The Ethics of Corporal Punishment For Children

Spare the rod, and avoid a restraining order...

The societal approval pendulum has swung so far away from physically punishing children that a formal spanking risks an accusation of child abuse. The Hawaii Supreme Court, in the case of Hamilton ex rel. Lethem v. Lethem,  in which a retraining order was issued against a father accused of abusing his 15-year-old daughter, pronounced guidelines for determining what constitutes reasonable and moderate corporal punishment of a child by a parent, ruling that such punishment is reasonable (and a Constitutional right ) when..

  • “…the parent’s discipline is reasonably related to the purpose of safeguarding or promoting the welfare of the minor,”
  • The punishment properly takes into account the nature of the misbehavior,
  •  …the child’s age and size, and
  • …the nature and propriety of the force used.

I would add to the court’s legal standard that punishing a child in anger is always unethical, because it amount to retaliation, vengeance or loss of self-control. Corporal punishment of a child should never be personal, and should arise out of love, not fury. The Hawaii Supreme Court’s standards are consistent with this.

The court directed the lower court to apply its standard to the facts of the case. In that instance, there seems little doubt that the parent was in fact abusive. You can read about the case here.

[Huzzah to the Volokh Conspiracy for the story.]

31 thoughts on “The Ethics of Corporal Punishment For Children

  1. “…punishing a child in anger is always unethical, because it amount[s] to retaliation, vengeance or loss of self-control. Corporal punishment of a child should never be personal, and should arise out of love, not fury.”

    I agree wholeheartedly. Further, in light of the recent viral video – in which a father literally takes a gun and shoots his daughter’s laptop computer – punishment for a child’s publication of grievances against parents should never include exhibitionism of parental disapproval; doing so is simply doubling-down on violation of the Golden Rule. And saying that doesn’t even begin to address a parent’s responsibility for exemplifying and teaching children about force(s), uses of force and reasonable uses of force, which are at the heart of effective corporal punishment.

    • I watched that video. People who equate that with corporal punishment or threatening violence against a child are being deceitful. He states quite clearly that she will be grounded from her electronic devices and this one is finally and unconditionally gone. He does not threaten to shoot her. There is no use of force reasonable or unreasonable and no corporal punishment. The father was quite calm through most of the video. The only time any emotion came out was when he was talking about the daughter calling their friend “the housekeeper”.

      I did notice that he was very careful not to hit the hard drive. Spare 2.5″ hard drives have a lot of uses. Good gun control.

      • “People who equate that with corporal punishment or threatening violence against a child are being deceitful.”

        I wasn’t equating what was in the video with anything but exhibitionism. “Drama queen” is a commonly known and used term. What that dad did is drama duke behavior – “royally overreactive” – and then, the world is supposed to be proud of him for that, like it’s something exemplary, and every dad henceforth should do exactly the same when one of his kids writes a snotty note? I understand Harris and Klebold, the two guys who rampaged at Columbine High School, were also calm while they did their shooting, including of themselves. Gun control, indeed.

          • If you haven’t seen it, then don’t make pronouncements about it. You wrote yourself “And saying that doesn’t even begin to address a parent’s responsibility for exemplifying and teaching children about force(s), uses of force and reasonable uses of force, which are at the heart of effective corporal punishment.” His video had no corporal punishment explicit or implied. In fact, he listed the punishment explicitly, and it was not corporal. You did indeed bring corporal punishment into it. Then, you go on to imply that the father is similar to serial killers. “I understand Harris and Klebold, the two guys who rampaged at Columbine High School, were also calm while they did their shooting, including of themselves.”

            • I did not need, and do not need, to see the video to make pronouncements about it. Hearing the audio from it that was shared on the radio was enough. His video was about punishment; third party description of it, plus hearing the audio, are sufficient to conclude accurately that the man is closer in his state of mind to Harris and Klebold than to an everyday, exemplary dad who’s dealing with a selfish, indiscrete daughter. If that’s his idea of reasonable use of a firearm, I hope the video ends up costing him whatever concealed carry license he might have – not to mention serve as evidence in citing and punishing him for some other firearms violation. I wonder if his hollow-point bullets require him to have some additional prior permit?

              • Your conclusions do not follow from the evidence. I try to be stoic when meting out punishment and criticism. It’s not because I’m a sociopath who doesn’t feel; it’s because me feelings are irrelevant to the punishment and criticism.

                • Tgt, I recommend that you trust your feelings more. Of course there is risk of error in allowing one’s feelings to be relevant when deciding about punishment, but there is also risk of error in dismissing feelings as having no rational and evidentiary basis. I have enough evidence from what I know of the laptop-shooting dad to conclude with stoic fairness that I would prefer not to have him for a next-door neighbor, at least. There is also evidence enough to note a “red flag:” that is, to suspect that the daughter has already become much like her dad – self-absorbed, lacking in judgment and self-righteous to the “sociopathic” point. I just hope and pray there is never another incidence of anyone discharging a firearm on that family’s property for any reason related to conflict between persons, regardless of whether or not mere property is involved.

  2. It’s often when an adult gives in to anger that a simple corrective spanking turns into a beating. The two are not synonymous. A spanking is a parent’s way of imposing a level of distress upon an errant child in order to, 1) restore in the child’s mind the reality of parental authority and, 2) to correct wanton misbehavior or a pattern of destructive behavior when all else has failed. A beating, on the other hand, is an act of violence directed at inflicting physical injury upon another. A few firm swats across a parent’s knee and a gentle reconciliation immediately afterward can work wonders and save any amount of grief in the future for all concerned.

    • Well said, Sir. Effective corporal punishment (there is such a thing, I am absolutely convinced) provides beneficial distress, delivered in beneficence…correction aimed at restoration, plus education aimed at prevention of repeated, further and worse misconduct. It is comprised of appropriate use of reasonable force, with a place, timing and manner that asserts a natural authority’s authority, reinforces that authority’s credibility, and helps to inculcate knowledge and understanding of what is power and what are just and fair exercises and applications of power. That kind of discipline is a subliminally constructive influence on the thought processes of many persons who need help in attaining maturity.

      I could go on with examples of one of my siblings and one of my kids unlike me who, past a certain very young age, actually were exceptions – not responsive to corporal punishment. I’ll just say, it is especially important for a parent who is aware of his own anger management issues to recognize that corporal punishment is not a one-manner-that-fits-all method of disciplining children.

      • It is comprised of appropriate use of reasonable force

        This statement shows the problem with your argument. First, you’re begging the question with the “appropriate use” qualifier. Second, you have an undefined and undefinable term “reasonable force”.

        • There is a “problem with my argument” because of undefined and undefinable terms? Well then, I guess, there goes “establishment” and “free exercise” too. I hope we’ll both keep trying to hold on to “social justice.” Even if we never agree on “pseudo-science.”

          • I like how you ignored that you were begging the question. Do you have a response to that, or are you admitting that your argument is invalid?

            Also, I call BS on your comparisons. “Psuedo-science” is well defined, “free exercise” (as used in the constitution) has been defined through court cases, and “social justice” is normally defined in context. I’m not speaking to “establishment” as that has too many possible antecedents for me to do it justice.

            • It’s not a question of “social justice”, Tiggy. It’s one of parental love and responsibility. I submit that it’s a rare child indeed that hasn’t needed a few swats on the bottom now and then to get his head straight and learn that some behaviors are unacceptable. There’s a big difference between correction and violence, as I explained.

              • I didn’t ever claim coporal punishment had anything to do with social justice. It’s like you’re just reading buzzwords and making up your own meaning.

                I submit that your decision that most children need to be spanked is rationalized BS.

      • Why? Spanking a child to make him understand that conduct is wrong and serious is one thing; spanking him to inflict pain and inspire fear out of anger, or worse, because a parent likes hitting his kids, is something else. One is love and responsible parenting; the other is cruelty.

        I was spanked by my dad exactly twice in my life—once for urinating in the back yard when I was 5 and once for running into the street without looking for cars. I got the message, though the actual spanking was more indignity than anything else.

        Now I pee in the street, and run into the back yard without looking for cars….

        • The issue was that there are no bounds. As defined by SMP, anything is okay so long as it’s “a parent’s way of imposing a level of distress upon an errant child in order to, 1) restore in the child’s mind the reality of parental authority and, 2) to correct wanton misbehavior or a pattern of destructive behavior when all else has failed.”

          He claimed it for “spanking”, but I see no reason why that logic can’t justify punching a kid in the face… for their own good. He’s admitted that the behavior would be abuse under other circumstances, so why is spanking different from face punching? Or burning with a cigar? The state of the parent’s mind turns abusive behavior into perfectly fine corporal punishment. I can’t abide by that.

            • I should also qualify that when it comes to our response to a particular behavior, intent does factor in. I think honestly mistaken abuse makes someone less culpable than intentional abuse.

          • Nonsense, Tiggy. Spankings are performed on the bottom for exactly that reason. Again, it’s the difference between spanking and beating. Beating is the deliberate infliction of physical INJURY. Try and wrap your mind around the concept. Nor is the purpose of spanking to create terror. You can’t lead and parent a child in such a manner. Respect and discipline are, however, essential concepts to the raising of a well-adjusted child. Spanking is a virtually unavoidable option in this endeavor.

            • Spankings are performed on the bottom for what reason? So people can’t see the abuse? So it hurts to sit down?

              Since when is a bruised ass not injury, while a bruised face is?

              I don’t see why a spanking has anything to do with respect or discipline. I don’t respect child abusers.

              I think your last statement says more about you then it does about reality.

  3. The Hawaii supreme court created an unconstitutionally vague and self referential standard. Propriety of the force determines whether or not it was proper? Seriously? This isn’t getting laughed at?

  4. Corporal punishment can be sexual. For parents, teachers, kids, and witnesses. This is gross, but it needs to be part of the conversation because leaving it out prevents a whole huge aspect of reality from being acknowledged. You can’t reasonably punish a kid who sexualizes it–there’s no “right way” to do that–and there’s no way to tell which ones will. Be aware, also, that those of us who do are VERY aware of it, including when we’re very little (like preschool-aged). You can’t do this to kids and not help them cope with the potential fallout if it turns into a much bigger problem than anyone ever intended or realized.

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