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What is Corporal Punishment?

By Greer Hed
Updated May 16, 2024
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Corporal punishment is the purposeful infliction of pain as punishment for wrongdoing. The term often specifically refers to hitting the person receiving punishment repeatedly with an instrument, such as a cane or a ruler, though it also applies more generally to any kind of pain infliction as a punishment. It is sometimes used by parents against their children, by teachers and school administrators against students who misbehave, and in many parts of the world, by the judicial system as an additional deterrent to criminals. Despite the frequency with which this method of punishment is used, it remains a controversial topic, with detractors claiming that causing pain is not an effective way to rehabilitate wrongdoers.

The history of the use of corporal punishment is long and varied. It was widely used by the Greeks and Romans of the classical era to discipline soldiers. During the Middle Ages, the body was seen as sinful and unclean by the church, and many sought to punish themselves through self-flagellation. Up until the 19th century, public beatings of criminals were considered a grand spectacle, and floggings of disobedient schoolboys were commonplace. Around the latter part of the 19th century, use of physical punishment began to decline, although it is still used in modern times in a number of situations.

When a child is spanked by his or her parents, it is referred to as domestic or parental corporal punishment. Spanking one's own child is sometimes viewed as a form of abuse and is illegal in many countries, but it remains legal in the United States, Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom. Some of the countries where spanking is still legal place restrictions on how the punishment can be implemented. For example, in Canada, parents may not strike a child under the age of two or over the age of 12.

In a school setting, this type of punishment is often administered via a spanking or by smacking the misbehaving student's hand or wrist. Most countries have outlawed the practice of inflicting pain to modify child behavior in the classroom. Proponents of this punishment method claim that schools waste time, space, and resources on placing students in detention or suspension. Opponents claim that these punishments achieve the opposite of what they set out to do, leading to further bad behavior.

Judicial corporal punishment is still in effect in many places worldwide, and usually involves whipping, caning, or flogging. For example, many Islamic countries employ whippings for various offenses. Canings are common in countries like Singapore for offenses such as theft and vandalism. Punishments of this kind that are dictated by law should not be confused with capital punishment, which involves the implementation of the death penalty.

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Discussion Comments
By anon1004830 — On Apr 26, 2021

Corporal punishment needs to be back in all schools and unless a parent is abusing the child, the government should not interfere with parenting. I remember in the 1970's most students were paddled, and that did not scar people for life. You think paddling is bad? What about the kid that never learns and goes to prison? It is also not a bad thing for prison or an alternative form of punishment for prisoners. We have and will continue to become a society of weak-minded people that have no real discipline as a whole in this nation any longer.

By anon946118 — On Apr 17, 2014

The above comments are all wrong! Corporal punishment does work very well if you do it the right way. Explain to your child why he has to get a spanking. Because obviously he did something very bad, broke a window or talk back. He receives two belts on the butt, and I guarantee he will never talk back again!

As long as you properly explain it beforehand, it works and you are wrong above. It does not lead to violence. I love my parents, and I needed a spanking so I didn't do worse and end up in jail! My dad saved me by spanking me at 8 years old, and I never did anything wrong again! What do you think they do to you if you go to jail and talk back? After your beating, I promise you, you will never talk back again!

By anon260766 — On Apr 12, 2012

Corporal punishment should be kept where it is, for how will teachers discipline students if detention won't work?

By mutsy — On Feb 25, 2011

Suntan12 - I do that too. I just wanted to say that corporal punishment on a child gives them mixed messages.

If a parent spanks a child he will not understand why the person that loves him the most is inflicting pain on them.

It can also backfire if the parent becomes abusive. The child will focus on how abusive the parent is and miss the lesson of changing the behavior.

These children grow up to hate their parents and defy them when they are old enough.

I was also reading that if both parents do not agree on the punishment then the child receives that message that authority is not important and will get into to all sorts of trouble when they get older. Kids like this typically end up quitting school and going to jail.

By suntan12 — On Feb 24, 2011

Bhutan - I have to agree with you. The corporal punishment research states that children who are spanked have a higher tendency to become violent themselves because spanking temporarily brings a solution at the moment but it does not teach the child what to do next time.

A more effective punishment is to take away something meaningful to the child. This actually teaches the child that negative behavior yields negative consequences.

If the consequences were severe enough the child will definitely make a different choice next time because he will remember what the punishment was like. For my kids all I have to do is make them go to bed a hour early for a few nights for the problem never to occur again.

By Bhutan — On Feb 21, 2011

I think that we need to stop corporal punishment. I know that when I was in school corporal punishment was used on students who misbehaved.

They would receive a paddling by the Dean. I have to say that I am appalled that this was even legal at the time.

The school would argue that a huge corporal punishment advantage would include a sense of fear in the student body because they would not want the humiliation or the pain that went along with paddling. However this does not allow the student to learn from their mistake.

In fact it makes the student learn that you deal with problems by inflicting violence which is not the message that we want our kids to have.

By Catapult — On Feb 21, 2011

The thing about corporal punishment in people's homes is that it is very difficult to enforce laws about it. How do we know what goes on in someone's home, and how do we know when it reaches the point of being corporal punishment abuse? Unfortunately, this can cause problems on both extremes, from people who clearly abuse their children but are not caught to people who hit their children even once and are arrested.

By accordion — On Feb 21, 2011

I do not think that corporal punishment is allowed on any legal level in the US anymore. I remember even when I was in elementary school in the 90s there were teachers who hit kids, but I am honestly not sure if their doing so was technically legal. While I think that a parent's use of corporal punishment is his or her decision, I am glad it is mostly gone from public places like schools.

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