March 2005

An historical perspective from USA

"I've tried the switch but he laughs through the tears: The use and conceptualisation of corporal punishment during the machine age, 1924-39", Davis PW, Chandler JL, LaRossa R, Child Abuse and Neglect 2004 28: 1291-10. The authors examine 147 letters to Angelo Patri (1876-1965), a popular child-rearing expert during the inter-war years. Patri's opposition to corporal punishment was well-known.  The letters were written mostly by middle-class parents with everyday worries about children.  A very wide range of child behaviours was seen as deserving physical punishment.

Of the 147 letters, 49 took a general position on the issue of corporal punishment, 44 expressed disapproval and only five expressed approval.

A summary of the results states, "People who sought advice emphasised the practical significance of corporal punishment over and above the idea that it violated children's rights to be protected from harm.  One in four cited conflicts with others about corporal punishment.  Generally, children were perceived as frail, defiant or feral.  Rarely were they seen as devilish or, conversely, innocent.  Children's disobedience and disrespect were cited more than other behaviours as reasons for corporal punishment".

Part of the discussion in this article is significant for those trying to establish a societal standard where physical punishment is not the norm.

The authors say, "It seems that almost anything a child did or did not do could be considered serious enough to warrant corporal punishment.  ... Perhaps the very existence of a form of punishment virtually guarantees that it will be used.  ... With corporal punishment as an option, parents will endeavour to determine which behaviours necessitate its use.  Ultimately it may not be the child's misbehaviour that necessarily triggers the punishment, but the parents' framing of the behaviour that leads to the use of force.  If framed as such, the smallest infraction on the part of children can be deemed ‘serious' enough to ‘compel' parents to strike.  Given the strength of the ‘spare the rod' ideology other frames, for example, the idea that hitting violates children's rights, are not likely to be considered or applied".