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Discipline Using Physical Contact (that is NOT Corporal Punishment)

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Corporal punishment refers to the use of physical pain to punish and change a person’s behavior.  In this section, we consider discipline involving the use of physical contact that does not elevate to the level of corporal punishment.  Throughout history, parents have used corporal punishment with their children, but in the United States, there was a “cultural revolution” of sorts that began in the 1960s.  Specifically, peace, love, rehabilitation, and nurturance were advocated over “punishment.”  Now, on the surface, that sounds great.  But there was an unintended consequence because as “experts” across the landscape called for kindness in parenting, there was an implied assumption that physicality in any form was not to be used.  We lost the ability to make crucial distinctions between:

  • Physical Contact (which is often necessary in parenting to keep our kids safe and to gain compliance in certain situations)
  • Corporal Punishment (which has conflicting short-term and long-term results – details follow in the next section)
  • Physical Abuse (which is illegal and should obviously never be used)

Parents use physical contact to show affection toward their children (e.g., hugs, kisses, high-fives, cuddles, pats on the head).  If I had an accident and became quadriplegic, I would still love my children, but the physical aspects of affection would be sorely missed.  Surely, physical contact enhances and makes more powerful our expression of love with our children.  Thus, by logical extension, doesn’t physical contact enhance and make more powerful our expression of discipline with our children?  Of course, it does.  Physical contact is not corporal punishment, nor is it physical abuse. Remaining calm and in control, while carrying your child against his will to clear the way off of the escalator is an expression of discipline that is enhanced through the use of physical contact.  Use of hand-over-hand guidance to gain compliance when your child boldly defies is yet another expression of discipline that is enhanced through the use of physical contact.  And, interestingly, it could be argued that these are simultaneously expressions of both discipline and love that are enhanced through the use of physical contact.

Corporal Punishment is roundly condemned by early childhood experts everywhere.  For example, in 1975 the American Psychological Association (APA) Council voted to adopt the following resolution on corporal punishment:

WHEREAS: The resort to corporal punishment tends to reduce the likelihood of employing more effective, humane, and creative ways of interacting with children;

WHEREAS: it is evident that socially acceptable goals of education, training, and socialization can be achieved without the use of physical violence against children, and that children so raised, grow to moral and competent adulthood;

WHEREAS: Corporal punishment intended to influence “undesirable responses” may create in the child the impression that he or she is an “undesirable person”; and an impression that lowers self-esteem and may have chronic consequences;

WHEREAS: Research has shown that to a considerable extent children learn by imitating the behavior of adults, especially those they are dependent upon; and the use of corporal punishment by adults having authority over children is likely to train children to use physical violence to control behavior rather than rational persuasion, education, and intelligent forms of both positive and negative reinforcement;

WHEREAS: Research has shown that the effective use of punishment in eliminating undesirable behavior requires precision in timing, duration, intensity, and specificity, as well as considerable sophistication in controlling a variety of relevant environmental and cognitive factors, such that punishment administered in institutional settings, without attention to all these factors, is likely to instill hostility, rage, and a sense of powerlessness without reducing the undesirable behavior;

THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED: That the American Psychological Association opposes the use of corporal punishment in schools, juvenile facilities, child care nurseries, and all other institutions, public or private, where children are cared for or educated (Conger, 1975).

In their Position Statement, the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) strongly condemns use of corporal punishment (e.g., “…corporal punishment in such situations teaches children that physical solutions to problems are acceptable for adults and that aggression is an appropriate way to control the behavior of other people. The institutional use of corporal punishment should never be condoned….

Our society cannot afford the devastating effects of failing to protect its children. Each of us individually must commit ourselves to the actions that are most appropriate to our own sphere of influence.”)

Further Reading: Why Does the U.S. Still Permit Physical Punishment of Children?