Original post: http://effective-altruism.com/ea/19m/reduction_and_abolition_of_physical_punishment_of/

Trigger warning: child abuse, physical punishment, violence, human rights abuse, animal cruelty, depression, suicide


In this article, I will discuss an issue which I think EAs or EA organizations should give due attention to but haven’t much yet (“neglected”), physical punishment of children.

According to the UNICEF, about one billion children “are subjected to physical punishment by their caregivers on a regular basis”. (in the past monthThe total cost of severe physical punishment was estimated to be $3.594 trillion, 4.21% of World GDP (more than 20 times as costly as war, which costs $167.19 billion, p. iv). In sub-Saharan Africa, the cost was estimated to be 18.66% of GDP (p. 16).

Criminal justice reform, a cause area many EAs are concerned about (incl. OpenPhil), directly affects ~10 million people (world prison population) currently. Even if experience of (frequent/severe) physical punishment as a child do not increase suffering as much as experience of incarceration, it seems the fact the number of affected people of physical punishment are ~100 times as big as incarceration seems to warrant EAs’ due attention, at least as much as criminal justice reform. Indeed, even if incarceration increase suffering 10 times as much as exposure to physical punishment during childhood, physical punishment will be 10 times bigger problem as incarceration. Physical punishment, when applied to adults, will be considered “cruel and unusual punishment”, however “mild” or “reasonable”.

Indeed, physical punishment is the most prevalent form of human rights abuses. Even if experiencing (average) physical punishment during the course of one’s childhood causes less suffering per victim compared to other more commonly condemned human rights abuses (e.g. FGM), the very high prevalence of physical punishment warrants us to consider physical punishment (of children) as one of the most serious ongoing human rights abuses, and, humanitarian crisis.

Children’s rights and animal rights are in many ways similar. Due to (relatively) limited intelligence and/or physical strength, (young) children and non-human animals have limited power to defend and/or advocate their rights. Also, children and “farmed animals” are creatures of their most frequent abusers, parents or factory farm owners. Children and farmed animals are completely dependent on their creators. (see also) Also, the exposure to physical punishment is related to animal cruelty. (see also)

In this article, I will not distinguish between child abuse and physical punishment, as I do think indeed everyphysical punishment, however “mild” or “reasonable”, is child abuse, as the most people in the countries where physical punishment was not just illegalized, but criminalized seem to think. Although the focus of this article will be physical punishment/abuse, obviously many efforts are also needed to reduce other non-physical child abuse as well, such as “yelling, frequent negative commands, name calling, overt expressions of anger, and physical threats” (p. 599). Although FGM/MGM will not be the focus of this article, I am also strongly opposed to non-consensual genital mutilation/cutting/modification of minor for non-medical reasons, whether female or male.


  1. Physical punishment in general: According to UNICEF, “Around 6 in 10 children between the ages of 2 and 14 worldwide (almost a billion) are subjected to physical punishment by their caregivers on a regular basis“. (see alsoalso) (in the past month)
  2. Severe physical punishment: 16% of children aged 2-14 experienced severe physical punishment in the past month (ibid., median value, p. 24) (“CD12I. HIT OR SLAPPED HIM/HER ON THE FACE, HEAD OR EARS. CD12K. BEAT HIM/HER UP WITH AN IMPLEMENT (HIT OVER AND OVER AS HARD AS ONE COULD).”, p. 15, Table 3, ibid.)
  3. Burning as physical punishment: In Uganda,  “more than one in six children consulted through the questionnaire reported being burned deliberately by an adult as a form of punishment.” (p. 18)
  4. Physical punishment of infants: 14% of 12-months-old infants and 45% of 24-months-old children are “spanked”. (p. 2058, Table 3)


  1. 18 times a week” (measurement by “real-time audio recording”, U.S.) [fn 1]
  2. 3.2 times per week (U.S., p. 4)
  3. 3.3 times per week (Hong Kong, p. 5)

Legal status

  1. Only 52 countries explicitly prohibited physical punishment of children (by parents/guardians). [fn 2] I.e., out of about 200 countries in the world, about 75% of countries did not explicitly abolish the physical punishment of children.
  2. 73 countries did not prohibit physical punishment in school (p. 15)
  3. Violation of international law? “No child shall be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” (United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 37, Paragraph 1, see also)


The total cost of severe physical punishment was estimated to be $3.594 trillion, 4.21% of World GDP. In sub-Saharan Africa, the cost was estimated to be 18.66% of GDP. (p. 16)

  1. 93% of studies found harmful side-effects. (p. 7)
  2. Lower IQ by 2.8 to 5 points

Straus et al.Beating Devils Out of Them

  1. Depression (Chart 5-1, 5-3, Straus et al.)
  2. Suicidal ideation (Chart 5-2, ibid.)
  3. More likely to “physically abuse his or her own child” (Chart 6-3, ibid.)
  4. Assault on sibling (Chart 7-1, ibid.)
  5. Assault on the spouse (Chart 7-2, 7-3, ibid.)
  6. Assault on non-family member and stealing during teenage years (Chart 7-4, ibid.)
  7. Juvenile delinquency (Chart 7-5, ibid.)
  8. Assault on the non-family member (Chart 7-6, ibid.)
  9. Masochistic arousal (Chart 8-3, ibid.)
  10. Lower income (Chart 9-2, ibid.)

p. 461, Table 2, Gershoff et al. (2016), “Spanking and Child Outcomes: Old Controversies and New Meta-Analyses”

  1. “Immediate defiance”
  2. “Low moral internalization”
  3. “Child aggression”
  4. “Child antisocial behavior”
  5. “Child externalizing behavior problems”
  6. “Child internalizing behavior problem”
  7. “Child mental health problems”
  8. “Child alcohol or substance abuse”
  9. “Negative parent–child relationship”
  10. “Impaired cognitive ability”
  11. “Low self-esteem”
  12. “Low self-regulation”
  13. “Victim of physical abuse”
  14. “Adult antisocial behavior”
  15. “Adult mental health problems”
  16. “Adult alcohol or substance abuse”
  17. “Adult support for physical punishment”


See also, Gershoff (2002)Straus (2008, particularly p. 7)Gershoff et al. (2016)

Why is it neglected?

  1. Lack of prohibition of, and the presence of wide-spread approval and practice of, physical punishment of children even in many developed countries.
  2. Failure to recognize and categorize every (however “mild”) physical punishment of children as child abuse. (many countries with child protection law, but without physical punishment prohibition, seems to consider there are (at least some) physical punishment that is not abuse/abusive.)
  3. Usage of euphemistic terms to describe the practice. (using euphemistic “spanking”, “slapping” or “smacking”, instead of neutral “physical punishment” or “corporal punishment”, or using negative “hitting”, “beating”, “physical abuse”, “assault” or “battery”) [fn 3]
  4. Perceived sense of “triviality” of the seriousness of the problem, compared to other forms of child abuse such as the military use of children, child labor, early marriage, FGM.
  5. Social/cultural norm or belief that we should not intervene others’ “parenting methods”.
  6. Focusing on the severity, and neglecting frequency and/or prevalence. In countries where (“mild”, “moderate”, “reasonable”) physical punishment is not prohibited, the governments only intervene only severe physical punishment/abuse (e.g. that will lead to physical injuries such as a bruise, bleeding, bone fracture, etc.). However, it is entirely plausible “mild spanking” 3-18 times/week might be psychologically (nearly/more) as harmful as severe physical punishment/abuse (punching, FGM, etc.). Nonetheless, child protection law and authorities in physical punishment non-prohibition countries almost exclusively focus on the intensity of physical punishment incidences and neglecting the frequency. [see h=sfp model at next paragraph]
  7. Relatively low prevalence, frequency and the severity of personal experiences of physical punishment (if ever) during the childhood of EAs, and educated people (in rich democratic countries) in general. Prevalence, frequency and the severity of physical punishment negatively correlates with parental education or socioeconomic status.
  8. If one’s parents used physical punishment, the psychological difficulties of “blaming” one’s parents have done something (very) harmful/abusive to him/her.
  9. It might be difficult to face that one’s current psychological difficulties or even slightly lower (2.8-5 IQ points) intelligence than otherwise could be was due to an unhappy childhood, childhood trauma, or physical punishment. (of course, people with entirely happy childhood also get psychological difficulties, but clearly, there is correlation)
  10. Anecdotal fallacy: “I was spanked and turned out fine.”.
  11. “Correlation does not imply causation”: (1) difficult child may get physical punishment more; (2) physical punishment negatively correlates with parental education or socioeconomic status; (3) physical punishment strongly correlates with parental violentness (indeed, physical punishment itself is a paradigmatic example of parental violentness).: we need adoption studies to control genetic influences.
  12. Focusing on the developmental harms of physical punishment, and neglecting the direct suffering physical punishment inflicts on the child during the course of physical punishment. (Imagine college students or adults subjected to physical punishment 3-18 times a week by faculty or employer, doesn’t that warrant a serious concern, even if there is not much psychological harm? As much as it seems prima facie true that physical punishment of adults will be wrong, it seems prima facie true that physical punishment of children, especially on frequency 3-18/week very wrong/harmful) (see also)

h=sfp model

(harm = severity*frequency*pravelence)

On a linear model, the annual gross world harm per capita (GWH per capita) caused by violent/harmful practices can be understood as s (average severity of each incidence) * f (average frequency per year) * p (prevalence) = h (GWH per capita). On h=sfp model, physical punishment is lower than FGM on severity per incidence (s), but very much higher in frequency (FGM: once per life, PP: up to 3-18/week), and very much higher in prevalence (200 million girls/women have been subjected to FGM, up to ~7 billion children/adults experienced physical punishment once or more during the childhood (perhaps the overwhelming majority of human population, I suppose))

What can we do about it?


It is uncertain how effective lobbying will be to prohibit physical punishment. Perhaps for many parents, it is just the way things are. Physical punishment has been used for thousands of years. Perhaps physical punishment will not be prohibited unless there is widespread disapproval of the practice in that country. Nonetheless, one can try to lobby to outlaw more severe forms of physical punishment, or school physical punishment (if haven’t prohibited yet) first. [fn 4]


Unlike lobbying, leafleting is not all-or-nothing. For lobbying, one does successfully lobby to prohibit physical punishment or not. (although lobbying to regulate physical punishment is possible) Leafleting is a method that can be employed with low-cost and could create gradual change for the total prohibition of physical punishment. Leafleting “study conducted in fall 2012 by The Humane League and Farm Sanctuary” found that about 3% of respondents “stopped eating red meat”. If 3% of prospective parents who received anti-physical punishment leaflet do never inflict physical punishment as a result of reading the leaflet, and distributing one leaflet costs ~$0.20, ~$7 can avert one child growing up with physical punishment. [fn 5] At $89,250 cost of physical punishment (p. 15), does it have ~10^3 benefit-cost ratio? (One is a few %p less likely to “be in the top fifth economically” if one had experienced physical punishment, Chart 9-2. If one loses ~$2,000/year income due to physical punishment, $89,250 as a lifetime economic cost of physical punishment exposure during childhood will not be (much) overestimate)

Movement building

Although there are perhaps more people disapprove of (45%?) physical punishment than people disapprove of meat-eating, there has been surprisingly little activism against physical punishment, compared to animal rights/welfare issues. Perhaps this is due to the number of people very strongly opposed to (so strongly opposed to start or participate activism and/or protests) physical punishment might be smaller than people very strongly opposed to “livestock industry”. For abolition of physical punishment, we might have to condemn, not just criticize, the practice.

Legal activism

While lobbying seeks to change the law through trying to influence (mostly) the legislature, legal activismprotests law in the courts“. [fn 6] For example, one can try the constitutional challenge to a statute to abolish “reasonable chastisement” or similar clause(s). (recently, “Zimbabwe’s High Court has outlawed corporal punishment for children both at school and in the home.“)


Although the fact physical punishment is (very) harmful for the healthy development of children is well-documented in many studies, as always, there is much more research needed to be done. (1) we need to find effective ways to persuade parents to desist from using physical punishment; (2) we need to find underlying psychological “justifications”, rationalizations and excuses parents use. [fn 7]; (3) we need to research children’s subjective disapproval on physical punishment; (4) we need to research frequency/chronicity and severity of physical punishment based on self-report of children or objective measurement (such as “real-time audio recording“), rather than self-report by parents; (5) we need to research the harmfulness of physical punishment in various aspects of the healthy development of children even more, incl. physical, mental and social health, to persuade parents and to argue against pro-flagellationism or physical punishment harmfulness denialism; (6) we need adoption studies on the harmfulness of physical punishment to control the correlation due to shared genetic material between biological parents and children.

See also

Project NoSpank

Home Page for Murray A. Straus (Empirical Studies)

Family Research Laboratory – Books

Crimes Against Children Research Center

The Institute on Violence, Abuse and Trauma

The Truth About Spanking (Stefan Molyneux, YouTube playlist)

Campaigns against corporal punishment -Wikipedia

pp. 415-447 (Chapter 7.3, “Children’s rights and the decline of infanticide, spanking, child abuse, and bullying”), The Better Angels of Our Nature (Steven Pinker, Penguin)

Physical Punishment in Childhood: The Rights of the Child (Bernadette J. Saunders, Chris Goddard)

Global Pathways to Abolishing Physical Punishment: Realizing Children’s Rights (Joan E. Durrant, Anne B. Smith)


Physical punishment and animals:

Children’s Rights and the movement against corporal punishment (Animal Charity Evaluators, 2015)

Exploring the Link between Corporal Punishment and Children’s Cruelty to Animals

Reports of severe physical punishment and exposure to animal cruelty by inmates convicted of felonies and by university students



[fn 1] This number might be an overestimate, due to selection bias, small sample size or other issues.

[fn 2] This excludes dependent territories, namely Faroe Islands, and Greenland.

[fn 3] George Holden said, “Spanking is a euphemism that makes it sound like hitting is a normal part of parenting. If we re-label it hitting, which is what it is, people step back and ask themselves, ‘Should I be hitting my child?’ ” (2013). See also, Spank, Slap, or Hit? How Labels Alter Perceptions of Child Discipline (Holden et al, 2016). As an analogy, “female circumcision” is used as a euphemistic term for female genital mutilation (FGM), and female genital cutting (FGC) is used as a neutral term. It may be argued that the term “punishment” implies “legitimacy”, indeed, except cases of judicial corporal punishment, every corporal punishment is “extrajudicial punishment“, i.e. punishment inflicted without due process of law. Also, it may be argued that “hitting” or “beating” is a value-neutral term. I used “physical punishment” because it is commonly used term to describe the practice in scholarly contexts, along with “corporal punishment”. It is interesting that “physical punishment” of wife (or husband) is not called “physical punishment”, but instead domestic violence or intimate partner violence. Although I used the term “physical punishment” to describe the practice, it is entirely apt to call the practice as “child (physical) abuse”, “child beating”, “child hitting”, “parental violence”, etc..

[fn 4] E.g., Canadian court provided a guideline for what is “reasonable” physical punishment: “In upholding s 43, the majority of the Court provided considerable guidance to the interpretation of the provision. The majority held that the person administering the discipline must be a parent or legal guardian, or in some cases, a school teacher (i.e. non-parental relatives such as grandparents, aunts, or uncles, as well as babysitters and other caretakers, are banned from spanking); that the force must be used “by way of correction” (sober, reasoned uses of force that address the actual behaviour of the child and are designed to restrain, control or express some symbolic disapproval of his or her behaviour), that the child must be capable of benefiting from the correction (i.e. not under the age of 2 or over 12), and that the use of force must be “reasonable under the circumstances”, meaning that it results neither in harm nor in the prospect of bodily harm. Punishment involving slaps or blows to the head is harmful, the Court held.[76] Use of any implement other than a bare hand is illegal and hitting a child in anger or in retaliation for something a child did is not considered reasonable and is against the law. The Court defined “reasonable” as force that would have a “transitory and trifling” impact on the child. For example, spanking or slapping a child so hard that it leaves a mark that lasts for several hours would not be considered “transitory and trifling”.

[fn 5] Obviously, more research is needed to verify the (cost-)effectiveness of leafleting for reduction of physical punishment. Also, it might be the case that people who will be easily persuaded to stop (or not to start) inflicting physical punishment might be people (who will) least severely and frequently do so.

[fn 6] Examples of legal activism organizations include Animal Legal Defense Fund and American Civil Liberties Union.

[fn 7] Melanie Joy outlines psychological “justifications” of eating animals as 3Ns, “normal, natural and necessary“. 3Ns can be used to “justify” other violent ideologies, such as physical punishment.

Physical punishment of children: the neglected $3.6 trillion/year? problem