- Evidence consistently demonstrates the ineffectiveness and perpetual harm of corporal punishment.
- Conservatives are more likely to support the use of corporal punishment than liberals.
- Support for corporal punishment may stem from fallacies, a belief in a just world, and cognitive dissonance.
Former Vice President Mike Pence recently sat down with undecided voters from Iowa to discuss the issues that matter to them. When asked about how to deal with students with extreme behavior problems, he responded,
I went to Catholic school for eight years…the nuns knew how to get the paddle out when you deserved it. I guarantee you I deserved it more times than I got it. I think traditional discipline being returned to our schools as opposed to flooding our kids with Ritalin…makes more sense to me. The Bible says, “Spare the rod, spoil the child.” I’m a believer in that.
Pence’s response was disappointing, given our current understanding of paddling and spanking.
The Drawbacks and Prevalence of Corporal Punishment
Corporal or physical punishment has devastating effects. A 2021 narrative review summarized the findings of 69 longitudinal studies. It reiterated how physical punishment increases a child’s level of aggression, conduct problems, stress, and cognitive abilities. Parents who use physical punishment are at greater risk of perpetrating severe maltreatment, exacerbating the damaging effects on their children.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) considers corporal punishment abuse, yet over 15 states still allow schools to paddle students, according to The Washington Post. Preventing its use has been difficult due to its acceptance by many parents and educators.
According to The American Family Survey conducted in 2021, the populations most likely to support the use of spanking are men, people over 45, less-educated adults, those living in the South, those with household incomes less than $80,000, and religious conservatives.
Researcher and professor Elizabeth T. Gershoff, who has coauthored several spanking and corporal punishment studies, said in the Deseret News,
We’re seeing national data that support for use of physical punishment and actual use of it are going down slowly, over time. But still, over half of children are physically punished each year. So the message is not getting out quick enough.
If the evidence continues to mount that physical punishment is not only ineffective but downright harmful, why does the myth persist that it will fix the behavioral problems we see in communities and schools?
Breaking Down Common Fallacies
Pence presented disciplining students as a choice between overmedicating and corporal punishment, but this is the either-or fallacy. While there's evidence of overuse of psychotropic medications in children, especially in vulnerable populations, there are several solutions to addressing behavioral problems beyond paddles and medication.
Many defenders of physical punishment remember the past with rose-colored glasses. They may exhibit juvenoia, wherein they disparage younger generations. This is not new. There have been records of the older generation lamenting their disappointment in the upcoming generation as far back as 2,000 years ago.
Pence likely believes the current generation has more problems because they experience fewer physical consequences. Conservatives are more likely than liberals to agree with statements such as, “Our society is getting worse every year.”
Gen Z and Gen Alpha are indeed worse off than previous generations in some ways, such as greater instances of mental health disorders, but there is no evidence that this increase is due to a lack of physical punishment at home or in schools. This assumption is an example of mixing up correlation and causation. (See how researchers address questions of causality related to physical punishment and externalizing problems here.)
System Justification Theory and Belief in a Just World
Support for physical punishment may stem from a desire to maintain the status quo and uphold tradition. Social psychologist John Jost's system justification theory suggests that humans tend to endorse belief systems that explain and legitimize existing societal structures.
This bias arises from our need to reduce uncertainty, threat, and social discord, leading us to favor preserving the current state, rather than risking change.
On average, conservatives score higher on system justification scales than liberals. Conservatives are more likely to justify current power structures and endorse clear hierarchies, such as between students and teachers. Conservatives' inclination to preserve the existing order, uphold traditional values, and prioritize hierarchy may lead to greater resistance to modernizing disciplinary approaches.
Pence may believe the world is just. As Jost stated,
To cope with distress [from injustice], people convince themselves that the social world operates according to rules of deservingness, namely, that people get what they deserve and deserve what they get.
Just like system justification, a belief in a just world is more common in conservatives than liberals.
While a belief in a just world may be adaptive at times, research has shown it can also lead to victim-blaming. Believing we deserved our past suffering may be one way to cope with the fact that we cannot change what happened to us and preserve our belief that ultimately our fate is controllable and predictable. However, believing in a just world makes it difficult to consider that there exist any children who were unfairly harmed at the hands of adults.
When Attitudes and Beliefs Clash
Relatedly, Pence may be experiencing cognitive dissonance. This term stems from Leon Festinger’s groundbreaking theory that helps explain the discomfort that arises when our thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, or behaviors conflict.
Pence may feel dissonance between the research on physical punishment and his belief that being hurt as a child ultimately helped him in some way. He could resolve the conflict by painfully admitting that he did not in fact deserve to be paddled as a child or find a way to discount the research.
If he chose the latter, he wouldn’t be the only conservative to do so. Reaction to scientific findings is polarized where conservatives are more likely than liberals to reject consensus scientific findings.
The most tragic part of Pence’s statement is that he believed he deserved to be paddled as a child. To our former vice president, I emphatically say that there is nothing you could have done as a child that would have warranted physical harm. You didn’t deserve to be hurt then, just as the students of Iowa and throughout the world don’t deserve harm now. Pence, you can set the example of acknowledging the pains and lessons of the past to advocate for a brighter and more hopeful future.
A version of this post is also published here.