The Efficacy of Corporal Punishment

The following is a paper I wrote for my MHS in Child Protection degree at Nova Southeastern University. 

Debates over the morality of corporal punishment are ongoing. Many child advocates and child development experts consider corporal punishment to be misguided at best and abusive at worst. Many conservative Christian religious leaders and child training gurus, on the other hand, believe corporal punishment to be morally mandated and spiritually necessary.

But what can one say regarding the efficacy of corporal punishment? Justifications for the morality of the practice generally assume that it actually works; the advocates’ arguments for why it is tolerable are based on that assumption. It is undeniable that corporal punishment works on some levels, as it is based on proven conditioning practices. However, corporal punishment is only one form of conditioning. One can also condition children through non-punitive means. If corporal punishment is a highly effective method of conditioning, it makes sense to debate its morality. If, however, there are far more effective methods of conditioning, it makes little sense to use it—moral or otherwise.

This paper will examine corporal punishment in the light of efficacy. It will consider both classical and operant conditioning methods of corporal punishment advocated by various conservative Christian advocates of the practice. It will put those methods under the microscope of the actual evidence and science of conditioning and then examine implications of that evidence and research for child development in general.

Summary of Corporal Punishment

Spencer (1999) defines corporal punishment as “the intentional infliction of pain for the purpose of correcting or controlling a child who has committed an offense.” Nwosu and Nwasor (2013) stress that corporal punishment is “the use of physical force with the intention of causing a child to experience pain, but not injury,” highlighting that “the phrase ‘pain but not injury’ helps to distinguish corporal punishment from physical abuse.”

Corporal punishment has a long, complicated history within the United States. Spencer (1999) notes that corporal punishment is illegal to inflict on everyone except children. When it comes to children, on the one hand, it remains legal for birth and adopted parents to practice it in all fifty states as well as the District of Columbia (Nicks 2014). On the other hand, it is illegal for foster parents to practice (Chen 2016). Thirty-one states have banned the use of it in public schools, yet nineteen states still permit public school administrators and teachers to use it (Anderson 2015). A 1977 Supreme Court case, Ingraham v. Wright, declared that corporal punishment in public schools does not violate the rights of students (Sacks 2008). 838 children are hit on average each day in public schools, amounting to 150,840 instances of corporal punishment a year (Strauss 2014). These practices are applied with racial disparity: black children are subject to corporal punishment at twice the rate of white children (Startz 2016).

Compared to public schools, corporal punishment in U.S. families is even more common. In 1968, the percentage of parents who said corporal punishment is sometimes necessary was over ninety percent (Hanes 2014). In 1995, that number dropped to eighty percent (Hanes 2014). As of 2015, sixty-five percent of Americans approve of corporal punishment in principle, though only fifty percent say they actually practice it (Crandall 2015). Despite these decreases in public opinion and claims of increasing moderation, eighty-five percent of American children experience corporal punishment at the hands of their caregiver(s) by the time they reach high school (Hanes 2014).

While advocates of corporal punishment are diverse, a significant number are conservative Christians (Heimlich, 2011, p. 80-2). Greven (1992, p. 6) argues that, “The most enduring and influential source for the widespread practice of physical punishment, both in this country and abroad, has been the Bible.” This is particularly true for conservative and/or fundamentalist Christians. Dwyer (1998, p. 21) argues that fundamentalist Christians “uniformly support corporal punishment.”

There is, in fact, a vast conservative Christian “child training” industry, including companies that sell spanking instruments (“Bible-approved rods”) and books on the spiritual necessity of corporal punishment (Heimlich, 2011, p. 80-2). Christian advocates of corporal punishment encourage inflicting pain on children by a variety of means, including: belts (Pearl & Pearl, 2006), branches (Bradley, 1996), cold water (Pearl & Pearl, 2006), dowel rods (Fugate, 1980; Baucham, 2011), hands (Dobson, 2004), sitting on children (Pearl & Pearl, 2006), and wooden paddles (Tripp, 2005).

Overview of Conditioning

Berk (2013, p. 17) states that ideas about conditioning arose from North American behaviorism, which originated in the twentieth century from the work of John Watson. Watson was inspired by Ivan Pavlov’s famous experiment in which dogs were taught to salivate at the sound of a bell by repeatedly pairing the sound with the presentation of food. This repeated pairing conditioned the dogs to associate the bell with food. This is classical conditioning: linking a neutral stimulus (the bell) with an unconditioned stimulus (food) that causes an unconditioned response (salivating), such that the originally neutral stimulus (the bell) is now a conditioned stimulus that causes a conditioned response (salivating).

Watson wondered if classical conditioning could be replicated with children. This lead to an infamous experiment. Durant (2010, p. 34) describes how Watson conditioned a human infant named Albert to fear a soft, white rat by pairing the presentation of the rat with striking a steel bar behind the child’s head. The conditioning was effective—and more so than desired. Albert not only responded in fear to future sightings of the rat, he also became terrified of anything reminding him of it, including a dog, a fur coat, a rabbit, and a Santa Claus mask. Berk (2013, p. 12, 17) says this experiment led Watson to affirm the conclusion reached by behaviorism’s philosophical forefather, John Locke: that a child is a tabula rasa, a blank slate that the child’s caregivers can mold any way they want through careful conditioning.

Operant conditioning is another form of behaviorism, one inspired by B.F. Skinner (Berk, 2013, p. 17). Skinner’s operant conditioning theory claims that a behavior’s frequency can be either decreased or increased by following it with reinforcers: either punishments or rewards. Theoretically, for example, a child who hits another child and receives candy for doing so will likely hit again, whereas a child who hits another child and is hit back harder and knocked to the ground should be less likely to hit again (Huesmann & Podolski, 2013, p. 57-8).

In classical conditioning children’s behavior “does not influence the stimuli that occur,” whereas in operant conditioning “infants act, or operate, on the environment, and stimuli that follow their behavior change the probability that the behavior will occur again” (Berk, 2013, p. 141). Corporal punishment can take either a classical or operant form. In fact, the inspiration for this paper comes from two conservative Christians who advocate each form of corporal punishment respectively: Pearl & Pearl (2006), who advocate corporal punishment as a form of classical conditioning, and Tripp (2005), who advocates the practice as a form of operant conditioning. Pearl & Pearl, for example, describe (p. 9) how they placed their five-month-old daughter at the bottom of their stairs and then struck her with a switch, causing her to fear the very sight of the switch. They then placed the switch at the bottom step of the stairs. The infant’s fear of the switch caused her to avoid not only the switch, but also the stairs entirely. Pearl & Pearl provide numerous other examples, all of which involve conditioning infants starting in their infancy to automatically avoid certain actions and objects, with the hopes that this will lessen the need for later operant conditioning. In line with Locke’s tabula rasa theory, Pearl & Pearl argue, “Before [a child] can DECIDE to do good, his parents must CONDITION him to do good” (p. 18).

Tripp, on the other hand, opposes corporal punishment when used as classical conditioning. He argues that, “If you only try to change behavior, you are missing the real issue—[the child’s] heart” (p. 660). At the same time, however, Tripp promotes corporal punishment when used as operant conditioning: “The rod teaches outcomes to behavior… The fact that there are certain consequences to disobedience teaches the importance of obedience” (p. 111-2). To Tripp, classical conditioning—by conditioning automatic associations (the unconscious, programmed associations Pearl & Pearl aim for)—does not help children internalize the moral dimension of the association, whereas operant conditioning does. Tripp does not believe children are blank slates—“Children are not born morally and ethically neutral” (p. 101)—but he believes conditioning can reduce them to a malleable, Lockean state: “An atmosphere is created in which instruction can be given. The spanking renders the child compliant” (p. 104). To Tripp, the desired goal of punitive operant conditioning is children’s unconditional and immediate obedience: “Submission to authority means that they obey without delay” (135).

While the Pearls and Tripp disagree as to whether corporal punishment is more effective when used classically or operantly, they share the assumption that corporal punishment is actually effective compared to other forms of conditioning. The question is: What does the evidence say?

Conditioning: Punishment Versus Reward

The question whether conditioning (both classical and operant) is more effective when focusing on punishment or reward is a matter of significant political and social debate in the United States. However, researchers have consistently found several themes.

Nakatani et al. (2009) conducted several studies on both insects and mammals to compare memory retention after conditioning. They found that memory after punishment is relatively short-lived compared to memory after reward. Even though the initial acquisition of information was high after both punishment and reward, punishment memory decayed prominently whereas reward memory had little decay. In order to achieve long-term memory retention through punishment, especially intense punishment is required—yet that also leads to unwanted stress reactions and emotional side-effects. Nakatani et al. found this was because different neurotransmitters play different roles when punishments and rewards are experienced.

Abe et al. (2011) found similar results with regards to motor memory. In a study of thirty- eight adult humans, punishment and reward stimulated different activity in dopaminergic neurons—namely, punishments decreased neuronal excitability whereas rewards increased it. The adults in the study who received rewards had long-term retention of newly acquired memory. The adults who received punishments or operated under neutral conditions did not display long-term retention. In fact, they displayed memory losses. Abe et al. found that this is likely because rewards enhance D1/D5 dopamine-dependent long-term potentiation (LTP), whereas punishments have a “depressing influence on dopamine-dependent LTP-like mechanisms.”

Talwar, Carlson, & Lee (2011) also found similar results with regards to children’s executive functioning (EF). EF plays a vital role in children’s cognitive and social development. Talwar et al.’s study examined the influence of punishing and rewarding school environments on children’s EF abilities by contrasting children attending two West African schools. One school used traditional corporal punishment (e.g., spanking with instruments, striking with hands). The other school used positive reinforcement and non-punitive practices like time-outs. The children in both schools were from similar social and economic backgrounds. Talwar et al. found significant differences between the children—differences that became more marked by age. Children from the punishment-based school displayed poorer verbal scores than children from the reward-based school. Children from the punishment-based school also displayed poorer EF abiilities. While younger children in the punishment-based school had higher scores for immediate compliance, these advantages became reduced—and reversed—with age. As children in the reward-based school became older, they displayed greater abilities to control themselves and delay gratification than children from the punishment-based school.

Nwosu, Nwasor, & Ndubuisi (2013) similarly studied two hundred children from ten schools in the Awka South Local Government Area of Anambra, Nigeria. These children attended schools that practiced corporal punishment. Nwosu et al. found that flogging had few positive effects with regards to children complying with school rules and regulations, student- teacher relationships, and academic participation and work. Children appeared to accept rules and regulations through gradual moral internalization rather than through punitive consequences. On the negative side, the students felt hurt by flogging. They felt bored, hurt, and sad when flogged. Some even desired to retaliate against teachers.

Implications for Corporal Punishment as Conditioning

The aforementioned evidence suggests that using punishments through classical or operant conditioning does increase compliance: from insects, mammals, even humans. However, the evidence also demonstrates that punishment is a less effective way to achieve that result. In every study, reward-based conditioning out-performed punishment-based conditioning on nearly every level: (1) informational memory retention, (2) motor memory retention, (3) executive functioning, (4) verbal abilities, (5) long-term compliance with rules, (6) self-control, (7) moral internalization, and (8) mental health. The only level on which punishment-based conditioning was superior was temporary compliance—and even then, that superiority vanished as children grew older.

Additional research points to other ways in which punishment-based conditioning falls behind other forms of conditioning. Fischer and Fetlock (2015) argue that animals, including humans, “have more difficulty learning new associations in noisy environments in which the true signal is embedded in distractor stimuli.” The authors explain that, in the context of punitive- based conditioning, animals have difficulty learning the connection between an action and a consequence when the consequence “is associated with multiple actions.” This creates “attributional ambiguity”—in other words, animals have difficulty understanding which actions lead to a particular consequence, making it more difficult to learn the punishment’s intended lesson. When the consequence of an action is a reward, animals are motivated to figure out what exact action lead to it. When the consequence is punishment, animals are motivated to avoid any and all actions that could possibly have lead to the experience of pain.

Other researchers have similarly found that the lesson intended by punishment-based conditioning is imprecise. Durant (2010) points out that physical pain is “a particularly powerful unconditioned stimulus” (p. 34-5). This is because pain “elicits a stress response, manifested physiologically in higher levels of the hormone cortisol” (p. 45). The problem is that, as a stimulus, it is so powerful it is imprecise: “Any stimulus that accompanies the sensation of pain can become associated with it psychologically” (p. 45). As revealed by John Watson’s infamous experiment with infant Albert and the soft, white rat, what one intends to condition a child to learn by means of punishment is not necessarily what the child will actually learn. Durant points out that responses to physical pain—for example, anxiety, fear, or withdrawal—“can become associated with other stimuli present at the time the pain is inflicted, including the parent and the home”; as result, this “can interfere with the development of attachment” (p. 34-5).

Punishment-based conditioning is also unreliable. Because physical pain elicits such a powerful response through spiking hormonal levels in children, its effect can vary widely. In fact, that spike in cortisol could cause less compliance rather than more. Durant (2010, p. 46) points out that “Physical punishment has been found to predict lower levels of compliance (Roberts & Powers, 1990) and to be unrelated to compliance (Day & Roberts, 1983).”

Huesmann and Podolski (2013, p. 62-66) additionally identify twelve ways that punishment-based conditioning complicates behavior modification:

1. Identifying what is rewarding and averse: These elements vary person by person. What is punishment to one person can be a reward to another.

2. Importance of cognitive interpretations: Children might not interpret the lesson caregivers intend to communicate via punishment in the way parents hope.

3. Alienation and negative self-schemas/self-concepts: Punishing a child for acting “bad” can make the child believe their self is bad, thus creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

4. Multiple secondary reinforcers and punishers: By the time children reach the ages of seven or eight, they have unconsciously attributed to many neutral stimuli the properties of being punishing or rewarding. Parents are unaware of many of these attributions. For a child that self-injures, for example, the physical pain of spanking could provide emotional relief instead of moral internalization.

5. Suppression vs. extinction: Punishment suppresses behavior; it does not necessarily extinguish it. The most successful behavior extinctions involve replacing the undesirable behavior with a competing, desirable behavior to counter-condition the child.

6. Stimulated aggression and escape: Punishment does not always teach desirable behaviors. In fact, it may stimulate or teach undesirable behaviors such as aggression against or escape from the punishing caregiver.

7. Emotional reactions: When children become emotionally upset because of physical pain, it is much more difficult for them to learn novel and complicated scripts for social behavior.

8. Conditioned hostility and fear: Children may become classically conditioned to fear things besides the punishment itself, such as a parent, their home, or their school.

9. Punishments compatible with undesirable behavior: Sometimes punishment enhances the behaviors it is intended to extinguish. For example, spanking a kid for crying is not the most effective method for reducing crying, as physical pain causes crying.

10. Reactance: Humans, even children, can tell when they are being conditioned. This can cause strong aversions to being controlled, which is called reactance. The feeling of being controlled can lead to a rebellious increase in undesirable behavior, causing a boomerang effect.

11. Counter-control: Reactance can cause a child to endure punishments longer than is natural. If the caregiver’s only tool for behavior modification is punishment, eventually the caregiver will have to give up or risk injury to the child. This allows the child to thereby condition the caregiver, reversing control between the two.

12. Observational learning of aggression: Many forms of corporal punishment are (whether moral or not) acts of aggression. They therefore run the risk of teaching children to model that aggressive behavior elsewhere.

These twelve observations lead Huesmann and Podolski to the conclusion that, “Punishment often has both stimulating and suppressing effects on aggressive and antisocial human behavior, and the long-term consequences of punishment may not always turn out as intended” (p. 55).

Implications for Child Development

Conservative Christian advocates of corporal punishment give glowing reviews for the superiority of the practice compared to alternatives. For example, Dobson (2004, p. 123) argues that corporal punishment is “the shortest and most effective route to an attitude adjustment,” that it “does not create aggression in children, but it does help them control their impulses.” Tripp (2005, p. 36-7, 110) argues corporal punishment “yields a harvest of righteousness and peace” and “is the deepest expression of love.” Bradley (1996, 66-7) claims it is “a quick, simple way of teaching obedience” and “God’s only means of subduing the self-will and rebellion which resides in every child.”

However, the actual evidence and science behind conditioning contradicts these claims. As Durrant (2010, p. 46) observes, “Physical punishment is not justified on the basis of effectiveness in increasing children’s immediate compliance.”

But there is another level to consider here. The implications of all the factors explored in this paper around punishment-based conditioning are troubling not simply because they show corporal punishment is ineffective. They are troubling because they can impede the very process of child development itself. As explained earlier, research has shown that punishment-based conditioning is unreliable because it spikes hormonal levels in children. But spiking hormonal levels can also actively damage children. Talwar, Carlson, & Lee (2011) found this to be the case, explaining that, “Punitive discipline may increase children’s arousal, thereby impeding their efforts to learn competent and autonomous regulation.” Using punishment-based conditioning “promotes inappropriate regulatory behaviors which focus on arousing stimuli and fail to provide children with opportunities for developing self-regulation.” Talwar, Carlson, & Lee additionally found a correlation between increased corporal punishment and decreased self- control in children: “The more corporal punishment children experienced at home, the more they acted impulsively.”

Punishment-based conditioning also puts children in a passive rather than active role when it comes to them learning moral and social codes of behavior. Talwar, Carlson, & Lee (2011) explain that, “Use of power-assertive techniques may direct children’s attention to the adult–child power difference rather than the potential outcomes of children’s behavior.” This robs children of chances to increase their problem-solving skills and consequently “promotes passivity on the part of children rather than active participation in conflict resolution.”

In contrast, alternatives to negative, punishment-based conditioning—such as positive and reward-based conditioning—are evidence-based and more effective. They come with none of the aforementioned disadvantages and they in fact accomplish the stated goals of conservative Christians to a better degree. Huesmann and Podolski (2013) found that the reason why corporal punishment is no more effective than positive or reward-based approaches to conditioning is because, to put it philosophically, the Lockean concept of the child as a blank slate—which motivated John Watson’s Albert experiment (Berk 2013, p. 12, 17)—is incorrect. Social behavior is not simply a matter of conditioning. Rather, as Huesmann and Podolski (2013) explain,

Social behavior, including aggressive behavior, is mediated to a great extent by the scripts and beliefs that one acquires while growing up and by the biases in perceiving and understanding one’s own environment that one acquires while growing up. Contrary to the viewpoint of early social learning theorists, it is not simply how a child’s environment stimulates or rewards the child that is important, it is how the child interprets and encodes what happens to the child, and what the child observes others doing that has lasting effects (Huesmann and Podolski, 2013, p. 56-7).

Parents who approach children from a punitive or authoritarian model operate (whether consciously or not) from this Lockean perspective. Ironically, the Locke-influenced North American behaviorists, whose work inspired many advocates of corporal punishment (including conservative Christians), would not appreciate this direction. As Spencer (1999) explains, “Skinner (1979) did not support punishment as an efficacious method for teaching children discipline. Bandura and his associates (Bandura & Huston, 1961; Bandura, Ross, & Ross 1961,1963) demonstrated that modeling aggressive behavior created aggressive behavior in the observer.” These behaviorists believed—and the evidence has shown they were correct—that conditioning is best when it is positive and encouraging.


Despite the many ongoing debates over the morality of corporal punishment, the scientific literature on the method seems clear. Corporal punishment as conditioning does work. However, it does not work as well as other conditioning methods. It also has the potential to significantly interrupt the process of child development.

The scientific literature, therefore, suggests that the strong emphasis many conservative Christians place on corporal punishment is counter-productive. However, further research is needed to determine whether conservative Christians would be convinced to consider alternatives to corporal punishment regardless of the method’s lack of efficacy. Several of the advocates cited in this paper, such as Baucham (2011) and Fugate (1980), believe corporal punishment is necessary for reasons completely detached from its results. Namely, their interpretations of biblical texts lead them to believe that God commands parents to use it. Theoretically, conservative Christians who share this view might decide that—even if there are other conditioning methods that are evidentially and scientifically more effective than corporal punishment—they will use the less effective method simply because they believe it would be sinful to not obey God’s command.

For child advocates and child development experts interested in encouraging parents to pursue alternatives to corporal punishment, this potential obstacle will require consideration of culturally competent methods of achieving that end. Criticizing a client’s belief system is both unprofessional and unethical (Pellebon & Caselman, 2008). Instead, professionals should consider ways to work from within the client’s worldview (Hodge, 2004).

Eriksen, Marston, & Korte (2002) articulate how familiarity with biblical passages can help professionals empower conservative Christian clients to consider alternative interpretations of those texts. Conservative Christians might argue, for example, that the reason positive and reward-based conditioning is more effective is because it appeals to children’s “sinful” natures— which would be a reason why such Christians would reject the more effective methods. A culturally competent response to this argument—working from within the conservative Christian belief system—could help parents explore the possibility that children respond better to positive and reward-based conditioning because God made them that way. Professionals could suggest that the reason why certain biblical passages emphasize positive responses to wrongdoing—the First Epistle of Peter, for example states, “Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult; on the contrary, repay evil with blessing” (3:9)—is not simply because God prefers positive responses over negative ones. Rather, perhaps God created Nature—and humans included—to find positive responses more effective in creating change.

This is, of course, simply one example. Exploring similarly safe ways that advocates of corporal punishment can get behind alternatives to that method—while remaining faithful to their larger worldview—can help bridge the gap between what the literature actually reveals about corporal punishment and what the larger society continues to believe.


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Published by R.L. Stollar

R.L. Stollar is a child liberation theologian and an advocate for children and abuse survivors. The author of an upcoming book on child liberation theology, The Kingdom of Children, Ryan has an M.H.S. in Child Protection from Nova Southeastern University and an M.A. in Eastern Classics from St. John’s College.

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