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Free Youth Now: An Introduction to Youth Liberation

Saturday, 24 October 2020

To end violence against children, let’s start by making it illegal

Currently, parents in all 50 states and school staff in 19 states,[1] are legally allowed to inflict violence on children as a form of discipline, also known as “corporal punishment.”

At home, millions of children each year experience corporal punishment, and most American adults think that it is an appropriate form of discipline.[2]

At school, more than 106,000 children were physically punished at public schools during the 2013-14 school year.[3] And black students, boys, and disabled students are physically punished at a greater rate than their classmates.[4]

This needs to change.

This is not a protectionist argument. It is not based on paternalistic notions of children as "vulnerable" or "innocent" or being "our greatest resource" or "society's future." 

We must end state-privileged violence against children because children are people with human rights. People of all ages have the right to be free from violence. 

While this practice is commonly known as “corporal punishment,” to even accept this phrasing is problematic. If this was done to another adult, it would simply be assault and battery and/or domestic violence. As the legal scholar Samantha Godwin puts it:

This phrasing… “normalizes violence against children that would not be tolerated were it directed against adults. Referring to violence against children as “punishment” implies that the violent act is committed as a potentially legitimately deserved sanction for the child’s behavior. The phrase itself is an expression that implies victim blaming; it presumes the potential or actual lawfulness of the perpetrator. To speak of violence against children as “corporal punishment” begs the question of whether such violence is legitimate by presuming that some private violence is legitimate punishment.”[5]

What is commonly known as “corporal punishment” is a state-privileged battery against young people, and we should recognize this injustice. So-called “corporal punishment” advances no compelling state interest and only serves to oppress children.[6]

While I am not aware of constitutional challenges to corporal punishment in the home, corporal punishment in schools has been upheld under federal law. In 1977, in the infamous case Ingraham v. Wright, the US Supreme Court found that the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, did not apply to school students, and that teachers could punish children without parental permission.[7] Many scholars agree that this was a travesty of a decision that needs to be overturned.[8]

Eliminating state-privileged violence against children would be a huge step forward in recognizing the rights of children to bodily autonomy and safety. It would also help to prevent child abuse and change the attitudes of parents towards their children. In 2018, the majority of perpetrators of child abuse and neglect (77.5 percent) in the U.S. were parents of their victims.[9] Continuing to give parents the legal privilege to batter their children only worsens this problem.

Moreover, the U.S. lags behind many other countries on this issue. Sweden banned all forms of violence against children in 1979. Currently, there are 60 countries that have banned corporal punishment in the home, and 132 countries that have banned it in schools.[10]

There is conclusive evidence that corporal punishment is harmful to children and provides no real benefits.[11] The World Health Organization (WHO) has recognized over 200 studies which associate corporal punishment with a wide range of negative health, developmental and behavioral outcomes for children that can follow them into adulthood.[12] These include, but are not limited to, death and serious physical injury, mental and indirect physical harm, impaired cognitive development, increased aggression, violent and antisocial behavior and severely damaged parent-child relationships.[13]

And eliminating corporal punishment has proven benefits on a societal scale. One study looked at 88 different countries and found that instituting a national “prohibition of corporal punishment is associated with less youth violence.”[14]

However, such evidence is not needed in order to know that the practice of corporal punishment must be ended. It is violence against children, and it violates children’s rights to human dignity and bodily integrity. It is also incompatible with liberal notions of equal protection under the law.

Many parents object to eliminating corporal punishment on the grounds that it would lead to the dissolution of the family or inability to “control” children. But the end of husbands’ legal privilege to beat and rape their wives didn’t result in the destruction of the family; there is no reason why ending state privileged parental battery of children would lead to a different outcome. Moreover, the number of parents and teachers that discipline children without using physical violence show how misguided these objections are.

Of course, challenges will remain even after corporal punishment is formally made illegal. There must also be meaningful enforcement and a change in cultural attitudes surrounding violence against children. However, formally eliminating state-privileged battery of children is an important starting point. To this end, many organizations have been working to end legally privileged violence against children, including dozens of groups in the U.S.[15] Still, the laws remain on the books and millions of children continue to experience battery as a form of punishment. There is much work to be done.

To take action, you can check to see if your local school board has a ban on corporal punishment. If not, advocate for one. You can also contact local elected officials and ask them to support a ban on corporal punishment in public schools in your state and ask them to support a ban on corporal punishment by parents. If you are a parent, you can commit to nonviolent parenting strategies and learn more about the alternatives. And finally, we can all engage in conversations to build awareness around the issue of state-privileged violence against children.

If you have other ideas, comments, or questions, please leave them below! 



[1] 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 report30, 1.; See also https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/13/us/corporal-punishment-school-tennessee.html

[2] http://www.endcorporalpunishment.org/wp-content/uploads/country-reports/USA.pdf (citing: Ipsos Poll Conducted for Reuters: Corporal Punishment Topline (2014)).

[3] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/13/us/corporal-punishment-school-tennessee.html

(Citing the latest data available from the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights).

[4] https://www.gao.gov/assets/700/690828.pdf

[5] Godwin, S. (2011). Children's oppression, rights, and liberation. Nw. Interdisc. L. Rev.4, 247, 289.

[6] Godwin, S. (2011). Children's oppression, rights, and liberation. Nw. Interdisc. L. Rev.4, 247.

[7] Ingraham v Wright, 430 U.S. 651 (1977)

[8] See, e.g., Woodhouse, B. B. (2010). Hidden in plain sight: The tragedy of children's rights from Ben Franklin to Lionel Tate (Vol. 8). Princeton University Press.

[9] Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2020). Child maltreatment 2018: Summary of key findings. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Children's Bureau. Available at https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubPDFs/canstats.pdf.

[10] https://endcorporalpunishment.org/countdown/

[11] See Gershoff, E. T., & Bitensky, S. H. (2007). The case against corporal punishment of children: Converging evidence from social science research and international human rights law and implications for US public policy. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law13(4), 231. See also Godsoe, C. (2017). Redefining parental rights: The case of corporal punishment. Const. Comment.32, 281.

[12] https://www.who.int/topics/violence/Global-Initiative-to-End-All-Corporal-Punishment-of-Children-GAP2-violence.pdf (citing Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children (2015), Corporal punishment of children: review of research on its impact and associations, Working paper, London: Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children).

[13] Id.

[14] Elgar FJ, Donnelly PD, Michaelson V, et al. Corporal punishment bans and physical fighting in adolescents: an ecological study of 88 countries. BMJ Open 2018.

[15] For a list of these groups, see: https://www.endhitting.org/partnering-organizations

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