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Physical Punishment Doesn’t ‘Correct’ Children’s Behavior, But Worsens It: Lancet Study

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Jun 30, 2021

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Physical punishment can make children’s behavior worse over time rather than correcting any “misbehavior,” according to a large-scale longitudinal study that found “no evidence” of physical punishment being helpful to children’s well-being.

Physical, or corporal punishment, is a form of punishment intended to inflict physical pain upon a person. Despite consistent evidence against physical punishment being presented over the years, 250 million children globally are subjected to physical punishment by their caregivers, according to the new study published in the Lancet journal this week.

“There is no evidence that physical punishment is good for children,” Elizabeth Gershoff, a professor at the University of Texas in the U.S., who was also involved in the present study, said in a press release. “All the evidence indicates that physical punishment is harmful to children’s development and well-being.”

The research is a meta-analysis of 69 existing articles on physical punishment as a means of reform. Based on the review, the researchers concluded that irrespective of the overall parenting styles of caregivers, physical punishments like hitting, put children at an increased risk of experiencing neglect and severe violence.

While physical punishment may appear to correct perceived misbehavior momentarily, leading caregivers to trust the method, it doesn’t actually work in the long term. “Spanking gets their attention, but they have not internalized why they should do the right thing in the future. They may behave when the adult is there but do whatever they want at other times,” Gershoff had said in 2019.

Experts note that besides inflicting injuries, physical punishment can also lead to increased aggression, antisocial behavior, and mental health problems among children — especially later in life.


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“Hitting children does not teach them right from wrong… Children do not need pain to learn,” Gershoff explained further. And because “physical punishment doesn’t work to get kids to comply… parents think they have to keep escalating it. That is why it is so dangerous,” she had also noted in 2012.

The present study, in fact, found that the magnitude of negative outcomes increased alongside the frequency of physical punishment one was subjected to.

Physical punishment is a malady commonly observed in India, too. A 2020 study conducted across Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Rajasthan, and Maharashtra by UNICEF found that parental tactics involved violence in the form of burning, pinching, slapping, twisting of children’s ears, and beating them with sticks, belts, and rods, among others.

In schools, too, children were punished in similar ways for not finishing their homework, not greeting their teachers, or failing to be “well-groomed” — despite India banning corporal punishment in schools in 2010.

“We don’t allow aggression among adults. It’s a sad double standard that we don’t give children the same protection against violence,” Gershoff stated.

Anja Heilmann, an associate professor at University College London, who led the Lancet study, noted, “This is a public health issue.”

“Given the strength of the evidence that physical punishment has the potential to cause harm to children, policymakers have a responsibility to protect children and legislate to end the use of physical punishment in all settings,” she said.

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Written By Devrupa Rakshit

Devrupa Rakshit is an associate editor with The Swaddle. She is a lawyer by education, a poet by accident, and a painter by shaukh. She has her own podcast called #DateNightsWithD on Spotify. You can find her on Instagram @devruparakshit.

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