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Scarred for Life: Identifying the Line Between Corporal Punishment and Child Abuse

By Manar Khaskia | Final Research Essays

Every week, child protective services around the United States receive more than 50,000 reports of suspected child abuse or neglect. In 2002 alone, 2.6 million reports concerning the safety of approximately 4.5 million children were made. As a result of investigations in only the reports that seemed extreme enough, approximately 896,000 children were found to have been victims of abuse or neglect, which is an average of more than 2,450 children per day (Iannelli).

The majority of reported cases of child abuse stemmed from the assumption that parents who believed that spanking and slapping was a means of physical discipline was actually borderline abuse. Most parents who administer physical force to their children do not intend to harm them. However, regardless of a parent’s intention, any form of physical punishment can easily cross the line to child abuse, which could have dire consequences on the child, the parent, society, and can even contribute to the very behavior the parent is trying to avoid (Dean). Thus, it is necessary that parents, teachers, and any other authoritative figures associated with the upbringing of a child are informed of the harmful effects of physical punishment and the alternative forms of discipline that exist.

Children have always been subject to abuse by an authoritative figure. For years state and local governments have attempted to put an end to disputes over parents’ rights to implement physical punishment by creating laws limiting certain forms of discipline. In 1974, for example, Congress passed the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, which defined child abuse as the physical or mental injury, sexual abuse, negligent treatment, or maltreatment of a child under eighteen. This law also created the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect, a network of child protective services (“Child Abuse—A History-Modern American”). These agencies provide assistance for children who have already been subject to abuse and neglect. It is the responsibility of citizens of the country to assure that these agencies will not be used as frequently. Limiting the occurrence of physical punishment can help prevent child abuse.

This paper will discuss the distinction between physical punishment and child abuse. Through this distinction, the paper will explain how physical discipline will eventually lead to child abuse. Once it has been proven the thin line between child abuse and discipline, the paper will explain the harmful effects of physical discipline (and, as a result, child abuse) on the child and the surrounding community. These effects include primarily psychological changes in the child’s behavior that may not be initially apparent to the public. To help remedy the situation, the paper will then discuss possible alternative means of discipline that do not involve physical force. The paper will then address common arguments for the benefits of physical punishment. These include the presumption that discipline is moral without visible injury, the intent for many parents is to teach children and not to harm them, and physical discipline is often the social norm of many cultures. Finally, the paper will conclude that it is the responsibility of the public to prevent abuse from occurring.

Assessing the Problem

First of all, it is important to note the difference between physical discipline and child abuse. On the one side, “Spanking Children: Evidence and Issues” defines corporal punishment as “hitting a child with an open hand on the buttocks or extremities with the intent to discipline without leaving a bruise or causing physical harm” (Kazdin 100). On the other hand, physical abuse is an extreme form of corporal punishment that is typically intended to leave scars. When does corporal punishment cross the boundaries into child abuse? Even good-intentioned discipline can lose effectiveness over time. In order to get the intended message through to the child, parents will eventually have to punish a child longer and harder (Dean). At first, when a parent taps the bottom of a child screaming in a toy store over the parent’s refusal to purchase a new toy, there is typically no indication of serious child abuse. This incident may even be forgotten until the next time when the frustrated parent must spank the child harder, presuming that the child will not react dutifully to any other form of punishment. This notion can continue, as the reprimanding grows persistently stronger and harsher. 

Each continual spank will not only leave physical scars for the world to see, but also it can potentially cause damage to the child’s mental and emotional wellbeing. Children in abusive environments develop certain characteristics in response to frequent beatings. As they mature, it becomes difficult for the child to ignore these characteristics and change his/her behavior. Even when placed in a controlled, not abusive environment, the abused still has the previous behavioral characteristics:

[…] early childhood may be thought of as a ‘sensitive’ period for many forms of cognitive—and most emotional—learning, after which it becomes difficult to establish new patterns of thinking or reacting. Thus, the abused or neglected child is asked to adapt to a new and different world but is given inadequate neural and behavioral tools with which to do so (Stirling 670).

A child who is beaten by a parent is less likely to trust others, specifically adults, as he grows older. John Stirling, author of "Understanding the Behavioral and Emotional Consequences of Child Abuse", advances this claim by stating that, pertaining to an abused child, “…the ability to perceive the intentions of others, or to monitor one’s own response, is lost and social learning is severely impaired” (669). The child develops the notion that because his parent, an adult, causes injury to the child, all other adults will be inclined to do the same. This is because abused children grow up unable to interpret others’ emotions or actions. As a result, the victim will trust others less, on the basis that he/she misunderstood a comment or action as an attack or threat. What may be an adult giving constructive criticism to an abused victim could be construed as a personal attack from the adult.

Additionally, corporal punishment may damage a child’s cognitive development that emerges out of social interactions, and it includes the development of intelligence, conscious thought, and problem-solving ability. Anne B. Smith, author of “The State of Research on the Effects of Physical Punishment”, explains that “the use of verbal methods of discipline through explanation and reasoning are likely to provide the child with more cognitive stimulation than the use of corporal punishment without induction”. Thus, children who are physically punished will not develop the necessary skills for basic everyday social functions. These children will be anxious about being physically punished and thus inhibited from exploring his/her physical and social worlds, and less likely to extend cognitive skills. The behavioral skills the child acquires during the crucial developmental times will be reenacted on other people throughout the child’s life. If parents try to modify their children’s behavior through inflicting pain, then those children are likely to do the same to others when they want to influence other people’s actions (“The State of Research on the Effects of Physical Punishment”). This means that when a child who has been physically disciplined does not get what he/she wants from any member of society, the child will implement the same punishment that his/her parents has proven acceptable.

Abandoning Corporal Punishment

The only way to prevent these harmful outcomes of corporal punishment from affecting the child and the community in the future is by eliminating, or at least limiting, the use of corporal punishment as a means of moral discipline. Instead, parents must accept alternative methods or concepts that yield the most positive results for the child. There exist many different styles and approaches to parenting and no person has the jurisdiction to tell a parent how to raise his/her child. It is possible, however to use research to show that effective parents do not need to use physical force to discipline a child, but should instead to set clear rules and explain why these rules are important (“Discipline”).  Once the rules are established, parents should explain to the child that broken rules carry consequences; this does not necessarily mean that the consequences involve physical force. Instead, the parent should implement reasonable consequences that are on par with the wrong that was committed. For example, if children are fighting over the television, turn it off; if a child spills milk at the dinner table as a result of goofing off, have the child clean it up. Another effective consequence is the suspension or delay of a privilege. If a child breaks the rule about where they can go on their bike, for instance, take away the bike for a few days (“Discipline”). Most importantly, the parent must learn to control his/her anger and frustration. Physical punishment tends to escalade when the parent grows impatient with the child. When this happens, the parent should try simple stress-relieving techniques, such as breathing deeply or counting backwards from ten to zero.

Behind the Reasons for Corporal Punishment’s Continued Use

Even with all the evidence supporting alternative forms of punishment, many people still believe that corporal punishment is the most effective. This is primarily the result of common misconceptions that the opposition believes to be true. The rest of the paper will address these misconceptions and provide support as to why the beliefs are not true.

First, a common misconception among advocates of corporal punishment is that without the obvious appearance of physical scars or bruises, this form of discipline is completely moral. While injury does provide clear evidence that abuse has taken place, this misconception implies that there is a difference between acts that result in injury and the same acts that result in no injury. Joan E. Durrant, author of “Distinguishing Physical Punishment from Physical Abuse: Implications for Professionals,” helps prove that “in reality, most acts that we define as abuse are the same as those that we define as discipline; whether or not they result in injury is often a matter of chance” Whether or not bruising occurs, for example, depends on the part of the body struck, the child’s physical vulnerability to bruising, and the size of the child. This means that one parent’s beating that does not result in a bruise may be considered socially acceptable while another parent’s beating of the same intensity could be considered immoral if a bruise appears. Additionally, this misconception fails to realize that not all effects of corporal punishment are physical. As explained previously, there exist mental and behavioral effects that are not visible but still negatively affect the child into adulthood.

Another claim that advocates of corporal punishment often point out is that the intention of parents who physically discipline their children is not to harm but to teach. It may be true that most parents who administer physical force to their children do not intend to harm them; however, this description also applies to most parents who do harm their children (“Distinguishing Physical Punishment from Physical Abuse: Implications for Professionals”).  The majority of incidents of child abuse began not with a desire to injure the child, but as attempts at discipline. This is because even good-intentioned attempts at physical discipline lose effectiveness over time. “Eventually, parents have to physically punish a child longer and harder to get the same message across” (Dean “How Physical Discipline can Escalate to Child Abuse”). Thus, it does not matter what the initial intention of the parent is. The line between physical punishment and child abuse is so thin that the parent can easily ignore it during times of desperation.

Advocates of corporal punishment also argue that it physical discipline is a traditional method of parenting that is commonly accepted as a social norm in many cultures. For example, “the tradition within the African-American subculture views spanking as a means of establishing appropriate disciplinary control to prevent parents from the need to yell at their children” (210), according to studies by Larzelere in "Child Outcomes of Nonabusive and Customary Physical Punishment by Parents: An Updated Literature Review." Thus, it may seem understandable that no particular subculture has the jurisdiction to claim another subculture’s traditions are moral or immoral. However, even if a practice is deemed acceptable in certain cultures, it does not mean that the practice is necessarily acceptable. If a child is being put through pain and suffering, the place in which the child resides cannot claim that the acts are moral. Anne B. Smith points out that “regardless of where they live, children have rights and parents have responsibilities towards children…There are times where it may be necessary to apply a global standard to protect children from serious long-term harm. Thus, it is important not to take an extreme position on cultural relativism” (“The State of Research on the Effects of Physical Punishment”).


Nearly four children die everyday in the United States as a result of child abuse or neglect, most of which are infants or toddlers (Jaffe-Gill). If the nation continues at this rate, the death toll will continue to rise steadily without any sign of ceasing. To remedy the situation, the nation must realize that it is our duty to speak up once any of us witness anything resembling child abuse. It is also crucial that parents are caretakers globally are informed of the effects of physical punishment on the wellbeing of a child. It is evident that corporal punishment will eventually lead to child abuse, as a result of anger and frustration, which can lead to complications in the child’s life well into adulthood. Thus, parents must realize the alternatives to corporal punishment and the benefits they hold over physical force. There may exist arguments against banishing corporal punishment, though most of which can be proven faulty. This means that the force that will be able to put a stop to the increased mortality rate of children as a result of abuse or neglect is our nation. The fate of millions of children is in our hands.

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