Youth around the world are less violent where corporal punishment is banned, according to an analysis of data from 88 countries, territories and protectorate states published Monday in the health journal BMJ.
“Societies that have these bans in place appear to be safer places for kids to grow up in,” said lead study author Frank Elgar, an associate professor in the Institute for Health and Social Policy at McGill University in Montreal.
Pediatrician Dr. Robert Sege, who was not involved in the new research, said the “results are actually quite validating.” Sege is a professor of medicine at Tufts University School of Medicine that has served on the child abuse, injury and violence committees for the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Many argue that corporal punishment is required, Sege said, to “teach a child right from wrong, and if we don’t use corporal punishment, children will run wild.”
If that was correct, Sege said, “you would expect the international outcome to be more violence among youth once a country bans corporal punishment. That is not what the evidence here is saying.
Different results for girls and boys
According to Elgar, the study is one of the “largest cross-national analyzes of youth violence” done to date.
The analysis used data from two ongoing global surveys, the Health Behavior in School-aged Children and the Global School-based Health survey, which interview children ages 13 to 17 about various health and social topics such as sexual behavior, alcohol, drug and tobacco use and violence. Similar studies in other countries were included, as well.
Youth in those surveys were asked “In the past 12 months, how many times were you in a physical fight?” Frequent physical altercations were defined as four or more fights within that period.
Elgar and his team ended up with over 400,000 adolescent answers from a diverse mix of 88 counties that had full, partial or no bans on spanking or other forms of corporal punishment.
Corporal punishment was defined as an adult’s use of physical force to “correct or control” a child’s behavior. The punishment is meant to be painful but not to physically injure.
Of the 88 countries in the study, 30 had full bans on corporal punishment, meaning it is banned in both schools and homes. Those countries include New Zealand, Iceland, Portugal, Spain and a number of Scandinavian and Central and South American nations.
Thirty-eight countries, including the United States, the UK and Canada, had partial bans, in which such punishment is prohibited only in schools.
The remaining 20, which include Israel, Egypt and a number of African countries, had no ban in place at the time of the study.
“Boys in countries with a full ban showed 69% the rate of fighting found in countries with no ban,” Elgar said. “In girls, the gap was even larger, with 42% the rate of fighting found in countries with no ban.”
The lowest rates of violence were found in Costa Rica, Portugal, Finland, Honduras, Spain, New Zealand and Sweden, in that order.
Countries with partial bans saw no reduction in violence among boys, Elgar said, but there was a reduction in violence among girls: 56% the rate found in countries with no bans.
Why partial bans reduce fighting only in girls is not clear, Elgar said, but it may have something to do with how girls use more social and emotional bullying tactics than physical ones.
The researchers also tested the role of overall violence in a society by testing homicide rates and looking at weapon bans in schools, parental education programs and child maltreatment home visitation programs, but they found no effect.
They hypothesized that wealthier countries would have less youth violence but found a surprising result.
“Bans and levels of youth violence had no relationship to the wealth of a country,” Elgar said. “Some very low-income countries happen to be quite peaceful, while some richer nations, such as the US, UK and Canada, didn’t fare as well.”
One of the limitations of the study, he said, was the chicken and the egg problem: Did the bans result in less youth violence, or were countries that put bans in place already rejecting the concept of corporate punishment? That question is ripe for future study, he said.
Impact of corporal punishment
Spanking and other forms of correction are legal and socially acceptable in many countries.
Around the world, close to 300 million children 2 to 4 receive some type of physical discipline from their parents or caregivers on a regular basis, according to a 2017 UNICEF report.
In the United States, a 2011 study found that 70% of moms reported spanking their toddlers; older studies show that 80% of American children say they’ve been spanked by the time they reach the fifth grade.
Part of the reason for the continued use of spanking in the United States, experts say, is that many American believe that it’s not harmful and in fact necessary in child rearing.
A 2015 Child Trends study found that 76% of American men and two-thirds of American women agree that “It is sometimes necessary to discipline a child with a good hard spanking.”
Globally, about 1.1 billion caregivers view physical punishment as necessary to properly raise or educate a child, according to UNICEF data.
Yet an increasing amount of research shows that the end results of corporal punishment may not be positive.
“The point of disciplining a child is teaching that child self-regulation when Mom and Dad aren’t around,” Sege said. “Spanking doesn’t accomplish that.”
A meta-analysis of 75 studies on spanking found that it contributed to aggression, mental health and social esteem problems and antisocial behavior in children, which carried into adulthood.
As the new study indicates, Sege said, “when parents and schools model violence, it tends to increase the willingness of children to fight, to get physically violent themselves.”
“My hope is that studies like these will convince people spanking and other punishments are not necessary to raise well-mannered kids.”