May 31, 2011
By George Holden
Professor of Psychology at SMU
She had been struck 10 years earlier, but the student in my college psychology course remembered every detail vividly. As a fifth-grader attending public school in a town near Houston, she was falsely accused of writing in a textbook and sent to the principal’s office. The student’s denial enraged the principal, who, while yelling, hit her three times with a ruler.
Prof. George Holden
The student’s parents had not given permission to the school to use corporal punishment, but school officials mistakenly found the permission form of a student with the same surname. My student reported feeling traumatized by the incident and becoming withdrawn, with a lingering fear of teachers and distrust of authority figures.
The physical punishment inflicted upon this student is by no means rare. Nineteen states in this country, primarily in the South and West, have not yet banned corporal punishment in public schools. Reported incidents have declined in the past 30 years, but not enough. According to the most recent analysis by the Department of Education’s civil rights office, more than 220,000 students nationwide were subjected to corporal punishment in 2006.
Texas schools have the dubious distinction of leading the nation in that analysis, accounting for more than 49,000 cases. Only about 40 of the state’s school districts prohibit corporal punishment, including large urban districts such as Dallas and Fort Worth, while more than 1,000 districts permit it. Their school boards have created a hodgepodge of policies, some of which specify the instrument, method and administrator of punishment, as well as whether parents must be notified.
Proponents of paddling say the punishment — or the mere threat of it — is necessary to maintain discipline in an increasingly undisciplined age. But the past decade of research by psychologists, educators and physicians paints a starkly different picture: Corporal punishment is an ineffective — even counterproductive — tool for establishing discipline. It is also unfairly administered and harmful to children’s well-being, and it should be banned.
A landmark 2002 analysis of nearly 90 studies found that corporal punishment results in compliant behavior by children for just a few minutes. Beyond its immediate impact, however, corporal punishment has unintended consequences, including increased aggression toward peers and disruptive and violent behavior that is anything but “disciplined.”
My research at SMU has shown that children view the punishment as ineffective, and increasingly so as they grow older. Even 6-year-olds, the youngest children in our study, regard reasoning as a much more appropriate disciplinary measure. By paddling students, adults are modeling the same aggressive behavior they say they want to eliminate.
The young children in our study also describe corporal punishment as unfair, which is certainly the case in public schools. Nearly 80 percent of students who are paddled are male, according to the 2006 Department of Education analysis. Students with disabilities and minority students also account for a disproportionate share of paddlings.
In addition to the bruises and welts left on their bodies, paddlings can scar students’ cognitive and emotional health. Corporal punishment has been linked to increased anxiety disorders and depression in children, as well as lower self-esteem. It has been shown to impair cognitive development and academic performance. Longer term, children who are paddled are at higher risk as adults for abusive relationships.
The irony of corporal punishment is that it is wholly unnecessary for managing children’s behavior. Researchers have established that adults can get better and lasting results with nonviolent disciplinary techniques, such as reasoning, encouraging desired behavior, timeouts and taking away objects and activities. As a parent to three children, now ages 16, 20 and 23, I relied for many years on these alternatives.
The Texas Legislature has sent a bill to the governor’s desk that would require schools to obtain parental consent before applying corporal punishment. The bill is a step in the right direction, but it clearly doesn’t go far enough. Texas should join the 31 states and more than 100 countries that have banned corporal punishment in schools.
A bigger and bolder step would be for Texas and the nation to follow the 29 countries that have banned all corporal punishment of children, including by parents. In Texas, where it is against the law for an adult to strike another, adults may inflict “reasonable” corporal punishment on their children. But no level of corporal punishment is reasonable, and every individual has the right not to be hit.
What would a world look like in which children are not subjected to corporal punishment, only to positive discipline? Families would function better, with improved communication and closeness; children would experience fewer psychological problems; and we all would experience less aggression, including fewer incidents of school bullying, partner violence and child abuse.
George Holden is a professor of psychology in SMU’s Dedman College and chair of the Global Summit on Ending Corporal Punishment and Promoting Positive Discipline in Dallas. His email address is email@example.com.