In a new study conducted in Tanzania, where physical
punishment is considered normal, primary school students who were
beaten by teachers or family members in the name of discipline
tended to show more behavior problems, not fewer, the researchers
"Parents aim to educate children through corporal punishment, but
instead of learning good social behaviors, the beatings often have
the opposite effect," said Tobias Hecker, a psychologist at the
University of Konstanz, who led the study.
"Some people still believe, despite an overwhelming body of
evidence, that corporal punishment in some cultures won't result in
as many negative effects," George Holden told Reuters Health.
"But, as this study shows, it's difficult to find support for that
argument," said Holden, a professor of psychology at Southern
Methodist University in Dallas, who was not involved in the study.
Past research, mainly in industrialized countries, has found that
children and teens who experience corporal punishment may
"externalize" their negative experiences in the form of bad behavior
and emotional problems, Hecker and his colleagues write in the
journal Child Abuse & Neglect.
To test whether the same is true in a culture where physical
punishment is the norm and the law allows teachers to use it, the
researchers interviewed 409 children between grades 2 and 7 at one
private school in Tanzania, on the east coast of Africa.
Participants averaged 10.5 years old. Ninety-five percent of the
boys and girls said they had been physically punished at least once
in their lifetime by a teacher. The same percentage reported
physical punishment from parents or caregivers.
The majority of children, 82 percent, had been beaten with sticks,
belts or other objects and 66 percent had been punched, slapped or
Nearly one-quarter of the kids had experienced punishment so severe
that they were injured.
"Children learn aggressive behavior and become more aggressive
toward other children," Hecker said.
Within the group, 21 percent of the boys and girls showed aggression
problems through affirmative answers to questions like, "Have you
ever taken things from others against their will?"
Nine percent of children had higher-than-normal levels of
hyperactivity. About 11 percent of the kids showed less empathetic
behavior than peers who had not experienced physical punishment.
"From this study, it's difficult to generalize the results to milder
forms of punishment, like spanking," said Christopher Ferguson of
Stetson University in Florida.
[to top of second column]
"There's a difference between a parent who spanks a child in the
context of a loving family and explains what the spanking is for
compared with the parent who starts swatting because of some other
non-related situation," said Ferguson, who was not involved in the
"The context is probably important but we really haven't dealt with
it yet," he added.
Thirty-four countries in the world have laws against corporal
punishment, according to the Global Initiative to End All Corporal
Punishment of Children. In 1979, Sweden became the first country to
make corporal punishment illegal.
"Certainly everyone wants to see physical abuse eliminated as much
as possible," said Robert Larzelere of Oklahoma State University in
But the new research can only point to a relationship between
behavioral problems and physical force for punishment — not a causal
link, said Larzelere, who was not part of the study.
He pointed out that the researchers did not measure the children's
behavior before corporal punishment occurred.
Hecker and his team acknowledge in their report that their study
does not establish cause and effect. It could be argued that
children with behavioral problems may be more likely to experience
At a minimum, they note, even if that is the case, their results
show that corporal punishment does not improve children's behavior.
Hecker said he hopes this new study will help bring about awareness
in places like Tanzania, where corporal punishment still is
"What people usually see after a spanking or beating is immediate
compliance," Hecker said. "But in the long-term, they are really
instilling fear in the child, and children do act out of fear but not
out of respect."
"I think the most effective program to prevent violence is to focus
on positive parenting," he said.
Child Abuse & Neglect, online Dec.
[© 2014 Thomson Reuters. All rights
Copyright 2014 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published,
broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.