Corporal Punishment, Physical Abuse, and the Burden of Proof: Reply to
Baumrind, Larzelere, and Cowan (2002), Holden (2002), and Parke (2002)
Elizabeth Thompson Gershoff
This reply explores issues reviewed in comments by D. Baumrind, R. E. Larzelere, and P. A. Cowan
(2002), G. W. Holden (2002), and R. D. Parke (2002) on E. T. Gershoff (2002) including how corporal
punishment should be defined, how corporal punishment can be distinguished from physical abuse, and
whether established associations with child behaviors are best thought of as parent- or child-driven
effects. In light of their comments, Gershoff herein revises the process– context model, revisits the issue
of whether current knowledge is sufficient to condemn the use of parental corporal punishment, and
concludes that lack of demonstrated positive effects and the potential links to physical abuse argue for
discouraging corporal punishment in favor of alternative methods of discipline.
In my original article (Gershoff, 2002), I was concerned with
understanding whether parental corporal punishment was associated
with various child behaviors and experiences and how such
associations might be mediated or moderated by child-, parent-,
family-, and society-level factors. Given the range of opinions
surrounding corporal punishment of children, both in society at
large and within the discipline of psychology, I expect my article
will elicit varied reactions both about the quality of research on
corporal punishment as well as about the place corporal punishment
has as a child management technique in society. To begin
discussion of my article, the editors of this journal invited three
comments from prominent research psychologists with expertise in
the area of parent socialization and punishment of children.
The comments by Baumrind, Larzelere, and Cowan (2002) were
primarily focused on critiquing the methods underlying the metaanalyses
I presented. Holden (2002) presented a succinct review of
the meta-analytic findings as well as detailed discussions of aspects
of my process– context model that require further explication.
Drawing from his considerable work in the area of punishment,
Parke (2002) first brought readers up to date with an expert
summary of the history of research on punishment. He then explored
issues ranging from whether studying what effects corporal
punishment has on children is the “right” research question to the
need for expanding research on punishment to incorporate appreciations
of typologies and of family systems. Taken together, the
three commentaries by these experts in the field of parent socialization
and punishment provide valuable scrutiny and extensions
of the original article. Given the range of important and valid
points raised by each of the commentators, I focus on several
themes that emerged across the commentaries rather than addressing
them in turn.
Defining and Operationalizing Corporal Punishment
Each of the commentators expressed differing levels of concern
regarding the behaviors I identified as constituting corporal punishment,
and particularly with how they are distinguished from
physically abusive techniques. I consider these overlapping issues
What Corporal Punishment Is (And Is Not)
As I noted in my original article, an obstacle to research synthesis
on corporal punishment is the variety of definitions and
operationalizations of the practice (see Table 1, Gershoff, 2002).
To select studies for inclusion in the meta-analyses, I used the
definition proposed by Straus (1994) that “corporal punishment is
the use of physical force with the intention of causing a child to
experience pain but not injury for the purposes of correction or
control of the child’s behavior” (p. 4; see also Straus, 2001).
Baumrind et al. (2002) would restrict the study of disciplinary
corporal punishment to that which is “the more moderate application
of normative spanking within the context of a generally
supportive parent– child relationship” (pp. 580–581). I disagree
with their definition on two grounds. First, although a supportive
parent– child relationship is obviously the ideal, there is in fact a
range in the quality of parent– child relationships, and it is important
to study the effects of corporal punishment as moderated by
this entire range of relationships. Indeed, one would expect that
corporal punishment might be more likely to have positive effects
on children when delivered by supportive parents, but in fact it is
not known how the range of relationship quality moderates the
effects of corporal punishment. Do children with rejecting parents
who comply with corporal punishment out of fear (such as has
been observed with abusive parents, see Crittenden & DiLalla,
1988) look on the surface to be as compliant as children with
supportive parents who comply out of feelings of reciprocity
(Maccoby, 1980; Maccoby & Martin, 1983)? Although the desired
Editor’s Note. W. Andrew Collins served as the action editor for this
I extend sincere thanks to George W. Holden for his comments on the
revised process– context model.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Elizabeth
Thompson Gershoff, National Center for Children in Poverty, Columbia
University, Mailman School of Public Health, 154 Haven Avenue, New
York, New York 10032. E-mail: email@example.com
Psychological Bulletin Copyright 2002 by the American Psychological Association, Inc.
2002, Vol. 128, No. 4, 602–611 0033-2909/02/$5.00 DOI: 10.1037//0033-2909.128.4.602
outcome of compliance is present in both cases, in one it is at the
sacrifice of a supportive and nurturing parent–child relationship. It
thus is important for researchers to study how all types of parent–
child relationships moderate the effects of corporal punishment,
and thus I argue researchers should not restrict study of corporal
punishment to that which occurs in supportive parenting contexts.
Second, Baumrind et al.’s (2002) assumption that only spanks or
slaps using an open hand are normative is erroneous. According to
the results of a 1995 Gallup survey of more than 900 parents
reported by Straus and Stewart (1999), 28.4% of parents of 2- to
4-year-olds and 28.5% of parents of 5- to 8-year-olds reported
using an object to spank the bottoms of their children. Thus, more
than one in four parents admit to using an object to hit their
children in the name of discipline; clearly, using objects as implements
of corporal punishment is not practiced by only a few rogue
parents but rather by a substantial portion of them. Furthermore,
the use of corporal punishment in public schools that is condoned
by parents, lawmakers, and their constituents in 23 states (National
Coalition to Abolish Corporal Punishment in the Schools, 2001)
and is supported by the U.S. Supreme Court (Ingraham v. Wright,
1977) is meted out primarily with wooden paddles (Hyman, 1995),
demonstrating a prevailing acceptance of objects to deliver punishment.
On the basis of these facts, I included spanking with
objects in my operationalization of corporal punishment so that I
might analyze the range of behaviors used by large numbers of
parents as punishment. Baumrind and colleagues may counter that
the use of objects should be considered overly harsh; although I
might agree in the abstract, it is unfortunately a relatively common
occurrence and thus qualifies as normative.
At this point, I would also like to clarify the indexing of severity
of corporal punishment for the meta-analyses. Severity was captured
in two separate ways, a distinction that may not have been
clear. In Table 3 of my original article (Gershoff, 2002), I included
as a potential moderator how the investigators of each study
indexed corporal punishment, namely as frequency, severity, both
frequency and severity, whether corporal punishment was ever
used in the child’s life, or when used in an observational study.
Examples are as follows: frequency, on a scale from 1 (“never uses
physical punishment”) to 6 (“major technique of controlling the
child”); severity, on a scale from 1 (“one spank”) to 7 (“10 or more
spanks”); ever used in child’s life, 1 (“have used spanking”) or 0
(“have never spanked my child”); or when used in an observational
study, 1 (“used spanking while observed”) or 0 (“did not use
spanking while observed”). In other words, this variable captured
the scale by which parents (or observers) described the punishment
behavior; this moderator variable says nothing about how severe
the corporal punishment was but solely whether researchers asked
“how often,” “how much,” “have you ever,” or “when you.” A
code of “severity” for this moderator variable does not indicate
that a given study included corporal punishment that was overly
harsh or severe, only that parents were asked about severity and
not about frequency. Determining how researchers operationalize
corporal punishment is important because it suggests how they
think corporal punishment might have its effects. Specifically, one
investigator may believe that the number of spanking episodes a
child experiences during a week may be the determining factor,
whereas a second investigator might think that how hard a parent
strikes a child within any given episode, no matter how often in a
given time period, determines its effects on children.
Whether overly harsh or severe methods should be excluded
because they bordered on abusive was determined through a separate
process by which I and another coder rated each type of
corporal punishment for whether it would always have a risk of
severe injury to the child. As I stated in my original article,
examples of corporal punishment techniques thus excluded were
“whipping, punching, slamming against the wall, tying up” (Bryan
& Freed, 1982, p. 79), “angry abuse, slaps, or beatings” (McCord,
McCord, & Howard, 1961, p. 83), and “spanking, slapping, shaking,
shoving, yanking, kicking, beating severely with object (leaving
a mark on the body), hitting firmly but not severely (no mark
is left on the body), pulling hair, twisting an ear, making the child
kneel on hard objects, making the child stand for a long time,
pinching, shaking” (Rohner, Bourque, & Elordi, 1996, p. 845).
Baumrind et al. (2002) reviewed the studies that composed the
meta-analyses and concluded that many of the studies included
“overly severe” corporal punishment (their figure is 65.4% of
the 52 studies included in the aggression composite for the moderator
analyses). There are three main reasons underlying our
disagreements regarding the operationalizations of corporal punishment.
A great number of the discrepancies are accounted for by
my decision to include use of objects (e.g., Holmes & Robins,
1988; Caesar, 1988). In addition, a number of the studies to which
they objected (e.g., Engfer & Schneewind, 1982; Mahoney, Donnelly,
Lewis, & Maynard, 2000; Muller, 1996) based their operationalization
of corporal punishment on the widely used Conflict
Tactics Scale (CTS; Straus, 1999), which does indeed range from
spanking and slapping to more severe techniques. I resolved to
include studies that used the CTS because it is so frequently used
(in more than 100 studies, Yodanis, Hill, & Straus, 2001) and
indeed is the closest thing to a standard measure of corporal
punishment; to omit it would mean to eliminate a large number of
studies across the 11 meta-analyses. Finally, Baumrind et al. also
objected to the use of studies that used the term beat (e.g., Riggs
& O’Leary, 1996), although this term continues to be used by
parents throughout the United States to describe “everyday” corporal
punishment (see Davis, 1996).
Holden (2002) rightly distinguished between discipline (instruction
and guidance) and punishment (response suppression) and
asserted that I conflated the two. I did not intend to do so and rather
view punishments (including corporal ones) as means of achieving
discipline if (and a strong emphasis on the if) they are paired with
parental induction and reasoning. In other words, punishments
alone cannot constitute discipline, nor can they be expected to
achieve long-term moral internalization. However, punishments
can serve an important role in evoking sufficient arousal in the
child which, according to attribution theorists (e.g., Hoffman,
1983; Lepper, 1983), is necessary to induce children to behave
appropriately before and until they have morally internalized reasons
for doing so.
Throughout his response, Parke (2002) referred to punishment
and corporal punishment synonymously. I wish to clarify that
corporal punishment is but one form of punishment; putting children
in time-out and taking away their privileges are also punishments
but do not involve the child experiencing physical pain. All
punishments are not the same in their effectiveness in a given
situation or with a particular child or in their potential for unintended
RESPONSE TO COMMENTS 603
Distinguishing Punishment From Abuse
As each of the commentators noted, distinguishing normative
corporal punishment from physical abuse is a crucial research
(and, I argue, humanitarian) issue. This is of particular concern to
Baumrind et al. (2002), who argued that “normative” spanking
should be accepted with only abusive techniques prohibited. Consistent
with the views of many experts (Gelles & Straus, 1988; Gil,
1973; Graziano, 1994; Kadushin & Martin, 1981; Wolfe, 1987;
Zigler & Hall, 1989), I assert that corporal punishment can be
transformed into abuse under certain conditions. Many instances of
physical abuse look much like corporal punishment in their manifestations;
indeed, both often involve hitting or striking children
either with parents’ hands or with objects. When this hitting is
restricted to several slaps on a young child’s behind with an open
hand for the intended purposes of behavior modification (what is
defined as spanking in the consensus statements of the pediatrics
conference attended by Baumrind and Larzelere; Friedman &
Schonberg, 1996), it is considered normative corporal punishment
and a part of appropriate parenting. However, as these consensus
statements acknowledge, the same dimensions that characterize
“normative” corporal punishment can, when taken to extremes,
make hitting a child look much more like abuse than punishment.
In Table 1, I provide examples to illustrate how the behavior
underlying corporal punishment and physical abuse is often at the
core the same and to hint at the difficulty of drawing a line along
the continuum of parenting behaviors to distinguish abuse from
punishment. It is clearly difficult to determine where along the
continuum from 3 spanks to 30 the line between punishment and
abuse should be drawn. Unfortunately, child protective services
workers and judges in family courts across the country must make
such distinctions on a daily basis, and the law does not provide
them much assistance. As I outlined in my original article, the laws
of individual states distinguishing corporal punishment from abuse
are all too often vague or arbitrary (e.g., in Idaho, abuse is that
which is “in excess of that required for reasonable disciplinary
purposes,” in California, “unlawful corporal punishment or injury”;
Holden (2002) noted two research problems related to the issue
of distinguishing severe from normative corporal punishment,
namely that some studies do not ask specifically about overly
harsh techniques and that parents may self-report less harsh corporal
punishment. Both of these design problems stem from a very
real concern, both on the part of the researcher and of the parent
participants, regarding researchers’ ethical obligations to report
suspected child abuse to authorities. Without question, this requirement
is an important and necessary means of protecting the
welfare of children (Putnam, Liss, & Landsverk, 1996). However,
parents who are fearful of being reported to child protection
authorities may underreport their use of harsh techniques rather
than risk identification as an abusive parent. Even decidedly nonabusive
parents may underreport their use of what they fear may be
overly harsh techniques out of shame or fear. Concerns regarding
whether and how to report data based on this obligation to report
abuse as well as regarding the potential for reported families to be
dropped from the research design undoubtedly lead many researchers
to avoid asking abuse-related questions at all. Thus, any
references to corporal punishment may be limited to spank or slap,
terms accepted as normative in everyday parenting and parlance, to
avoid the reporting issue altogether.
Pressures both on parents and on researchers conspire to create
an unspoken “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to harsh and potentially
abusive disciplinary practices, such that harsh techniques are
underreported. This circumstance impacts both notions of what
behaviors are normative (e.g., if all parents are spanking with an
object, researchers may be less likely to label it as overly harsh)
and researchers’ ability to distinguish the effects of spanking
children on the bottom from repeated, abusive beating with a cord.
Research is needed to address the question of whether mandated
reporting affects parents’ willingness to report corporal punishment.
Primary Versus Secondary Effects
Holden (2002) evoked learning theory to explain why corporal
punishment may have unintended effects on children and drew on
the distinctions made by Newsom, Flavell, and Rincover (1983)
among primary, physical, secondary, and social effects. On the
basis of their categories, Holden described the majority of outcomes
from the meta-analyses as secondary (or side) effects, with
compliance (presumably both short- and long-term) as the only
primary effect. However, the lessons we as humans can learn from
punishment are more complex and far reaching than those learned
by rats in laboratory experiments (upon whom much of learning
theory was originally based, see Azrin & Holz, 1966). It is too
simplistic to assume that in punishing his son for making fun of
another child, a father hopes only to prevent his son from insulting
Examples of Dimensions Along Which Parental Corporal Punishment Varies
From “Normative” to “Abusive”
Dimension Example of normative Example of abusive
Number of spanks or hits in a given
2–3 spanks or hits 20–30 spanks or hits
Frequency of spanking or hitting
episodes across a given time period
One spanking episode per week Four spanking episodes per day
Age of the child 3 years old 3 months old
Force with which the spank or hit is
Firm taps on child’s behind Hitting child on behind with all
of parent’s strength
Where on the child’s body the spank
or hit is administered
Type of object used None; belt or paddle Electrical cord; length of wood
that particular child again (i.e., compliance as primary effect of
response suppression). Rather, the father intends that his child
learn it is not nice to hurt other people’s feelings in general and
that if the child refrains from doing so he may be rewarded with
cooperation and friendship. Are such long-term outcomes best
conceptualized as side effects to the primary effect of compliance,
as is implied by the typology of Newsom et al., or are they more
accurately conceptualized as long-term primary effects of moral
internalization? I suggest that the long-term outcomes that have
been associated with corporal punishment should also be considered
primary effects, even if they are delayed from the original
In addition to distinguishing between primary and secondary
effects, learning theory suggests a dichotomy within the window
for short-term primary effects. In the terms of learning theory,
punishment can be used to suppress undesirable behavior but
cannot teach desirable behavior. This characteristic of punishment
implies that it will be differentially effective even in the shortterm.
Specifically, corporal punishment may be effective at suppressing
undesirable behavior (e.g., getting a child to stop banging
a toy on the table) but less effective at eliciting desirable behavior
(e.g., getting a child to put toys into a clean-up box).
Corporal Punishment in Context
All of the commentators emphasized that corporal punishment
occurs within a context of overall parenting and often with other
techniques, a reality that impedes attempts to attribute outcomes to
corporal punishment alone. For these reasons, Parke (2002) described
corporal punishment as a packaged variable. This fact
holds true for the studies included in the meta-analyses I presented
and thus qualifies any conclusions drawn from them. Parke suggested
that, instead of studying the effects of corporal punishment
in isolation, researchers should study these “packages” of corporal
punishment with other techniques. Following his suggestion, research
should first establish the discipline techniques with which
corporal punishment is most likely combined and subsequently
should examine the differential effects of these combinations on
child behaviors and experiences.
As the process–context model I presented (Gershoff, 2002)
makes clear, the effects of corporal punishment on children are
both mediated by processes internal to the child and are moderated
by situational, relational, and social–cultural contexts. Far from
suggesting that each variable operates in isolation, I argue that
each of the contextual factors I identified can interact both to
predict the occurrence of corporal punishment and to mediate and
moderate its paths of influence on children. A key context that
warrants attention from researchers is that of parenting style. With
our greater understanding of the emotional and cognitive processes
within parents and families (e.g., Dix, 1991; Gottman, Katz, &
Hooven, 1997) and with our renewed appreciation that parenting
behaviors and parenting style are distinct (Darling & Steinberg,
1993), Parke (2002) suggested that we in the field of socialization
research need to revisit the classic typologies originally presented
more than 30 years ago by Baumrind (1967). To date, aspects of
parenting style have not been found to moderate the association
between corporal punishment and children’s behaviors or wellbeing
(involvement, see Simons, Johnson, & Conger, 1994; nurturance,
see Straus & Mouradian, 1998). Revising the existing
typologies, or even generating new ones, Magnusson and Stattin
(1998) asserted, requires research that is multivariate, longitudinal,
cross-cultural, multidisciplinary, and intervention-oriented. A
more nuanced expansion of the notion of parenting style will likely
lead to richer appreciation of its role in determining the effects and
effectiveness of corporal punishment.
Neither Necessary Nor Sufficient
As I clearly stated (Gershoff, 2002), and as Holden (2002)
repeated, most children in the United States experience corporal
punishment but few show significant negative outcomes. It is
important to now reiterate a statistical point: The meta-analyses
demonstrate that the more often or more strongly children are
corporally punished, the more likely they are to score statistically
higher on select negative outcome measures. This does not mean,
however, that every spanked child will experience the outcome,
only that the risk of doing so is higher with more corporal punishment
than with less.
Parent Versus Child Effects:
A Chicken and Egg Problem?
As Baumrind et al. (2002) noted, although the results from the
meta-analyses provide evidence of the magnitude of the associations
between parents’ use of corporal punishment and children’s
behaviors, they cannot answer the question of direction of effect.
In my article, I emphasized a parent-to-child direction of effect,
with parental corporal punishment shaping child behavior by affecting
processes in the child such as attributions or social information
processing. An alternative explanation is one of child-toparent
effects, such that child behaviors (such as strong defiance or
aggression) elicit corporal punishment from parents. Thus arises a
chicken and egg debate: Does corporal punishment produce noncompliant
and aggressive children or do noncompliant and aggressive
children elicit corporal punishment?
In their commentary, Baumrind et al. (2002) asserted that “it is
arbitrary to treat [corporal punishment] as though it is the independent
variable and child aggression as the dependent variable,
and certainly without first establishing temporal order” (p. 582).
Although I fully agree that temporal order is crucial to establishing
causal direction of effect with regard to corporal punishment, I
must disagree that assuming a primarily parent-to-child direction
of effect is completely arbitrary. The main rationale parents have
for using corporal punishment is that it will have an effect on their
children; although some parents may spank their children out of
frustration with their aggressive behavior, even then they do so to
stop the behavior. It is no shock to anyone that indeed parents’
behaviors do affect their children and that disciplinary behaviors
may be primed to have more of an effect than other behaviors
because they typically involve arousal of both child and parent
This is not to say that children do not elicit behaviors from their
parents; indeed, certain child behaviors may make some parents
more likely to react with corporal punishment. However, the large
majority of corporal punishment is enacted purposefully with the
goal of correcting child behavior and bringing it in line with the
norms and expectations of parents and of society. It is facile to
suggest that parents are powerless to resist using corporal punish-
RESPONSE TO COMMENTS 605
ment in the face of their children’s noxious behaviors. As caregivers
responsible for teaching their children how to behave,
parents can choose how to respond to their child’s behavior; they
can respond by spanking but also by sending the child to his or her
room, taking away privileges, or ignoring the behavior.
This observation brings me to a point that might on the surface
seem obvious but that I believe warrants explication. The metaanalyses
I presented (Gershoff, 2002) considered a range of child
behaviors and experiences for their associations with parental
corporal punishment; before the analyses began, it was as likely
that corporal punishment was associated with beneficial outcomes
as with detrimental outcomes. Suppose the analyses arrived at
effect sizes all in the opposite direction to those actually found. If
the analyses had shown that corporal punishment was associated
with less aggression, less delinquency, and greater moral internalization,
it is unlikely that my colleagues and I would be having this
same argument about direction of effect. Would we be arguing that
children who obey their parents and get along with their peers
elicit corporal punishment from their parents? Would parents be
spanking their children because they were not aggressive enough?
These scenarios seem absurd, but they illustrate that this argument
of causation only holds in one direction and thus that a parent-tochild
direction of effects is most plausible. I fully support the
caution on causal statements without temporal or experimental
data, but I believe there is much reason to suspect the direction of
effect is primarily that from parent to child.
A further complication is that any given instance of corporal
punishment is preceded by a history of interactions between the
parent and child. Thus, even if it appeared that a child elicited
corporal punishment from his or her parent by being defiant, one
must ask, as Holden (2002) pointed out, why this child was
difficult to begin with. It is definitely possible, and indeed most
likely, that a continually defiant child’s behavior in a given situation
can be traced to a history of interacting with an ineffective
parent. Borrowing from Baumrind’s (1967) typologies, both authoritarian
and permissive parenting styles could lead to aggressive
and defiant behavior, which in turn could elicit corporal punishment.
Prospective research on parenting styles and child behaviors
is needed to address this issue.
Critiques of the Meta-Analyses of Corporal Punishment
and Associated Child Behaviors
I thank Baumrind et al. (2002) for scrutinizing the analyses I
presented. In reviewing the analyses, they became most concerned
with the potential for aspects of the studies themselves to affect the
magnitude of the effect sizes. This is indeed an important issue and
one I examined through moderator analyses. Unfortunately, their
examination of the main effects of each moderator is at odds with
current recommendations to analyze moderators concurrently in a
single multivariate regression analysis to control for the explanatory
effects of other potential moderators (Knight, Fabes, & Higgins,
1996). In addition, two of the three variables they analyzed as
main effects already were included in the multivariate regression
moderator analysis that I conducted (research design/timing of
measure, independence of data sources). The one variable they
analyzed that I did not was their coding of some operationalizations
as too severe to be considered corporal punishment (see
above for my justifications for including all of the studies I did).
Even with their somewhat unorthodox manner of examining
moderators, Baumrind et al.’s (2002) findings are not surprising
and are consistent with what is known about research: Effect sizes
are larger in the less methodologically sound studies (crosssectional,
shared data sources) than in the better designed studies.
What Baumrind et al. neglected to point out is that all of the effect
sizes, even in the more methodologically sound studies, indicate
positive, moderately sized associations between parental corporal
punishment and children’s aggression.
Given their decision to reanalyze study characteristics as main
effects in the moderator analyses, it is ironic that Baumrind et al.
(2002) faulted me for using the DSTAT (Johnson, 1993) metaanalytic
software—a standard in the field—because it does not
allow the inclusion of effect sizes from analyses that include other
predictors, such as multiple regression analyses or structural equation
modeling. Even if DSTAT had allowed the use of such
multivariate data, I did not think it would be appropriate to control
for certain third variables, such as overall parenting style, for some
studies but not for others. Doing so would unevenly remove bias
from some studies more than others, thus muddying the analytic
waters more than clearing them. What would it mean to compare
one effect size that controlled for children’s baseline levels of
aggression with another that controlled for the parents’ harsh
parenting style? I felt the appropriate place to examine such
relations would have been in the moderator analyses; however, as
I noted in my original article, there were too few studies that
included important third variables to include them in the analyses.
It is unfortunate that the state of research on corporal punishment
does not support the examination of important third variables, and
I sincerely hope that future meta-analyses of parental corporal
punishment will have sufficient data on third variables to include
them either as control or moderator variables.
Revising the Process–Context Model
In the process–context model (see Figure 1 of Gershoff, 2002),
my objectives were twofold. First, I wanted to display the ways
corporal punishment might cause child outcomes by initiating
various mediational processes in children. Second, I wanted to
represent the fact that any given episode of corporal punishment
occurs within multilayered contexts that can exert influence individually
or together both to motivate parents’ use of corporal
punishment and to moderate how it affects children. Regarding the
former, Holden (2002) noted that the mediational processes initiated
in children should best be thought of as a two-stage process,
with an immediate physiological and sensory reaction followed by
secondary cognitive appraisal. I reconsidered the model I presented
and now agree that such two-stage processing is likely to
occur immediately after children experience corporal punishment.
However, I suggest that there is then a distinct third stage of
long-term cognitive processing that makes possible the long-term
child outcomes that have been identified. With these new ideas, I
reevaluated and revised the entire model, which is presented here
as Figure 1.
In this revised model, I chose to emphasize the processes and
contexts that occur immediately surrounding an episode involving
parental corporal punishment. Following is a brief description of
the reorganized model; more detailed descriptions of each of the
constructs and how they have been related to corporal punishment
are presented in my original article.
The distal constructs included in the stable individual and relational
context influence how the parent and child will behave in the
given interactional context. Stable characteristics of the child, such
as his or her abilities at self-regulation, influence the state of the
child during the interaction, namely how he or she thinks and feels.
Aspects of the situation and the child will interact to elicit the child
misbehavior. Characteristics of the parent, such as their beliefs
about parenting, in turn will affect the state of the parent, namely
his or her emotions or goals in disciplining the child, so that he or
she reacts in particular ways to the child’s misbehavior. Enduring
aspects of the family and parent–child relationship, such as levels
of closeness, affect how the parent and child interact on a momentto-
moment basis. Also included in the interactional context are
factors such as the time of day the misbehavior occurs, the location
in which the misbehavior occurs (e.g., private vs. public), and who
else is present (e.g., siblings, strangers).
Once the child misbehaves, how the parent is feeling at that
moment will determine whether to use corporal punishment and
whether to combine it with other types of discipline. Once a parent
uses corporal punishment, two steps of processing then occur in
the child. In the first step, the child’s immediate reaction, the child
will experience a physiological reaction (such as pain or stress), an
emotional reaction (such as fear or anger), and a sensory reaction
(such as hearing the parent’s message) to the corporal punishment.
These immediate physical reactions will be followed quickly by
the child’s initial cognitive processing of the event, at which time
the child decides how to react. For example, if the child experiences
fear, he or she may resolve to accept and comply with the
parent’s demands to stop the current experience of punishment. If
he or she feels pain and anger, the child may decide to defy the
These two reactions to corporal punishment in the short-term
will then be internalized through the child’s long-term cognitive
processing. If the child experiences anger at being hit but complies
to avoid being hit again, he or she may internalize over time
several lessons unintended by the parent, including that complying
when you are being hit results in the negative stimulus of punishment
being removed (negative reinforcement) or that hitting other
people is an acceptable way of getting them to behave as you want
(observational learning). Over time, the lessons learned from corporal
punishment, both intended and unintended, will affect the
child’s long-term outcomes.
I argued in the first article (Gershoff, 2002) that whether corporal
punishment is transformed into physical abuse is not medi-
Figure 1. A revised process–context model of how parental corporal punishment may affect children’s shortand
long-term processing and outcomes. Variables boxed with double lines occur at the short-term interactional
level; all other variables are long-term and/or stable variables.
RESPONSE TO COMMENTS 607
ated by processes in the child but rather is a direct short-term
outcome of the parent hitting the child. As depicted in the revised
model, this transformation is moderated by two factors, namely the
state of the parent in the immediate context (such as his or her
levels of anger or frustration) as well as more stable characteristics
of the parent, including those aspects suggested by Baumrind et al.
(2002) such as low tolerance for frustration or high impulsivity.
Finally, the social–cultural context can impact various stages of
this process both as predictors and as moderators. For example,
identification with a religious affiliation that supports the use of
corporal punishment can influence parents to be more likely to use
it in response to a child misbehavior and can make children more
likely to accept and comply with the corporal punishment as an
appropriate method of discipline.
This revised process–context model takes the constructs from
the original model and shows more explicitly how they affect both
the parent’s choice to use corporal punishment and how the child
reacts to it. Regarding the original model, each of the commentators
expressed frustration that I discussed potential predictors,
mediators, and moderators individually and not interactively. I had
two reasons for doing so. Primarily, I wished to describe the status
of current knowledge of each variable in depth, a step that is
necessary before interactive relations can be explored. In addition,
an extremely limited number of studies have explored combinations
of moderators and mediators, and indeed only a few studies
have examined mediators at all, thus leaving discussions of interactive
effects as speculative.
With that said, I definitely intended for the variables in the
process–context model to be considered in conjunction with one
another. Indeed, I expect that each of the variables will exert
differential influence on children’s behaviors and experiences in
the short-term as opposed to the long-term. In my own work on
parental control techniques with toddlers, I have found through
sequential analyses that whether children comply with parental
controls depends on interactions among several variables, namely
whether the children complied the turn before, what emotions
children were feeling immediately before parents’ control attempts,
what type of task children were being asked to perform, the
gender of the child, as well as what technique parents used (Gershoff
& Dix, 2002). For long-term outcomes, I expect that a
different set of variables would come into play, such that children
who have parents who believe in the effectiveness of corporal
punishment and belong to racial–ethnic groups, religions, and
geographic regions that support or promote the use of corporal
punishment will be more likely to activate mediational processes
accepting the parents’ corrective message accompanying the corporal
punishment than children whose parents doubt the appropriateness
of corporal punishment and whose racial–ethnic, cultural,
and geographic communities are critical of the practice.
Finally, Holden (2002) cited as the main fault of the model that
it does not translate into testable hypotheses, particularly about
when and why certain mediational processes are activated that in
turn result in negative outcomes for children. In this revised model,
I have specified two influences on these long-term mediational
processes, namely the stable child characteristics and how the child
reacts to and processes the experience of corporal punishment as it
occurs. I hypothesize that children with fearful temperaments (a
stable characteristic) will be more likely to experience fear when
physically punished (immediate reaction), to decide to comply
with the punishment to get it to stop (initial cognitive processing),
to attribute their compliance to the external control posed by the
corporal punishment (long-term cognitive processing), and finally
to fail to internalize the disciplinary lesson underlying the parent’s
use of corporal punishment in the first place (long-term outcome).
Variations on this hypothesis are also possible from the model.
I admit the processes involved are quite complicated and interrelated,
and thus it will be difficult to isolate certain causal pathways
without examining, or at least controlling for, other pathways.
Because the extant research is insufficient to identify the
causal pathways postulated, future research is needed for the
model to be tested.
Additional Issues for Future Research
In the course of their articles, the commentators generated
several important areas for future research in addition to those I
suggested. Both Holden (2002) and Parke (2002) noted the need to
incorporate the role of developmental change by both children and
parents. As children age, their developing abilities at emotion
regulation and cognitive processing determine how they interpret
and react to parental corporal punishment. For example, the sensory
and emotional experiences of pain and fear may be more
salient for a 3-year-old who is spanked, whereas the feeling of
anger at being spanked may be more prominent for a 10-year-old;
thus, the 3-year-old may be more likely to comply out of fear,
whereas the 10-year-old may be more likely to defy out of anger.
Children’s changing abilities are also likely to impact whether
parents use corporal punishment at all, a bidirectional effect of
children on parents. Specifically, as children grow in their responsiveness
to reasoning, parents may be less likely to resort to
The process of development is one that continues across the life
span. As parents gain experience with their own children, they gain
knowledge about which socialization techniques are most effective
with their particular children. The beliefs they had about children
and child rearing before they had children may change as they
interact with their own. Indeed, in work Holden and I conducted
(Holden, Thompson, Zambarano, & Marshall, 1997), we found
that two thirds of the mothers interviewed reported having changed
their beliefs about corporal punishment once they actually became
parents. A majority of those mothers who became less in favor of
corporal punishment did so because of their own or their child’s
negative reaction to corporal punishment. Mothers who became
more in favor of corporal punishment also cited child-based reasons,
typically their child’s oppositional behavior that did not
improve with other discipline techniques. These results illustrate
the malleability of parents’ beliefs about, and presumably also
changes in their use of, corporal punishment over time. Prospective
research on parents’ beliefs from before the birth of their child
through the child’s early school years are needed to fully appreciate
when and why parents’ beliefs about and use of corporal
punishment change over time.
As noted by Holden (2002), noticeably absent from research on
corporal punishment are studies of children’s reactions to corporal
punishment. For the most part, the mediational processes identified
in the process–context model have not been confirmed with empirical
research. There is a substantial need for research that begins
to answer such questions as: How do children feel when they are
corporally punished? How do they perceive the corporal punishment,
and what leads them to accept or reject the disciplinary
message that accompanies (or is implied by) the corporal punishment?
Do children later remember this disciplinary message, and
do they act consistently with it in the future? Because these
processes are internal to the child, they cannot be observed and
thus require innovative research designs, particularly given that the
young research subjects are less able to engage in self-reflection
Parke (2002) reiterated my call for research with a range of
ethnic and racial groups, adding a suggestion to complement
empirical work with ethnographic methods to gain deeper understanding
of the cultural support that underlies parents’ use of
corporal punishment. In addition, Parke argued that future research
needs to emphasize the interplay of relationships among members
of a family system by examining the effects of the marital relationship,
the child as witness of the punishment of siblings, and of
overall family cohesiveness and beliefs about corporal punishment.
Clearly, the field of influence is complex and requires
innovative research designs and diverse samples to appreciate
whether and how corporal punishment has beneficial or detrimental
effects on children.
Parke (2002) also responded to my call for new methods to
study corporal punishment by suggesting parental diaries, nightly
phone calls, beeper methods, longitudinal designs, and combinations
of laboratory experiments and field observations as holding
promise for the study of corporal punishment. However, as he and
I both noted, the low base rate of corporal punishment presents a
challenge to researchers who obtain small samples of parent behavior
for their work. One promising approach would be to study
children’s reactions to other types of punishment in the laboratory
as an analogue to corporal punishment. Tasks could be designed
that are slightly too difficult for the child; parents could be instructed
to punish children in one of several ways (e.g., yelling,
taking away a reward) when children fail to complete the task. As
I suggested in my original article (Gershoff, 2002), having a child
review videotapes of punishment interactions and reporting how
they felt or what they thought right after their parents punished
them would help reveal processes internal to the child, albeit from
the child’s perspective. Once again, however, one runs up against
the moral and practical difficulty of studying corporal punishment
in the laboratory; morally it is unlikely that parents will agree to let
their children be physically punished by experimenters, yet practically
it might be difficult to create circumstances in the laboratory
that would elicit corporal punishment from parents.
Is Our Current Knowledge About Corporal Punishment
Sufficient to Condemn Its Use?
Baumrind et al. (2002) ended their article by saying that the
results I presented do not support a “blanket injunction” (p. 586)
against spanking.1 Although I emphasized throughout my article
that causal links could not be established, the meta-analytic findings
and theoretical and empirical support outlined in the process–
context model for the possibility of negative effects caution against
using corporal punishment, of which spanking is the main example.
I would like to call attention to the reflection of this argument,
namely that unless and until researchers, clinicians, and parents
can definitively demonstrate the presence of positive effects of
corporal punishment (including effectiveness in halting future misbehavior),
not just the absence of negative effects, we as psychologists
cannot responsibly recommend its use.
The current state of the field, reflected both in the results of my
analyses and in those of a recent article by Baumrind and Owens
(2001), is that at its worst corporal punishment may have negative
effects on children and at its best has no effects, positive or
otherwise. The argument that corporal punishment has no negative
effects is not the same as saying that it has positive effects. For a
practice that many have linked to physical abuse (Garbarino, 1977;
Gil, 1973; Vasta, 1982), the burden of proof should be high:
Corporal punishment should have strong and consistently positive
effects on children for psychologists to routinely recommend it as
a practice given the range of negative effects with which it is
Baumrind et al. (2002) cited several studies that have found
corporal punishment to be less associated with negative outcomes
than are other discipline techniques. Although this may be true,
just because other techniques are worse than corporal punishment
does not make corporal punishment any better. Until positive
effects are linked with corporal punishment, it should not be
routinely recommended as a method of controlling children. However,
it is important to note that their argument does point to the
need for similar research on all methods of parental discipline, not
just corporal punishment.
The defining aspect of corporal punishment, and indeed the key
to its potential for securing short-term compliance, is that it involves
inflicting pain on children. Even proponents of corporal
punishment argue that it should be painful (e.g., Dobson, 1996). As
a country, Americans need to reevaluate why we believe it is
reasonable to hit young, vulnerable children when it is against the
law to hit other adults, prisoners, and even animals. The difficulty
of drawing the line between physical abuse and corporal punishment
begs the question, Why should we risk harming our children
when there are a range of alternative methods of punishment and
The solution, according to Baumrind et al. (2002), is that parents
disposed to abuse because they are easily frustrated or inclined
toward controlling behavior “should not spank” (p. 585). Their
suggestion is both unrealistic and unimplementable as public policy.
For one, their directive requires either that parents police
themselves or that there be some kind of screening test that
identifies parents at risk for abusive behavior. All parents experience
anger and frustration at their children, and all parents are
bigger and stronger than their young children; it would seem, then,
that all parents have the potential to be physically abusive. Even if
those parents at “true” risk for abuse could be identified (such as
by already being reported for physically abusing their children),
how would this policy be enforced? Would those parents at risk for
abuse be required to attend parenting classes? What would the
penalties be for not attending the classes? Indeed, what would the
consequences be if such parents used corporal punishment after
all? Given the resentment American parents have toward govern-
1 My article with Holden (Holden et al., 1997), cited by Baumrind et al.
(2002) as an example of a “blanket injunction against spanking,” (p. 580)
is in fact an empirical article that in no way makes such an argument.
RESPONSE TO COMMENTS 609
ment involvement in family matters, such policies would likely not
be tolerated by the public.
Even with convincing, longitudinal research findings of negative
long-term outcomes accruing from corporal punishment, it is
still unlikely that the United States would consider a ban on
parents’ use of corporal punishment as has been done in 11 other
countries (Bitensky, 1998; EPOCH-USA, 2000). As Holden
(2002) and Parke (2002) both noted, a ban in the United States is
unlikely to be successful because its use in our culture is supported
by a constellation of beliefs about family and child rearing, namely
that children are property, that children do not have the right to
negotiate their treatment by parents, and that behaviors within
families are private. As these authors noted, education campaigns
aimed at emphasizing alternatives to corporal punishment are
likely to be the most acceptable and effective way of decreasing
the use of corporal punishment in this country.
I sincerely thank the authors of the three commentaries (Baumrind
et al., 2002; Holden, 2002; Parke, 2002) for their constructive
critiques of my original article (Gershoff, 2002) and also thank the
editors of this journal for inviting my response. The issue of
whether parents should use corporal punishment with their children
is unique in that it polarizes respected psychologists who are
at the same time united in their goal of promoting children’s
well-being. There is a continuing need for reasoned exchanges
such as these until either a consensus is reached on the viability of
corporal punishment as a disciplinary technique or until researchers
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Received January 14, 2002
Revision received February 12, 2002
Accepted February 12, 2002
RESPONSE TO COMMENTS 611