Corporal punishment is a physical punishment which inflicts pain as justice for many different types of offenses. This punishment has been historically used in schools, the home, and the judicial system. While this is a general type of punishment, it is often most associated with children, and the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child defined it as “any punishment in which physical force is used and intended to cause some degree of pain or discomfort.”
Corporal Punishment Definition
Corporal punishment exists in varying degrees of severity, from spanking, often used on children and students, to whipping or caning. Currently, severe corporal punishment is largely outlawed.
In many countries, domestic corporal punishment is allowed as reasonable punishment, whereas in others, such as Sweden, all physical punishment of children is prohibited. In schools, physical punishment is outlawed in 128 countries, but is lawful in some situations in Australia, the Republic of South Korea, and the United States (where it is legal in 19 states).
Corporal Punishment in Schools
Corporal punishment has been used widely in schools for thousands of years for legal and religious reasons and has spawned old proverbs such as “spare the rod and spoil the child,” which is paraphrase of the biblical verse, “He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him.” However, this type of punishment is not limited to Christian-majority nations and has been a staple of school discipline across the globe.
The international push to outlaw corporal punishment in schools has been fairly recent. In Europe, the prohibition of physical punishment in schools began in the late 1990s, and in South America in the 2000s. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child occurred as recently as 2011.
In the United States, corporal punishment is mostly eradicated from private schools but is legal in public schools. In September of 2018, a school in the state of Georgia garnered national attention by sending home a “consent to paddle” form, informing parents of the renewed use of the paddle, a punishment which mostly disappeared in schools in the past few decades.
Corporal Punishment in the Home
Physical punishment in the home, however, is much more difficult to regulate. In regards to children, it has a similar historical precedent as this type of punishment in schools. According to a report by UNICEF, more than a quarter of caregivers in the world believe that physical punishment is a necessary aspect of the discipline. Many countries that expressly prohibit corporal punishment in schools have not outlawed it in the home.
The U.N. has adopted child abuse as a human rights abuse, but there is no strict international definition as to what separates abuse from discipline, making it more difficult to legislate. In the United States, the distinction is made on a state-by-state basis usually defining discipline as the use of appropriate and necessary force, whereas abuse is more severe. Some states do define exactly which techniques are not allowed (such as kicking, close-fisted striking, burning, etc). This distinction is fairly normalized internationally, though methods of discipline vary by culture, region, geography, and age.
Corporal punishment has also existed in the home historically as a method to discipline servants and slaves. Worldwide, slaves and servants have been whipped, beaten, and burned for alleged wrongdoings. This type of punishment is still domestic because the method of discipline was fully within the control of the boss or owner.
Judicial Corporal Punishment
While it is less practiced today, physical punishment of criminals, known as judicial corporal punishment, is still in effect. Judicial corporal punishment is now outlawed in most countries in the Western Hemisphere but is legal in some other regions, and the most common punishment is whipping or caning. The main difference between this type of punishment and the others explained above is that judicial corporal punishment is systematic. It is not an individual choice of the person in power, but a regulated punishment that is generally uniform across punishers. Therefore, although there is widespread violence by police and prison guards against those suspected or guilty of a crime, it cannot be considered judicial corporal punishment because it is not an officially sanctioned punishment.
Medieval methods of corporal punishment were intended to torture as well as punish. Thievery was punished by amputating the hand of the thief so the public was aware of his crime. Additionally, gossips were put in a device called a bridle, which was a mask-like object that stuck spikes in the mouth of the offender which prevented them from speaking or even closing their mouth fully. Other punishments such as being suspended in cages or placed inside stocks were intended to shame, but cause mild to moderate discomfort as a side effect.
Later, into the 18th and 19th century, forms of punishment specifically in the West became less severe and more focused on immediate pain as opposed to torture or public humiliation (with the exception of the U.S. colonies' famous tar and feathering). Caning, whipping, and flogging was the most common, but more serious punishments such as castration were still used for crimes of a sexual nature.
By the middle of the 20th century, most Western nations, and many others throughout the globe outlawed corporal punishment. In states where this form of punishment is still legal, anything that constitutes torture is illegal under international humanitarian law. Regardless of the legality, there are also different degrees to which it is enforced. Therefore, while it may be outlawed nationally, some tribes or local communities may continue to practice it.
While corporal punishment is phasing out of use legally and socially, it is still a tradition and is passed down through generations regardless of legality. It is an especially difficult practice to control because, with the exception of judicial punishment, it is often individual and in the domestic sphere where there is less governmental oversight. However, greater oversight, especially in schools, as well as improved conflict and resolution training in the home, can help ensure that corporal punishment is not the primary method of punishment.
- Gershoff, E. T., & Font, S. A. (2016). Corporal Punishment in U.S. Public Schools: Prevalence, Disparities in Use, and Status in State and Federal Policy. Social policy report, 30, 1.
- Arafa, Mohamed A. and Burns, Jonathan, Judicial Corporal Punishment in the United States? Lessons from Islamic Criminal Law for Curing the Ills of Mass Incarceration (January 25, 2016). 25 Indiana International & Comparative Law Review 3, 2015. Available at SSRN: //ssrn.com/abstract=2722140