"He who spares the rod hates his son." -Proverbs 13:24.
"Spare the rod, spoil the child" is something that Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson allegedly believes in, and it's getting him in trouble due to child abuse allegations. The Peterson scandal has caused the debate on corporal punishment and striking children back to the forefront. From a Jewish standpoint, parents are supposed to love their children and really not supposed to use physical discipline like spanking. Not only does this make sense when reading the rest of the verse that says "and he who loves his son will chastise him [without striking him] (ואהבו שחרו מוסר)," but even the "rod" mentioned in the first part of Proverbs 13:24 is meant to be taken as a metaphor for "tough love." Even with that being said, I would like to ask whether corporal punishment is effective, and if not, whether we should ban it.
The idea behind corporal punishment is that children need discipline, order, and structure. One of the ways of making children behave properly, especially when their behavior is atrocious, is the occasional striking or spanking, say the proponents of corporal punishment. As much as proponents think that spanking or paddling brings the child in line, the vast majority of academic literature is clear in showing the evidence of the negative side effects of corporal punishment (Gershoff, 2002). Negative results of corporal punishment include lowering one's IQ (Durrant and Ensom, 2012), increasing aggressive behavior (Taylor et al., 2010), altering brain development (Tomoda et al., 2009), creating greater risk for criminal behavior (Gershoff, 2013), as well as increasing the likelihood of personality disorders, mood disorders, and substance abuse (Afifi et al., 2012; Teicher et al., 2011). The American Psychological Association is against it, as are the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the American Psychoanalytic Association.
Corporal punishment does not provide the disciplining that proponents desire, which is the primary argument for permitting it. There are currently 39 countries that ban all forms of corporal punishment, as well as 19 states that ban it in schools, and you haven't seen crime rates spiral out of control as a result. If corporal punishment is so terrible, should the government ban it from being used as a parenting technique? First, there is the possibility that the negative effects of corporal punishment are merely correlative. Given all the studies out there, the argument is a tad tenuous, but I will let that be for you to decide. Second, and more to the point, the frequency, severity, and type of corporal punishment all play a role in the magnitude of the damage it can cause. To analogize, if someone tries a cigarette once in their life or has a single cigarette a year, it will cause a lot less damage than someone who smokes two packs a day or smokes cigars. It would be nice to see if there is any variance when these factors are accounted for. This brings us to the question of whether the slightest amount of corporal punishment is tantamount to child abuse or if there is a certain amount and/or magnitude that would constitute as child abuse. It is more believable that a one-time, light tap on the child's rear end will have a much less detrimental effect than painful belting or paddling that becomes part of the parent's routine. A parent who does the former had a one-time, minor relapse, whereas the latter is committing a form of domestic abuse, and should be punished accordingly.
I have four issues when it comes to banning corporal punishment. The first is ideological. Unless the abuse is particularly heinous (e.g., the corporal punishment is both severe and become a habit), I am not going to want to step in and tell parents how to parent. There are people who think same-sex parenting, vaccinating children, or circumcising baby boys is objectionable. Their objections wouldn't be based in facts, but it would be their prerogative as a parent. There are certain parenting methods with which one disagrees, such as single-parent parenting. I personally think there are a lot of people who are not ready to be parents, and shouldn't reproduce in the first place. If I were in a position where I could let my high standards legally define what constitutes as "good parents," there would hardly be any parents out there. There are always going to be lousy parents out there. We cannot save every child from having a lousy upbringing. We should prosecute when the cases are severe, especially since state budgets have experienced budget cuts over the past few years, and let the infrequent and relatively non-malign offenders do their thing. This brings me to my second point, which is how in the world would you enforce this law? If you ban teachers spanking a child in school, that's easier to enforce. To have it illegal in homes would require an Orwellian intrusion of government putting cameras in homes. Even if Americans were willing to sacrifice their sense of privacy, which is doubtful in the first place, who is going to monitor all these homes? And if we are going to be on the watch for corporal punishment, what else should the government define as "good parenting?" Perhaps the mere legality of the ban could deter corporal punishment, but again, we should prosecute the egregious cases only. Third goes to political feasibility. In an American context, how could we pass a law against corporal punishment when it has an 81 percent approval rate? Fourth has to do with efficacy. If Prohibition, the War on Drugs, or making it illegal to sell one's kidneys have taught us anything, it is that downright, blanket prohibitions are ineffective, and have the uncanny propensity to make things worse.
The evidence shows that corporal punishment does not do any favors for the child, and most probably makes things worse for the child. We need to have a discussion on better parenting techniques and how parents can learn positive reinforcement so they do not have to resort to corporal punishment. Although I will leave that discussion for another time, what I do want to say is that in spite of my opposition to corporal punishment, it is I believe that the government cannot and should not police parenting like in the form of an enforceable ban on corporal punishment.
11-7-2014 Addendum: The Brookings Institution just put out quite the policy memo on why corporal punishment doesn't work.
4-27-2016 Addendum: A meta-analysis of 75 studies covering the span of 50 years was recently released by the Universities of Michigan and Texas at Austin, and it concludes that it a) does nothing to improve behavior in the short-term, and b) is detrimental in the long-term.