true about similar situations-- which may not be the case.

      There's no question in my mind but that in the natural world people learn from unpleasant situations that follow certain actions. The question is, can human beings make use of this natural learning tool for socialization of children, and do it in such a way that more good than harm is done? I think the evidence says this is possible, and that complete rejection of punishment,or even just of spanking, can occur on ideological grounds but not on evidentiary grounds. But of course until somebody thinks to tell research participants what they mean by "spanking", the evidence itself is weak.

      Interesting that my old PT blog posts are still hanging around. PT kicked me off after a therapist I had mentioned as using inappropriate physical techniques sued me and PT for defamation. My evidence for my statements was partly drawn from the man's own publications, and partly from court transcripts. I won in small claims court, and the case was dismissed in federal court-- but PT and like publications don't care for litigiousness or those authors who attract it.

    3. Don't care if you post this or not, but I did see a lot of rubbish there (at the PT site)before I found anything I liked. There was an article I liked that gave a few instances where moral arguments showed more traction than punishment, one in a gang scenario and one in a business school. I need to get home to find you the link. Later.

    4. I mean, I think I'd get myself in trouble with them too.

    5. I'm not proposing to spank either gang members or B-school students, or give them timeouts, or refuse them desserts. I'm only arguing that punishment may be effective and helpful for socializing toddlers and preschoolers, whose conception of moral arguments is very limited.

      On the other hand, I see no reason why punishment could not be effective with the people you mention, IF (if if if) it were practical, or ethically acceptable, to time their punishments appropriately.

  5. To a certain extent yes. But I am always puzzled as to why a boy who hits others at school is a bully, a young man who gets into pub fights is a thug, a man who hits his wife is a wife beater but when the same man hits his children he's a model parent disciplining his child. As for the acceptable level of smacks, I never yet came across a case where the parents didn't claim it was "just a tap" even though the handprint is visible two days later.

    I think the problem is that although the odd little smack for small children probably does no lasting harm, it's continuing legitimisation serves as a cover for far more damaging parental regimes.

  6. It's possible that children can be hit in different ways than schoolboys or thugs hit each other. It would certainly make for a novel pub scene if the guys smacked each other's bottoms with their bare hands. (Saturday night at the old "Palm & Bum".)

    But your point about cover is a good one. George Kelly, an interesting psychotherapist of years gone by, used to say that it was easier for anyone to move to the opposite pole of a belief or attitude than it was for them to change by a moderate amount, even though the moderate change would probably be more realistic. By that perspective, it would be simpler to get people to give up physical punishment altogether than to moderate it to a harmless level... especially because it appears that we don't even have an agreed-upon language to describe different types of corporal contact.