Corporal punishment

From New World Encyclopedia
"The naughty children"; German Caricature of 1849.

Corporal punishment is forced pain intended to change or punish a person's behavior. Historically speaking, most punishments, whether in judicial, domestic, or educational settings, were corporal in basis. In modern days, corporal punishment has been largely rejected in favor of other disciplinary methods. Modern judiciaries often favor fines or incarceration, whilst modern school discipline generally avoids physical correction altogether. There has been much dispute over where the line should be drawn between corporal punishment and torture, or whether any physical punishment methods are acceptable at all.

As humankind has advanced, recognizing the human rights of all, especially those of children, the use of corporal punishment has declined, and been outlawed in many societies. Yet, the need to discipline those who violate the norms or laws of their society remains. Childrearing and schooling both require guidance from an authority figure, who must have at their disposal appropriate methods of disciplining those who deviate from acceptable behavior. In a caring society, however, those methods need not involve physical pain; alternatives exist and are preferable, bringing about the same result. Equally, those who violate the law can be incarcerated rather than whipped or otherwise physically punished.

History of corporal punishment

While the early history of corporal punishment is unclear, the practice was certainly present in classical civilizations, being used in Greece, Rome, Egypt, and Israel, for both judicial and educational discipline. Practices varied greatly, though scourging and beating with sticks were common. Some states gained a reputation for using such punishments cruelly; Sparta, in particular, used frequent part of a disciplinary regime designed to build willpower and physical strength. Although the Spartan example was unusually extreme, corporal punishment was possibly the most common type of punishment.

In Medieval Europe, corporal punishment was encouraged by the attitudes of the medieval church towards the human body, with flagellation being a common means of self-discipline. In particular, this had a major influence on the use of corporal punishment in schools, as educational establishments were closely attached to the church during this period. Nevertheless, corporal punishment was not used uncritically; as early as the eleventh century Saint Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury was speaking out against what he saw as the cruel treatment of children.[1]

From the sixteenth century onwards, new trends were seen in corporal punishment. Judicial punishments were increasingly made into public spectacles, with the public beatings of criminals intended as a deterrent to other would-be miscreants. Meanwhile, early writers on education, such as Roger Ascham, complained of the arbitrary manner in which children were punished.[2] Probably the most influential writer on the subject was the English philosopher John Locke, whose Some Thoughts Concerning Education explicitly criticized the central role of corporal punishment in education. Locke's work was highly influential, and in part influenced Polish legislators to ban corporal punishment from Poland's schools in 1783.[3]

During the eighteenth century, the frequent use of corporal punishment was heavily criticized, both by philosophers and legal reformers. Merely inflicting pain on miscreants was seen as inefficient, influencing the subject merely for a short period of time and effecting no permanent change in their behavior. Critics believed that the purpose of punishment should be reformation, not retribution. This is perhaps best expressed in Jeremy Bentham's idea of a panoptic prison, in which prisoners were controlled and surveyed at all times, perceived to be advantageous in that this system reduced the need of measures such as corporal punishment.[4]

A consequence of this mode of thinking was a diminution of corporal punishment throughout the nineteenth century in Europe and North America. In some countries this was encouraged by scandals involving individuals seriously hurt during acts of corporal punishment. For instance, in Britain, popular opposition to punishment was encouraged by two significant cases, the death of Private Frederick John White, who died after a military flogging in 1847, and the death of Reginald Cancellor, who was killed by his schoolmaster in 1860.[5] Events such as these mobilized public opinion, and in response, many countries introduced thorough regulation of the infliction of corporal punishment in state institutions.

The use of corporal punishment declined through the twentieth century, though the practice has proved most persistent as a punishment for violation of prison rules, as a military field punishment, and in schools.

Administration of punishment

In formal punishment, medical supervision is often considered necessary to assess whether the target of punishment is in a fit condition to be beaten and to oversee the punishment to prevent serious injury from occurring. The role of the medical officer was particularly important in the nineteenth century, a time in which severe punishment was common, but growing public criticism of the practice encouraged medical regulation.

Corporal punishment can be directed at a number of different anatomical targets, the choice depending on a number of factors. The humiliation and pain of a particular punishment have always been primary concerns, but convenience and custom are also factors. There is an additional concern in the modern world about the permanent harm that can result from punishment, though this was rarely a factor before the nineteenth century. The intention of corporal punishment is to discipline an individual with the infliction of a measure of pain, and permanent injury is considered counterproductive.

  • Most commonly, corporal punishment is directed at the buttocks, with some languages having a specific word for their chastisement. For example, the French call this fessée, the Spanish nalgada. The English term "spanking" refers to punishment on the buttocks, though only with the open hand. This part of the body is often chosen because it is painful, but is arguably unlikely to cause long-term physical harm. In the United Kingdom the term spanking is becoming more associated with sex play and the term smacking is used more often.
  • The back is commonly targeted in military and judicial punishments, particularly popular in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. However, damage to both spine and kidneys is possible and such punishment is rarely used in the modern world.
  • Although the face and particularly the cheeks may be struck in domestic punishment, formal punishments avoid the head because of the serious injuries that can result. In some countries, domestic and school punishments aimed at the head are considered assault.
  • The hands are a common target in school discipline, though rarely targeted in other forms of corporal punishment. Since serious injury can be caused by striking the hand, the implements used and the numbers of blows must be strictly controlled.
  • In Western Asia, corporal punishment was directed against the feet. Although this was mostly used on criminals, a version was in use in schools in the region.

One common problem with corporal punishment is the difficulty with which an objective measure of pain can be determined and delivered. In the nineteenth century, scientists such as Alexander Bain and Francis Galton suggested scientific solutions to this, such as the use of electricity.[6] These were, however, unpopular and perceived as cruel. The difficulty in inflicting a set measure of pain makes it difficult to distinguish punishment from abuse, and has contributed to calls for the abolition of the practice.



Political cartoon from 1860 depicting Stephen A. Douglas receiving a traditional “over-the-knee” spanking from Columbia as Uncle Sam looks on approvingly.

Spanking, by today's definition, consists of striking the buttocks, with either an open hand or various implements including a cane, a belt, or strap, various types of whips, such as the martinet and the tawse, a switch or other form of rod, a paddle, some curious devices such as the electric so-called spanker and trickster paddling machines, or various household objects designed for other purposes, such as a slipper, a wooden spoon, a bath brush, a wooden ruler, or a hairbrush. Spanking (or smacking) is the most commonly-used form of corporal punishment, consisting of one or more sharp smacks applied on the buttocks.

The verb to spank has been known in English since 1727, possibly onomatopeic in nature.

It is remarkable that English and several other languages have a specific, common verb for spanking, that distinguishes it from corporal punishment applied to parts of the anatomy other than the buttocks. Thus, in Latin, the only word derived from culus (buttocks) was culare, meaning "to spank," similar to the Italian sculacciare; in French, the verb is fesser, also from "fesses" (buttocks). All of these terms testify to the historical or persisting prominence of this punitive target in many cultures.


Birching is a corporal punishment with a birch rod, typically applied to the recipient's bare buttocks, although occasionally to the back and/or shoulders.

A birch rod (often shortened to "birch") is a bundle of leafless twigs bound together to form an implement for flagellation.

Contrary to what the name suggests, a birch rod is not a single rod and is not necessarily made from a birch tree, but can also be made from various other strong but flexible trees or shrubs, such as willow (hence the term willowing). A hazel rod is very tough, and therefore particularly painful; a bundle of four or five hazel twigs was used from 1960 until 1976 on the Isle of Man, the last place in Europe to use birching as a judicial penalty.

Another parameter for the severity of a birch rod is its size—its length, weight and number of branches. In some penal institutions, several versions were in use, which were often given names. For example, in Dartmoor Prison the device used to punish male offenders above the age of 16—weighing some 16 ounces and a full 48 inches long—was known as the "senior birch."

There have been differing opinions as to the utility of soaking the birch in liquid before use, but as it takes in water the weight is certainly increased without compensatory air resistance, so the impact must be greater if the operator can use sufficient force.

In the 1860s, the Royal Navy abandoned the use of the cat o' nine tails on boy seamen. The cat had acquired a nasty reputation because of its frequent use in prisons, and was replaced by the birch, with which the wealthy classes were more familiar, having been chastised with it at their private schools. The judicial system followed the Navy's example and switched to birches also. In an attempt to standardize the Navy's birches the Admiralty had specimens according to all prevailing prescriptions, called "patterned birch" (as well as a "patterned cane"), kept in every major dockyard, for birches had to be procured on land in quantities, suggesting some were worn out on the sore bottoms of miscreant boys.

The term judicial birch refers to the severe type in use for court-ordered birchings, especially the Manx hazel birch. A 1951, memorandum (possibly confirming earlier practice) ordered all UK male prisons to use only birches (and cats o' nine tails) from a national stock at south London's Wandsworth prison, where they were to be "thoroughly" tested before being supplied in triplicate to a prison whenever a procedure was pending for use as prison discipline.

By contrast, terms like Eton birch (after the most prestigious private school in England) are used for a birch made from birch tree twigs.


Rattan cane

Caning is a physical punishment consisting of a number of hits (known as "strokes" or "cuts") with a wooden cane, generally applied to the bare or clad buttocks, shoulders, hand(s) (palm, rarely knuckles), or even the soles of the feet (as in falaka). The size and flexibility of the cane itself and the number and mode of application of the strokes (usually more numerous and faster when wielding a light, flexible cane) vary significantly.



A spanking paddle is a usually wooden instrument with a long, flat face and narrow neck, so called because it is roughly shaped like the piece of sports equipment, but existing in more varied sizes and dimensions (length, width, and thickness), used to administer a spanking to the buttocks; it would be too hard and heavy to use safely on the back. A spanking paddle can sometimes be called shingle, apparently after its form, or be given names (rather like weapons in military and police units). Educators and children in households where a paddle is used for discipline sometimes award the paddle such nicknames also, such as "Lola's bane," "The 'Board' of Education," and "Mother's Little Helper." (Confusingly, sometimes non-wooden flat devices, such as leather straps, are wrongly called paddles, even in official institutions.)

The term fraternity paddle (its more recent counterpart is sorority paddle) was introduced for hazing or punishment, which was often kept by an alumnus (to discipline his or her children), especially if it carries Greek-organization markings. It is still commonly offered by pledges ("little Brothers" or -sisters) to their "big Brothers" or "big Sisters" as a gift. It is a symbol of their induction to the sorority or fraternity.


Cat o' nine tails

Corporal punishment in formal settings, such as schools and prisons, is often highly ritualized, sometimes even staged in a highly theatrical manner. To a great extent, the spectacle of punishment is intended to act as a deterrent to others and a theatrical approach is one result of this.

One consequence of the ritualized nature of much punishment has been the development of a wide variety of equipment used. Formal punishment often begins with the victim stripped of some or all of their clothing and secured to a piece of furniture, such as a trestle, frame, punishment horse or falaka. A variety of implements are then used to inflict blows on the victim. The terms used to describe these are not fixed, varying by country and by context. There are, however, a number of common types which are frequently encountered when reading about corporal punishment. These are:

  • The bastinado
  • The rod—a thin, flexible rod is often called a switch
  • The birch, a number of strong, flexible branches, bound together in their natural state
  • The bamboo canes—a durable rottan cane is often called a rattan
  • The paddle, a flat wooden board or leather pad with a handle
  • The strap—a strap with a number of tails at one end is called a tawse in Scotland and northern England
  • The whip—varieties include the Russian knout and South African sjambok, in addition to the scourge and martinet
  • The cat o' nine tails was a popular implement used in naval discipline
  • The hairbrush and belt are traditionally used in the United States and Great Britain as an implement for domestic spanking
  • The wooden spoon, commonly used in Australia
  • The wired clothes hanger, a common and easily available substitute for a bamboo canes in Hong Kong

In some instances, the victim of punishment is required to prepare the implement which will be used upon them. For instance, sailors were employed in preparing the cat o' nine tails which would be used upon their own back, whilst children were sent to cut a switch or rod.

In contrast, informal punishments, particularly in domestic settings, tend to lack this ritual nature and are often administered with whatever object comes to hand. It is common, for instance, for belts, wooden spoons, slippers, or hairbrushes to be used in domestic punishment, whilst rulers and other classroom equipment have been used in schools.

Boys were beaten under the old tradition of "Beating the Bounds," where a boy was paraded around the boundary of an area of a city or district and would often ask to be beaten on the buttocks. One famous "Beating the Bounds" happened around the boundary of St Giles and the area where Tottenham Court Road now stands in London. The actual stone that separated the boundary is now under the Centerpoint office block.

In law

While the domestic corporal punishment of children is still accepted in some countries (mostly Eastern), it is declining in many others, it is also illegal in a number of countries. The practice has been banned in Austria, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Israel, Italy, Latvia, Norway, Romania, South Africa, Sweden, the Netherlands, Ukraine and New Zealand.[7] These developments are comparatively recent, with Sweden, in 1979, being the first country to forbid corporal punishment by law.[8] In a number of other countries there is active debate about its continued usage. In the United Kingdom its total abolition has been discussed.

United Nations human rights standards prohibit all corporal punishment.[9]

Such debates, however, do not always lead to the banning of domestic corporal punishment and The Supreme Court of Canada recently reaffirmed, in Foundation v. Canada, the right of a parent or guardian to use corporal punishment on children between the ages of two and twelve; this decision was contentious, being based upon s.43 of the Criminal Code of Canada, a provision enacted in 1892.[10] Similarly, despite some opposition to corporal punishment in the U.S., spanking children is legal, with some states explicitly allowing it in their law and 23 U.S. states allowing its use in public schools.[11]

In most parts of Eastern Asia (including China, Taiwan, Japan, and Korea), it is legal to punish one's own child using physical means. In Singapore and Hong Kong, punishing one's own child with corporal punishment is either legal but discouraged, or illegal but without active enforcement of the relevant laws. Culturally, people in the region generally believe a minimal amount of corporal punishment for their own children is appropriate and necessary, and thus such practice is tolerated by the society as a whole.

The People's Republic of China and Taiwan have both made corporal punishment against children illegal in the school system, but it is still known to be practiced in some form in many areas. The most common forms of punishment are mild chastisements, such as shaking by the arm or shoulder, or slapping the back of the head or ear; more serious punishments, such as striking with the cane, are less common. Such incidents are increasingly leading to public outcry, and in recent years have lead to the dismissal of teaching staff. Similarly, in South Korea, corporal punishments occur for students if they forget their homework, violate school rules, or are tardy to school.

There is resistance, particularly from conservatives, against making the corporal punishment of children by their parents or guardians illegal. In 2004, the United States declined to become a signatory of the United Nations's "Rights of the Child" because of its sanctions on parental discipline, citing the tradition of parental authority in that country and of privacy in family decision-making.

Most countries have banned the use of corporal punishment in schools, beginning with Poland in 1783. The practice is still used in schools in some parts of the United States (approximately half the states, but varying by school districts within them), though it is banned in others. Many schools, even within the 23 states, require written parent approval before any physical force is used upon a child.


Many opponents of corporal punishment argue that any form of violence is, by definition, abusive. Psychological research indicates that corporal punishment causes the destruction of trust bonds between parents and children. Children subjected to corporal punishment may grow resentful, shy, insecure, or violent. Adults who report having been slapped or spanked by their parents in childhood have been found to experience elevated rates of anxiety disorder, alcohol abuse or dependence, and externalization of problems as adults.[12] Some researchers believe that corporal punishment actually works against its objective (normally obedience), since children will not voluntarily obey an adult they do not trust. A child who is physically punished may have to be punished more often than a child who is not. Researcher Elizabeth Gershoff, in a 2002 meta-analytic study that combined 60 years of research on corporal punishment, found that the only positive outcome of corporal punishment was immediate compliance; however, corporal punishment was associated with less long-term compliance.[13] Corporal punishment was linked with nine other negative outcomes, including increased rates of aggression, delinquency, mental health problems, problems in relationships with their parents, and likelihood of being physically abused.

Opponents claim that much child abuse begins with spanking: A parent accustomed to using corporal punishment may find it all too easy, when frustrated, to step over the line into physical abuse. One study found that 40 percent of 111 mothers were worried that they could possibly hurt their children.[14] It is argued that frustrated parents turn to spanking when attempting to discipline their child, and then get carried away (given the arguable continuum between spanking and hitting). This "continuum" argument also raises the question of whether a spank can be "too hard" and how (if at all) this can be defined in practical terms. This in turn leads to the question whether parents who spank their children "too hard" are crossing the line and beginning to abuse them.

Before 1997, although there were many studies linking spanking with higher levels of misbehavior in children, people could argue that it was the misbehavior that caused the spanking. However, since that time, several studies have examined changes in behavior over time and propose a link between corporal punishment and increasing relative levels of misbehavior compared to similar children who were not corporally punished. Reasons for corporal punishment possibly causing increased misbehavior in the long run may include: Children imitating the corporally-punishing behavior of their parents by hitting other people; acting out of resentment stemming from corporal punishment; reduced self-esteem; loss of opportunities to learn peaceful conflict resolution; punishing the parents for the acts of corporal punishment; and assertion of freedom and dignity by refusing to be controlled by corporal punishment.

The problem with the use of corporal punishment is that, if punishments are to maintain their efficacy, the amount of force required may have to be increased over successive punishments. This was observed by the American Academy of Pediatrics, which stated that: "The only way to maintain the initial effect of spanking is to systematically increase the intensity with which it is delivered, which can quickly escalate into abuse." Additionally, the Academy noted that: "Parents who spank their children are more likely to use other unacceptable forms of corporal punishment."[15]

Another problem with corporal punishment, according to the skeptics, is that it polarizes the parent-child relationship, reducing the amount of spontaneous cooperation on the part of the child. The AAP policy statement says "…reliance on spanking as a discipline approach makes other discipline strategies less effective to use." Thus it has an addiction-like effect: The more one spanks, the more one feels a need to spank, possibly escalating until the situation is out of control.


  1. J. Wicksteed, The Challenge of Childhood (London: Chapman & Hall Ltd., 1936), 34-35.
  2. Roger Ascham, The Schoolmaster (London: John Daye, 1571), 1.
  3. P. Newell, A Last Resort? Corporal Punishment in Schools (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972), 9.
  4. Jeremy Bentham, Chrestomathia (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), 34, 106.
  5. J. Middleton and Thomas Hopley, "Mid-Victorian attitudes to corporal punishment," History of Education (2005).
  6. Alexander Bain, Mind and Body (London: Henry S. King & Co., 1873), 65.
  7. New Zealand Herald, Anti-smacking bill becomes law. Retrieved May 16, 2007.
  8. Save The Children Sweden, What we do.
  9., Hitting people is wrong—and children are people too. Retrieved April 10, 2007.
  10. CBC, To Spank or Not to Spank? Retrieved July 29, 2007.
  11., Facts About Corporal Punishment. Retrieved July 29, 2007.
  12. H.L. MacMillan, et al., Slapping and spanking in childhood and its association with lifetime prevalence of psychiatric disorders in a general population. Canadian Medical Association Journal 1999; 161(7):805-9.
  13. E. Gershoff, "Corporal punishment by parents and associated child behaviors and experiences: A meta-analytic and theoretical review, Psychological Bulletin, 2002; 128(4):539-579.
  14. M. Straus, Beating the Devil out of Them: Corporal Punishment in American Families and Its Effects on Children (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2001, ISBN 0765807548).
  15. A.M. Graziano, J. L. Hamblen, and W. A. Plante. "Subabusive violence in child rearing in middle-class American families," Pediatrics 1996; 98:845-848.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Cooper, William. A History of the Rod, 2003. ISBN 1899861203
  • Gibson, Ian. The English Vice: Beating, Sex, and Shame in Victorian England and After. London: Gerald Duckworth & Co Ltd., 1978. ISBN 0715612646
  • Hardy, Janet. The Toybag Guide to Canes and Caning. Greenery Press, 2004. ISBN 1890159565
  • Newman, Graeme. Just And Painful: A Case for Corporal Punishment of Criminals. Criminal Justice Press, 1995. ISBN 0911577335
  • Scott, George. The History of Corporal Punishment. Merchant Book Company, 1996. ISBN 1859584934
  • Strauss, Murray. Beating the Devil Out of Them: Corporal Punishment in American Families. Lexington Books, 1994. ISBN 0029317304

External links

All links retrieved January 7, 2024.


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