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Do We Need Corporal Punishment?

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
You think Marine Corps boot camp is tough? In the old days it was much tougher. Drill instructors often corrected recruits by kicking them, punching them or hitting them with sticks. Broken jaws and bloody noses were not unusual.

But in 1957, the Corps abolished physical, or corporal, punishment. Today, drill instructors may not even touch recruits. A DI who uses such methods can expect to be discharged, imprisoned or both.

There were those who thought the change would make the Marine Corps soft and cowardly. If you hold that view, I can give you directions to Parris Island, where you can make your case directly to new graduates of boot camp or combat veterans of Iraq or Afghanistan.

Battle-hardened officers once saw these methods as indispensable in preparing men for the horrors of combat. The point was to instill in recruits habits that would enable them to engage in war and survive. Eventually, the Marine Corps learned it could accomplish that urgent, difficult goal without physically abusing them.

Americans have gradually come to the conclusion that educators can also fulfill their missions without hitting the young people in their care. Corporal punishment is forbidden in public schools in 31 states. The number of kids paddled in public schools has dropped by 85 percent since 1976. Catholic schools, reports The Washington Post, have also abandoned it.

In Sweden and 38 other countries, parents are no longer permitted to use corporal punishment on children. Here, however, it's allowed and widely employed. Four out of five American parents say it's sometimes appropriate. One-third of parents even strike infants.

The common view is that spanking is the only way to raise well-behaved kids. Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson was most likely acting on that view when he whipped his 4-year-old son with a tree branch, leaving the boy riddled with bloody welts.


The belief is as plausible as assuming that hitting was necessary to produce good Marines. What corporal punishment often produces, as it allegedly did in the Peterson case, is undeniable abuse -- which often originates in an attempt to discipline a child and then escalates.

Most Americans were spanked as kids, believe their parents acted in their interest and take this treatment for granted. But the wisdom of our ancestors is often wrong.

In the 1920s, one popular child development guru was psychologist John Watson, who gave advice about childrearing that we would find appalling. In dealing with children, he urged, "Never hug and kiss them, never let them sit in your lap. If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say good night. Shake hands with them in the morning."

Watson didn't mean to be harsh. He was afraid affectionate parents would produce weak children. Today, we regard the Watson approach as cruel and heartless. But the majority continues to embrace corporal punishment, in spite of reams of evidence confirming its harms.

Murray Straus, co-director of the Family Research Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire, has done extensive research on domestic abuse, and he has reached a judgment about spanking of kids. "One simple way of putting it," he told me, "is that all the effects of corporal punishment are bad." More than 100 studies, he said, establish that it increases the likelihood that recipients will engage in violence as children and as adults.


One of the most arresting charts in his book, "The Primordial Violence," shows the relationship between spanking and murder among the 50 states. Most kids who are spanked don't grow up to be killers. But as the caption says, "The larger the percent of the population who approve of spanking, the higher the homicide rate."

Internationally, more spanking correlates with more murders. Adults who were spanked are more likely to assault spouses or romantic partners than adults who were not. Kids who are hit by parents are prone to hitting other kids.

_These correlations are not accidental. "Spanking teaches that it's morally correct to use violence to correct misbehavior," Straus explained. Someone who absorbs this vivid lesson, confronted with objectionable conduct, is more likely to resort to force to stop the conduct.

Of course, it's always possible that if American parents abandoned corporal punishment, our kids would turn out spoiled, selfish, lazy and bereft of moral values. You know, like U.S. Marines.

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