Corporal Punishment in the United States: Violence Does Not Beget Kindness
Corporal punishment is the willful and deliberate infliction of physical pain on the person of another to modify undesirable behavior (American Academy 726). Corporal punishment in the context of education appears to be antithetical to the United States and its values of democracy and equality; however, this form of punishment actually pre-dates the founding of the nation and continues to this day (Hyman 30-34). In the United States, familiar forms of corporal punishment include slapping, spanking, and paddling of the buttocks while more cruel and abusive forms include piercing the skin with straight pins, hitting with blunt objects, breaking bones, painful limb contortions, excessive exercise, and even smacking across the genitals (Lynn). Despite the fact that corporal punishment has been outlawed in nearly every first world country except for the United States, we have retained it as a form of punishment in approximately 21 states and is used often in 13 of these states as of the date of this paper (Sabo).
History and Rationale in Support of Corporal Punishment in the United States
“He that spareth his rod hateth his son, but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes.” Proverbs
Arguments in favor of corporal punishment claim that there are many positive benefits to hitting children as an approach to discipline. Some state that hitting is the only language children understand, and they understand it instantaneously; through swift and decisive punishment, you can prevent children from spoiling; I’m successful today because my parents hit me when I did something wrong; I suffered no harm from my parents having beaten me; it has a deterrent effect as well: If you beat one child in front of other children, not only that child learns to behave, others also learn a lesson to behave; Since children try to test your limits, one must show them some physical punishment so that they will clearly recognize each mistake of theirs will exact some form of punishment; fear is the only thing which restrains children from misbehaving; if you show children something to be afraid of, then they will behave; Corporal punishment has an instantaneous effect; Children obey and behave absolutely right when punished; Pampering and talking to them lovingly spoils them; There is no point in talking to them regarding solving any of their behavior problem because they are young and have no understanding of the worldly wisdom; if you show them the fear of doing something wrong, then they will do everything right; the history of corporal punishment suggests that it has taught children to behave throughout the ages (“Pro Corporal Punishment”).
While the foregoing arguments may appear outdated, they are still used today to justify corporal punishment in education. According to the Americans with Civil Liberties Union, nearly a quarter of a million children were subjected to corporal punishment in public schools in the U.S. during the 2006-2007 academic year (Stephey). Even though corporal punishment in education was attacked briefly in the 18th Century, corporal punishment has maintained its viability to this day due to economic and disciplinary concerns. For example, in one school district, the administration noted that they had no choice but to keep paddling because they could not afford an alternative form of discipline such as an afternoon detention (Kindersley). Moreover, administrations have noted that it doesn’t take effective teachers to obtain classroom management when management is based upon a paddle (Stephey). Accordingly, many districts are wary to eradicate the use of the paddle since it would require additional teacher training and may cause short-term upheaval and/or disruptions in the behavior of students.
In the twentieth century, by our nation’s centennial in 1975, corporal punishment had been outlawed in the penal system as well as in the U.S. military; yet, it continued to thrive in our classrooms (Merlis 1). In a meritless attempt at bringing humanity into the corporal punishment realm, our nation outlawed the hickory stick and the birth rod; yet, they retained wooden paddles as their strategy for classroom management (Id.). Moreover, the Supreme Court of the United States of America even upheld corporal punishment in U.S. Schools as late as 1977, in the case of Inglewod v. U.S. Supreme Court. By a one-vote margin, the Court ruled that nothing in the Constitution bars public school teachers from paddling unruly students. In fact, as of 1977, it appeared that public opinion agreed with the outcome of this case. When schools called home to inform parents regarding their child’s paddling, the typical response was noted to be: “Give him a good one and spare me the trouble” (Kalwary). Such attitudes in support of corporal punishment in the United States prevailed until the 1980’s when the tide of public opinion as well as the courts began to turn.
Evolution of Modern Day Thought With Regard to Corporal Punishment
“Every word, movement, and action has an effect.” — Bob Keeshan, Captain Kangaroo
In the 1980’s, the tide of public opinion shifted and so did the high court’s rulings. During this era, several groups and individuals against corporal punishment helped to spread the word to the public of the detrimental effect of hitting children as punishment, especially in the context of the educational environment. Recent analyses of corporal punishment focus less upon the need for “efficient classroom management” and more upon the negative effect of the practice upon the child’s psyche as well as the economic costs to the individual school districts. In fact, recent studies reveal that corporal punishment causes serious physical and psychological harm to large numbers of children; and, moreover, that each year thousands of children require medical treatment due to corporal punishment administered in the school context. Furthermore, these injuries have lead to numerous costly lawsuits against the offending school districts (Sommer). Perhaps, even more disturbing is the proportion of students who actually receive paddling. In fact, Time magazine notes that students with disabilities receive corporal punishment at disproportionately high rates; and, in particular, students with autism have been noted to be paddled at more than twice the rate of the general population. This is particularly egregious given that much of the paddling occurs as a result of behaviors that are actually common to their condition as a result of difficulties they encounter with regard to appropriate social behavior (Stephey). Additionally, African-American students make up 17.1% of the nationwide student population; however they made up 36.5% of the paddled students during the 2006-2007 academic school year; and, African-American girls were paddled at twice the rate of their white classmates (Sabo).
In addition to being applied in a disproportionate and discriminatory manner, corporal punishment is also applied in a lethal manner. According to the National Coalition to Abolish Corporal Punishment in Schools, corporal punishment has even caused the deaths of seven children – including a kindergarten girl. In non-lethal cases, the emotional problems that can result from corporal punishment include many debilitating mental conditions, especially in the case of children: depression, withdrawal, sleep disturbances, avoidance of school, learning problems, loss of self-esteem, and delinquency (Sommer).
It appears that in recent years, parents, teachers, and administrators are acknowledging the familiar adage that “violence begets violence” and that providing adult role models who use violence as a means of punishment provides for poor role-modeling. Indeed, of the 10 states in America that use corporal punishment the most in education, those same ten states have the highest incarceration rates. Dr. Ralph S. Welsh demonstrates this salient point: “â€¦I have yet to see the first violent male juvenile delinquent who wasn’t raised on a belt, board, extension cord, fist or the equivalent. . . . I am still amazed at the consistency of the ‘belt’ and its equivalents in producing angry and violent behavior.” Based upon his research and experience in this area, he warns that there is no denying the direct relationship between the amount of spankings and the level of violence exhibited by the child unto others. Additionally, many child psychiatrists and parents argue that we need to be teaching our children that conflict can be resolved through non-violent modes. In the educational arena this would mean setting u p interventions, detentions, and other punishments for negative behavior as opposed to violence (Sommer). Due to increasing awareness of the negative effects of corporal punishment, many schools have substituted new, non-violent means of punishment; and, in these schools they have reported many positive results including increased attendance, higher academic performance, decreased behavioral problems, and better relations between students and school personnel (Id).
We no longer live in an era where the teacher’s role is to spank and/or hit children. Given the vast amount of data which we possess which demonstrates the negative and humiliation caused by paddling as well as the data that reveals its discriminatory usage, we have a duty to make sure that our schools find new ways to employ classroom management.
As noted in Ghandi’s preachings of non-violence, “If we are to reach real peace in the world, we shall have to begin with children.” Moreover, since America has outlawed beating military personnel, military detainees, wives, prisoners, and the aged, it makes sense that we should extend such protection to children. In fact, it more than makes sense; it seems to be the only viable option for a first world society such as ours that values freedom, equality, and justice for all.
American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Psycho-social Aspects of Child and Family Health Policy Statement, Guidance for Effective Discipline, 101(4) PEDIATRICS, 723-28 (1998).
Irwin a. Hyman, Reading, WRITING and the HICKORY STICK: The Appalling Story of Physical and Psychological Abuse in American Schools 30-34 (1990).
Kalwary, Nancy. “Ruling Carries Clout to Kids.” Clearwater Sun [Florida] 21 Apr. 1977. Print.
Merlis, George. “The Updated Hickory Stick.” The Nation Nov. 1975: 1. World Corporal Punishment Center. Web.
Middleton. J. “Thomas Hopley and Mid-Victorian Attitudes to Corporal Punishment.” History of Education 2005.
“Pro Corporal Punishment.” Child Discipline with Love. Web. 23 Apr. 2010. .
Roy, Lynn “Corporal Punishment in American Public Schools and the Rights of the Child.” Journal of Law and Education. FindArticles.com. 28 Apr, 2010. Http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qa3994/is_200107/ai_n8958400/
Sabo, Tracey. “More than 200,000 Kids Spanked at School.” 20 Aug. 2008. CNN.com. Web.
Sommer, Joseph C. “Ban Corporal Punishment.” Humanism by Joseph C. Sommer. Web. 23 Apr. 2010. .
Stephey, M.J., and D. Kindersley. “Corporal Punishment in U.S. Schools.” Time 12 Aug. 2009. Web.
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