Overview:

A meta analysis of corporal punishment studies found 13 strongly correlated outcomes, all negative. Nonreligious parents should be at the forefront of the movement to abolish the practice.

Reading Time: 8 minutes

Even as countries from South Korea to Colombia to Pakistan join the international and scientific consensus condemning corporal punishment, several school districts and state legislatures in the US have begun advocating the return (or continuation) of the deeply discredited practice. It’s time to revisit the overwhelming evidence against corporal punishment—and the roots of its persistent appeal.

Nonreligious parenting isn’t mostly about disbelief in God. At least it shouldn’t be. My religious doubts sprang from thinking for myself, not the other way around. So it’s freethought down at the roots of my parenting, not atheism.

If someone were to ask for the foundations of my parenting, I might paraphrase Bertrand Russell by saying Good parenting is inspired by love and guided by knowledge. Next to the love of my children, my parenting philosophy is motivated primarily by confidence in reason. And this should apply as much to discipline as anything else.

Corporal punishment is popular among religious fundamentalists, and a lot of times they’ll cite the biblical injunction, “Spare the rod and spoil the child.”

But there’s something doubly funny about the invocation of that scripture. First of all, it isn’t scripture. Second is its actual source, a bawdy poem by Samuel Butler that skewers the fundamentalists of his time, the English Puritans:

What med'cine else can cure the fits 
of lovers when they lose their wits? 
Love is a boy by poets styled, 
Then spare the rod, and spoil the child. 

“Spare the rod” in this case means abstain from sex. So he’s lampooning the Puritan obsession with sexual abstinence as the cure for passion, using “the rod” in this case as a wickedly clever double entendre, while making sly reference to an actual passage from Proverbs: He that spares his rod hates his son, and he that loves him disciplines him promptly.

It’s fun to hear sex-averse fundamentalists quoting from a bawdy satire that was aimed at them, and invoking a penis in the bargain. It’s almost as much fun as watching my homophobic aunts happily shouting along with the refrain to “YMCA” as if it’s a song about recreation facilities.

Though most strong advocates of corporal punishment are religious, not all religious people support corporal punishment. Christian child development expert Dr. William Sears, for example, strongly opposes the practice. In the process, though, he and other religious progressives have suggested that the rod in Scripture is actually a tool meant to guide not to smite.

Yes, that’s true on occasion: Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me. But in far more cases in the Bible, the rod is a tool for smiting and beating and whipping and chastening:

  • If a man smite his servant or his made with a rod… (Exodus 21)
  • If he commits iniquity, I will chasten him with the rod… (2 Samuel)
  • Withhold not correction from the child, for if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die. Thou shall beat him with the rod, and deliver his soul from hell… (Proverbs 23)

So the Bible clearly sees the rod primarily as an instrument of interpersonal violence, including violence against children. These are verses cited by many conservative Christian leaders in their strong advocacy of corporal punishment. But I don’t think the most effective way to counter that is by pretending that that’s not what the Bible really means.

Far from over

There have been a lot of recent gains in getting rid of corporal punishment, but it’s far from dying out. A UNICEF report in 2017 found that as many as three out of four young children in the world still experience what they call “violent discipline.” As of 2022, the practice has been banned in schools in 128 countries. But 19 US states still allow corporal punishment in public schools, and 48 states allow it in private schools.

Sixty-nine countries have banned the practice in the home as well. But while the proportion of US parents who report spanking their kids has dropped from 81 percent in the 1990s to 35 percent today, there’s reason to believe that’s an undercount.

One of the top advocates of corporal punishment has been religious conservative James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family. In his book Dare to Discipline, Dobson turns parenting into a contest of wills:

You have drawn a line in the dirt, and the child has deliberately flopped his bony little toe across it. Who is going to win it? Who has the most courage? Who is in charge here? If you do not conclusively answer these questions for your strong-willed children, they will precipitate other battles designed to ask them again and again.

He says spanking should be of sufficient magnitude to cause genuine tears and recommends painful squeezing of the trapezius muscle on the neck to obtain “instant obedience.”

Dobson recommends employing switches and paddles to hit children, whipping as early as 15 months, and hitting a toddler whenever he hits his friends. And if a child cries more than a few minutes after being spanked, he says, hit him some more.

But I shouldn’t refrain from spanking just because religious fundamentalists bank, I should refrain because our accumulated knowledge confirms that it’s the wrong thing to do.

Now, before I go further, a confession. I actually did spank my kids for a short time when they were young. I had been spanked as a child. And in moments of frustration, I simply and stupidly turned to what I knew. I’m ashamed to admit it.

But I stopped on a dime when I realized that it represented a failure in my parenting, including a twofold failure in my confidence and reason.

Every time a parent raises a hand to a child, the child learns that force is an acceptable substitute for reason, and that mom and dad have more confidence in force than in reason.

I eventually learned to address behaviors by having them recognize and name the problem themselves. So you replace don’t pull the dog’s ears with why is pulling the dog’s ears a bad idea. The youngest kids can grapple with that and you’ve required them to reason not just to obey, it’s good practice. And it leads not just to discipline, but to self-discipline.

The second failure is equally damning: Corporal punishment doesn’t work. In fact, it makes things worse. The research on this is compelling. A meta-analysis of 50 years of corporal punishment studies compiled by Elizabeth Gershoff at the University of Texas found 13 outcomes strongly correlated with corporal punishment, all of them negative. These include a damaged parent-child relationship, increased antisocial and aggressive behaviors, and the increased likelihood that the spanked child will physically abuse his or her own children.

Earlier studies had found one positive outcome: immediate compliance. Spanking may cause depression and aggression and a damaged relationship, but at least the child will do what you say in the moment he is being blistered. But the 2016 meta-analysis wiped out even that finding, showing that beatings have diminishing effectiveness over time. Kids become numb to it, they endure it and it ceases to even show that small, inadequate benefit.

So spanking eventually fails even in the primary goal of obedience.

Now if our ultimate goal is creating autonomous adults, we should raise children who are not merely disciplined but self-disciplined. So if your parenting is grounded in reason, skip the spankings and teach them to find the reasons to be good. We all have an investment in a future less saddled with aggression, abuse, and all the other antisocial maladies to which spanking is known to contribute.

corporal punishment
Nonbelievers and Jewish respondents were least likely to agree with the statement that spanking is sometimes necessary. Prepared by Nic Frame | Purdue University Dept of Sociology

One safe generation

There’s an amazing flipside there to these negative effects. Kids who are spanked are more likely to spank their own kids, which also means kids who are never spanked are much less likely to pass it on. That means it takes just one generation to effectively break the chain of violence. That means not just our kids, but their kids and their kids will be less prone to depression and aggression and dysfunction. It means a legacy less consumed by fear.

Now that’s an amazing legacy right there. Our reason, our judgment, and our ethics are all severely impaired when we’re afraid. Examples of individuals, groups, and nations thinking poorly and acting immorally under the influence of fear are countless. Violence and other social pathologies are perpetuated from one generation to the next as victims of violence and childhood are likely to become perpetrators of violence in the next generation. Each generation of adults has a choice to pass on traditions of violence and fear, or refuse to do so. One generation liberated from violence and fear would be more rational, more compassionate, more confident, and far less likely to perpetrate violence on its own children.

By allowing a single generation to grow up safely, the tradition of inherited violence can be broken and the future remade.

Discipline and moral development are also related to freethought in a way that might not be obvious. I don’t care if my kids end up identifying with religion, so long as it’s a choice, not a need. And the best way I can ensure that is by giving them not just knowledge, but also confidence and security. And as it turns out, we know how to give them confidence and security—and it’s not by beating them. It’s that list I’ve given before. You start with a responsive and consistent home life. Build a strong attachment with parents and other significant adults. Don’t hit or humiliate them, or let others do so. Encourage them to challenge authority, including your own. Make them comfortable with difference. Use knowledge to drive out fear. Build a sense of security and wonder that will keep them self-educating for life. Let them know that your love and support are unconditional. Teach and expect responsibility and maturity, encourage self-reliance. Help them find and develop flow activities and lose themselves in them.

These are straight out of the best child development research, which strongly supports attachment theory. Now if you’re not familiar with attachment theory as it applies to parenting, I recommend looking into it. It helps to answer many of the next-level questions after you step away from corporal punishment. The question what do I do instead of corporal punishment is largely answered by attachment theory: The more parents attend to building that strong positive attachment bond early on, and maintaining it along the way, the less need there is in many cases for immediate corrective discipline measures at all. It doesn’t completely go away, but the landscape changes dramatically.

To find the approach that works best for you simply Google alternatives to corporal punishment. There are so many good resources out there now. American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, American Association of Pediatrics, American Medical Association, American Academy of Family Physicians, many others.

Postscript

The London-based organization Humanists International, which was formerly the International Humanist and Ethical Union, convenes a World Humanist Congress every three years. One of the tasks of the Congress is to consider resolutions. Past resolutions then serve as a kind of evolving statement of generally-accepted humanist positions on issues of the day. If you want to know what the consensus is among humanists on abortion, euthanasia, contraception, reproductive rights, the environment, armed conflict, women’s rights, and a host of other issues, The Policies section of the Humanists International website offers the best available summary.

So in 2008, one year after Parenting Beyond Belief was published, Matt Cherry was president of the NGO Committee on Freedom of Religion or Belief at the United Nations. Matt noticed that humanists had not yet taken a position on corporal punishment. He asked me to draft a resolution for consideration by the next Humanist Congress.

Here’s an excerpt of the resolution:

The International Humanist and Ethical Union supports worldwide efforts to abolish the use of corporal punishment for the discipline of children. Corporal punishment is defined as the use of physical force with the intention of causing bodily pain or discomfort, so as to change the subjects behavior, or to punish them. Corporal punishment teaches children that violence is an acceptable means to make others do something thereby perpetuating violent behavior from generation to generation.

A growing body of research strongly indicates that corporal punishment is ineffective as a disciplinary measure and has strong associations with multiple undesirable outcomes, including an increased risk of depression, aggression, antisocial behavior, and the continued use of violence in subsequent generations. Nonviolent disciplinary techniques have been shown to be more effective than corporal punishment, as humanism teaches the preference for nonviolent means whenever possible IHEU supports efforts to educate parents and teachers regarding these disciplinary alternatives.

In response to growing evidence against corporal punishment, many national and international organizations have condemned the practice 25 countries to date had declared corporal punishment illegal and bans are under consideration by several others. [As I said earlier, that number is now 128.] Most national statutes already prohibit violence against adults, including family members. A corporal punishment ban seeks to extend the same protection to children. The IHEU calls on all member organizations and individual members to promote opposition to corporal punishment at the national and international level, with the aim to secure the abolition of the practice.

On June 8, 2008, the resolution was passed unanimously by the General Assembly of the World Humanist Congress in Washington DC.

An earlier version of this article was published on Nov 7.

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.