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Corporal Punishment and Verbal Aggression

Effective Parenting Newsletter Corporal Punishment and Verbal Aggression

Founded in 1974 by Dr. Kerby T. Alvy, the Center for the Improvement of Child Caring (CICC) has grown to be one of the nation's largest and most productive nonprofit parenting and parenting education organizations. For more information about our many programs, activities, products and services, go to our website,, or call (800) 325-2422.

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  • Perspectives on Corporal Punishment and Verbal Aggression
  • Definitions and Prevalence
  • Long and Short Term Effects
  • Children Should Never, Ever Be Spanked No Matter What the Circumstances
  • What To Do Instead

  • Definitions and Prevalence

    The corporal or physical punishment of children refers to a wide range of parenting practices intended to cause physical pain. These include such acts as pinching, shaking, slapping, punching and kicking children, and, with or without the use of objects like belts, cords and brushes, spanking, hitting and beating children. Each act can be mild or severe, depending upon their force and duration.

    All such acts constitute violence directed toward children, because violence is defined as an "act carried out with the intention, or perceived intention, of causing physical pain or injury to another person" (Straus, M., Beating the Devil Out of Them: Corporal Punishment in American Families and its Effects on Children).

    National surveys of thousands of parents from all walks of life and all cultural groups continue to show that nearly all parents use one or more forms of corporal punishment, and especially with young children.

    The latest national survey focused on the use of milder forms of corporal punishment ("ordinary corporal punishment"), including (1) spanking on the bottom with a bare hand, (2) slapping on the hand, arm or leg, (3) pinching, (4) shaking (on children age 3 or older), (5) hitting on the bottom with something like a belt, brush, stick or some other hard object, and (6) slapping on the face, head or ears. The survey was conducted in 1995 and the results reported in a 1999 article in Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review (see graph for prevalence data).

    As can be seen in the graph, over 30 percent of parents reported using corporal punishment during the first year of a child’s life, peaking at over 90 percent indicating that they use such practices during a child’s forth and fifth year of life, and decreasing in use as children grow older and bigger. In terms of how often such practices were used, the most frequent reported use of corporal punishment was found with two-year-olds, where parents used it on an average of 18 times a year.

    Verbal aggression directed at children includes such practices as putting children down, insulting them, swearing at them, and saying and doing things to spite them.

    An analysis of data from a nationally representative sample of 3,346 American parents with a child under 18 living at home found that 63 percent of the parents reported one or more instances of verbal aggression directed at their children. These results appear in a 1991 article in Child Abuse and Neglect.

    Long and Short Term Effects

    The previously mentioned national surveys were conducted by Dr. Straus and his colleagues at the Family Research Lab at the University of New Hampshire, and were funded by federal government grants.

    In those studies, the researchers found relationships between the frequency of use of corporal punishment and verbal aggression, and a wide range of child and family characteristics and outcomes.

    They found that the greater the use of corporal punishment by parents, the higher the chances were of their children:

    • Becoming Depressed
    • Having Suicidal Thoughts
    • Striking Siblings and Peers
    • Performing Poorly at School
    • Becoming Delinquents and Committing Crimes
    • Having Career Problems
    • Abusing Their Own Children and Spouses, when Adults.

    In terms of the use of verbal aggression, the research has shown that the more frequent the verbal aggression the higher the chances of the children:

    • Becoming Physically Aggressive with Others
    • Experiencing a Variety of Interpersonal Problems
    • Becoming Juvenile Delinquents.

    These studies also indicated that children who were exposed to both verbal aggression and severe corporal punishment exhibited the highest rates of aggression, delinquency and interpersonal problems.

    A 2002 study-of-studies on the effects of corporal punishment on children also found evidence of many of these relationships. This study, by Dr. Elizabeth Thompson Gershoff of Columbia University, encompassed 62 years of research. The study was entitled, Corporal Punishment by Parents and Associated Child Behaviors and Experiences: A Meta-Analytic and Theoretical Review. (This article is very long and takes an extended time period to download.) It was published in a journal of the American Psychological Association, Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 128, No. 4, pages 539-579.

    Dr. Gershoff’s study found that parental use of corporal punishment was related to such child behaviors and experiences as:

    • Greater Aggression
    • Poorer Internalization of Moral Values
    • Higher Rates of Delinquency and Antisocial Behavior
    • Poorer Quality of Parent-Child Relationships
    • Poorer Child Mental Health
    • Being a Victim of Child Abuse
    • Abusing Own Child and Spouse
    Her study also found that the use of corporal punishment was associated with the short-term effect of a child more quickly complying with parental directions.

    Children Should Never, Ever Be Spanked No Matter What the Circumstances
    Current Controversies on Family Violence

    This is the title to Dr. Murray A. Straus' chapter in a 2005 book on family violence, Current Controversies on Family Violence, edited by Dr. Donileen R. Loseke of the University of South Florida, and by Drs. Richard J. Gelles and Mary M. Cavanugh of the University of Pennsylvania. In his chapter, Dr. Straus makes a powerful case for everyone making a commitment to stop spanking children. It begins as follows:

    "There are many reasons why children should never be spanked or subjected to any other kind of corporal punishment. Three of the most fundamental reasons:

    1. Spanking has serious harmful side effects that parents have no way of seeing, because such effects do not show up until later.

    2. Spanking is no more effective than other methods of correction and control, and it is therefore unnecessary to subject children to the risk of the harmful side effects.

    3. Spanking contradicts the ideal of nonviolence in the family and society.

    "Progress is being made toward the goal of nonviolence in the family. Assaults on partners have decreased (Straus, 1995). Fewer and fewer parents and professionals who advise parents approve of spanking (American Academy of Pediatrics, 1998; Schenck, Lyman, and Bodin, 2000; Straus and Mathur, 1996). There has also been a large decrease in the percentage of parents who use corporal punishment (CP) with school-age children (Straus and Stewart, 1999)."

    "No one is sure about the reasons for these important changes. In addition, there are some paradoxical aspects to the trend away from CP. One paradox is that, although only about half of American parents now believe that spanking is sometimes necessary (Straus and Mathur, 1996), 94 percent of parents still spank toddlers (Straus and Stewart, 1999). A second paradox is that although ever-larger percentages of professionals who provide information to parents are opposed to spanking, few directly advise parents not to spank. Even fewer advise parents to never spank."

    "Given these paradoxical discrepancies, one objective of this chapter is to draw on the research evidence to explain the discrepancy between what parents believe and what they actually do, and the discrepancy between what professionals who advise parents believe and what they actually advise."

    "A second objective is to identify the implications of the research evidence for advising parents about spanking and other forms of CP. A particular focus is on whether parents should be advised to never spank or to use other forms of CP under any circumstance. The analysis suggests a third paradox: Focusing almost exclusively on helping parents learn alternative strategies to CP unwittingly contributes to perpetuating CP."

    The current Controversies on Family Violence book, in which Dr. Straus' entire chapter appears, also contains a chapter by John Rosemond that argues in favor of spanking, and chapters that address such related issues as child abuse, woman's violence toward man, elder abuse, and date and acquaintance rape. That book can be obtained by clicking here.

    Dr. Straus' persuasive presentation on why children should never be spanked is also detailed in different sections of the second edition of his classic book, Beating the Devil Out of Them: Corporal Punishment in American Families and Its Effects on Children.

    What To Do Instead
    Shaking, Hitting, Spanking: What To Do Instead

    The best answer to what to do instead of spanking and berating children is to learn to be an authoritative parent, and use more positive and nonviolent ways of gaining the cooperation and respect of children.

    A variety of modern Parenting Skill-Building Programs are available for learning the authoritative approach. These programs are usually taught for small groups of parents as classes that meet once per week for several weeks for two to three hours of instruction and role playing.

    Some of these programs also are taught as one-day community events (one-day parenting seminars) where large numbers of parents can participate and learn.

    There are also several excellent educational videos that parents can view at home, at childcare centers, schools, churches, temples and other community venues.

    Two video programs of particular note, and which demonstrate numerous non-violent ways of managing situations that often tempt parents to spank, hit or verbally berate children are called:

    Each video presents typical child rearing situations where parents are on the brink of losing control because of the behaviors of their children. In the Spanking video, the situations are a baby crying incessently in the middle of the night, a toddler messing up the kitchen, a grade school child disobeying, and a middle schooler refusing to clean her room.

    In the Yelling video, the challenging situations include an attention-seeking toddler running in front of the tv while a tired Dad is trying to watch a game, an angry preschooler throwing blocks around after being frustrated with not being able to build a tall tower, a seven-year-old's whining demands while in a market, and a brother and sister who can't solve their own problems and explode in fighting in front of a parent who is working at home.

    As the parents of these children are about to hit or yell, the videos are stopped, and the question of what to do instead is asked.

    Then the videos are turned back on to see excellent, non-violent ways of managing these situations. The skills that are demonstrated include many of those that are taught in modern parenting skill-building programs, such as:

    • The Thinking Parent's Approach to Child Disobediences
    • The Family Rules are Like a Coin Strategy for Selecting What To Do
    • Effective Praising
    • Empathy
    • Parental Modeling
    • Parental Coaching
    • Communicating Expectations in Advance
    • Practicing or Role Playing Desired Behaviors
    • Use of Material Rewards
    • Family Meetings
    • Mild Social Disapproval
    • Ignoring
    • Logical Consequences
    • Redirection of Attention

    Other excellent videos that address and provide perspectives and alternatives to corporal punishment are:

    Perspectives on Corporal Punishment and Verbal Aggression
    Beating the Devil Out of Them

    A solid conclusion that can be drawn from decades of research on parenting and child development in such fields as psychology, sociology and anthropology is that it is the overall pattern or constellation of parenting practices, attitudes and commitments that is most important in the development and lives of children, rather than specific practices and attitudes.

    For example, the “authoritative” pattern of parenting identified by Dr. Diana Baumrind, which consists of an abundance of parental warmth and nurturance, respect for the needs and viewpoints of children, and firm and fair discipline and family leadership, is a pattern that has been consistently associated with such positive child outcomes and characteristics as high self-esteem, solid academic performance and stable social adjustment. Other patterns identified by Dr. Baumrind, like the “permissive” and “authoritarian” patterns, have been consistently associated with fewer positive and several negative child outcomes.

    However, decades of research also indicates that certain specific sets of parenting practices, those subsumed under the headings of corporal punishment and verbal aggression, have been consistently associated with negative and sometimes tragic consequences, thus making their use a matter of critical concern.

    This and future editions of Effective Parenting will be devoted to explorations of the research on corporal punishment and verbal aggression, the controversies surrounding their use and abolition, as well as programs and resources that are designed to provide parents with alternatives to such practices.

    As the founder of the Center for the Improvement of Child Caring, I am an advocate for non-violent parenting and for teaching parents to approach children in the authoritative manner. One can be an authoritative parent without using corporal punishment and verbal aggression. My wife and I have worked hard to be authoritative and non-violent in the raising of our two daughters, both of whom are turning out to be healthy, competent and peaceful adults.

    My and the Center’s perspective on these matters is available in an article, written for the Center’s new, one-day seminar in the Confident Parenting Program.

    This edition of Effective Parenting will include definitions and facts about corporal punishment and verbal aggression, drawing greatly on the research and writings of one of the nation’s foremost authorities on these matters, Dr. Murray Straus.

    Dr. Straus is a Professor of Sociology and Co-Director of the Family Research Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire. We were proud to have him speak at one of our conferences in the early 1990s and have been following his exemplary work with great interest.

    His classic book on corporal punishment, Beating The Devil Out of Them: Corporal Punishment in the American Family, originally appeared in 1994. All of the studies mentioned in that book were of correlational nature, where one could observe associations between the use of corporal punishment and children's behaviors and development.

    Since 1994, additional studies of a prospective nature have been conducted which allow for making statements that the use of corporal punishment was the cause of the certain child behaviors and characteristics. The second edition of Dr. Straus' book, which was published in 2001, contains these newer findings. By being able to include them in the latest edition, greater credibility and validity can be given to the findings from the prior correlational studies. As a result, Dr. Straus used a different subtitle for the second edition. It is called, Beating the Devil Out of Them: Corporal Punishment in the American Family and Its Effects on Children.

    We strongly recommend that anyone concerned about children, whether they be parents or professionals who work with children, obtain and learn from this very important book. Dr. Straus is an extraordinary thinker, researcher and humanitarian. What he has assembled in this latest version is the most comprehensive understanding of corporal punishment and its effects on children and society. This book presents the strongest, clearest and most empirically based argument against ever using corporal punishment.

    Do yourself, your children and your community a great service by learning what Dr. Straus has to say in this marvelous book.

    Kerby T. Alvy, Ph.D.

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