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  • Corporal Punishment: Legal Reform as a Route to Changing Norms
  • Jo Becker (bio)

the term “harmful traditional practices” typically brings to mind child marriage, female genital mutilation/cutting, and so-called “honor killings,” but rarely corporal punishment. Yet corporal punishment is arguably the most pervasive harmful traditional practice children experience today. In nearly every part of the world, parents use physical punishment to “discipline” their children. Such corporal punishment typically takes the form of hitting a child with a bare hand or an object such as a stick or paddle. A 2014 survey found that four of every five children between the ages of two and 14—an estimated 1 billion globally—experience physical punishment in their home on a regular basis (UNICEF 2014, 96).

The practice of corporal punishment is rooted in both cultural norms and religious belief. Parents often believe that corporal punishment will teach children good behavior. They hit their children because it is socially accepted and because they themselves often were hit growing up. Some religious teachings appear to justify the practice.1 The adage “spare the rod, spoil the child,” rooted in the Old Testament Book of Proverbs, suggests not only that corporal punishment of children is permitted, but also that it is expected of good parents. Influenced by English common law, during the twentieth century, more than 70 countries enshrined the rights of parents to “reasonable chastisement” in their legal codes (Global Initiative 2015a). [End Page 255]

Social norm theory suggests that ending harmful practices depends on changing collective beliefs about the acceptability and efficacy of the practice, and that legal reform is of limited utility, or even counterproductive (Mackie and LeJeune 2009). Experience around female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C), for example, has found that extended local dialogue about community values can lead to voluntary abandonment of FGM/C (Gillespie and Melching 2010). Legal reform as a strategy to end FGM/C has generally been ineffective or simply driven the practice underground. As long as FGM/C remains the norm for most families, individual parents will continue to have their daughters cut, perceiving the social inclusion that FGM/C offers to outweigh the risks of potential prosecution. Some scholars find that only when attitude change is already underway is legal reform effective in reinforcing new norms (Shell-Duncan et al. 2103).

In contrast to the experience of challenging other harmful traditional practices, this paper argues that legal reform, when accompanied by public education, can be an effective strategy to end the corporal punishment of children. Evidence from multiple countries has found that when corporal punishment is prohibited by law, changes in attitudes and practices follow. Nearly all the countries that have prohibited corporal punishment have done so ahead of public opinion (Global Initiative 2017, 12). Yet change in practice and attitudes following legal reform can be both swift and dramatic.


Recent research finds that the effects of corporal punishment on children are overwhelmingly negative. Studies have found that children who experience corporal punishment are more aggressive towards others, and more likely to resort to violence to respond to conflict (Ani and Grantham-McGregor 1998). They are more likely to engage in delinquent or antisocial behavior, including bullying, lying, cheating, truancy, and criminal activity. A German study of more than 45,000 ninth graders, for example, found that children who were subjected to severe corporal punishment were five times more likely to become [End Page 256] violent offenders (Pfeiffer 2013, 97). Corporal punishment may damage children’s mental health, leading to greater anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and hopelessness. It is also linked to lower IQ scores and poor school performance (Gershoff 2002). The damage extends well into adulthood: adults who experienced corporal punishment as children are more likely to engage in aggression and criminal behavior, as well as domestic violence towards an intimate partner or child, and experience higher rates of depression, alcoholism, and suicidal tendencies (Afifi et al. 2012).

A meta-analysis of more than 250 published studies examining corporal punishment and its impacts found that not a single one demonstrated any benefits to the practice (Global Initiative 2016). Contrary to popular belief, corporal punishment is not...


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pp. 255-271
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