Whatever Happened To … The Campaign To Ban Spanking?

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In a story published in October, we looked at a new study on spanking that found a “fairly robust” association between corporal punishment and youth violence. We also wrote about bans on spanking — Sweden was the first country to prohibit corporal punishment of children, in 1979. Since then, the number of nations that had banned the practice had risen to 54. What’s the current status of the campaign to prohibit corporal punishment of children?

This year, two more countries have made physical punishment of children illegal in all settings, including at home, with France and Kosovo bringing the total to 56.

Steps toward prohibition of corporal punishment are also being made in several other countries, according to Tríona Lenihan, advocacy and communications manager of the Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children. Zimbabwe, for instance, has outlawed sentencing a convicted juvenile to any form of corporal punishment. Namibia has prohibited corporal punishment in “alternative care settings,” which include “any residential child care facility, place of care, shelter, early childhood development center, a school, whether a state or private school or to a child in foster care, prison, police cell or any other form of alternative care resulting from a court order.”

Other countries are also moving toward prohibition, says Joan Durrant, professor of community health science at the University of Manitoba. A constitutional court in South Africa is weighing the legality of a current law that allows corporal punishment of children. Japan, Scotland, Wales and Italy are also moving in that direction, she says.

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But continuing opposition and controversy remain, as demonstrated by the seeming success that turned into disappointment in the Philippines this year. Both houses of the country’s Congress had passed the Positive Discipline Bill — a proposed law that had been first introduced in 2008 and had been debated every year since 2012. The bill calls for banning all forms of physical violence as well as nonphysical abuse that humiliates or degrades.

Yet on Feb. 28, President Rodrigo Duterte vetoed it. Among other reasons, he stated, “this bill would allow government to extend its reach into the privacy of the family, authorizing measures aimed at suppressing corporal punishment regardless of how carefully it is practiced. In so doing, the bill transgresses the proper boundaries of State intervention in the life of the family, the sanctity and autonomy of which is recognized by the Constitution.”

UNICEF issued a statement saying that it was “deeply saddened” by Duterte’s action.

The UNICEF statement went on to say, “Contrary to the impression that the law encroaches on parents’ right to discipline their child, this law seeks to promote positive discipline instead of corporal punishment – a severe form of violence against children.”

In Durrant’s estimation as well, physical punishment of a child is violence. “We consider an assault against an adult as wrong but not against a child. It does not make sense,” she says. “Children are so much smaller. If I slap an adult, it might hurt, but if I slap a child, I can injure them, knock them out, damage their bones or their hearing. And it happens all over the world.”

Durrant also cites the damage done emotionally, socially and psychologically by abuse. Beyond that, she continues, it just does not work as a deterrent against future bad or improper behavior. In fact, she argues, it teaches the opposite, promoting hitting and violence.

“There have been at least 100 studies that show [corporal punishment] has no positive impact on children,” says Durrant — only negative ones such as increased aggression, more mental health problems and damaged family relationships.

And more studies continue to be published. Among the most significant is one that came out in February and showed that the negative impact of spanking and corporal punishment knows no boundaries. The study examined reports from the caregivers of approximately 215,000 3- and 4-year-old children in 62 countries. The finding: Spanking occurred in 43% of the households, and those children who were spanked showed lower levels of emotional and social development and well-being than those who had not.

“Our findings suggest that spanking seems to be harmful on a global scale,” says lead author Garrett Pace of the University of Michigan’s School of Social Work, and the study adds to the empirical knowledge base about the negative impact of spanking on children. “There are some skeptics out there, but the majority of researchers think that the bans do matter.”


Diane Cole writes for many publications, including The Wall Street Journal and The Jewish Week, and is the book columnist for Psychotherapy Networker. She is the author of the memoir After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges. Her website is dianejcole.com.

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