Academic journal article Law and Contemporary Problems

Corporal Punishment in the Educational System versus Corporal Punishment by Parents: A Comparative View

Academic journal article Law and Contemporary Problems

Corporal Punishment in the Educational System versus Corporal Punishment by Parents: A Comparative View

Article excerpt



My late grandmother was born during the First World War in Tomashov (Tomaszow)-Lubelski, a town in Poland. When she was in elementary school, some of the students disturbed the teacher when she turned to the blackboard. The teacher became very angry. She took her cane and collectively punished the class. She ordered all the students to stretch out their hands for her to hit them with the cane. My grandmother refused; she argued that she had done nothing wrong, she had not spoken or caused a disturbance, so she was not prepared to put out her hand to be punished. The teacher insisted and my grandmother tried to draw back. The teacher grabbed her hand by force, pulled it, and struck her very hard. My grandmother fainted; she lost a lot of blood and became very sick. For two months she hovered between life and death. She survived. Decades later, we, her grandsons, asked her about the indentation on her hand. She told us the story, and how well she remembered the blow. Every winter she felt a deep pain in her left hand; it was a dark memory of that teacher's corporal punishment. The story frightened us. Years later, it encouraged me to research the phenomenon of corporal punishment in general and punishment in schools in particular.

Corporal punishment occurs when a parent or educator hits a child with the purpose of educating him. It usually consists of a light blow with the open hand on the buttocks or hand because the child has misbehaved, deviated from the right path, failed to comply with the authority's wishes and instructions, or failed to accept that authority. (1)

In most countries, light corporal punishment is permitted as a way of disciplining and correcting a child. It is less acceptable as a means of discipline in schools than in the home. In many countries teachers are not allowed to corporally punish their students and, should they do so, it would be considered a criminal offense of assault or battery. This prohibition breaches the traditional delegation of authority from parents to teachers and whoever else stands in their place and fulfills the role of educating and correcting the child, that is, the common-law doctrine of in loco parentis. (2)

Even though light parental corporal punishment has been banned in one way or another in only about two dozen countries around the world, (3) and even though corporal punishment by teachers has been banned in about ninety countries, (4) there is a worldwide legal and extralegal controversy over the legitimacy of using this method as a means of education. Nothing is controversial, though, about the rejection of harsher modes of conduct, such as child beating, abuse, or maltreatment. In many ways mild corporal punishment is a good test case for the issue of legal intervention in intrafamilial relations, in the privacy of the family, and in its autonomy and affairs. As to the educational system, many states have shown a readiness to ban corporal punishment, although they have not taken the same attitude towards parental corporal punishment. If one looks at the situation from the perspective of human rights and children's rights, this outcome seems rather strange: if it is the right of the child to enjoy dignity and not be harmed bodily or emotionally, this should be a general right, irrespective of whether the person inflicting the punishment is a parent or a teacher. If the arguments in favor of mild corporal punishment as an effective and not-so-harmful way of educating are true, it is also open to question why mild corporal punishment should be prohibited in the educational system yet given license in the family sphere. But this distinction is made in many countries, and there may be good reasons for it.

There is much academic literature concerning corporal punishment at home and at schools but almost none analyzing the similarities and differences between the two. This article contributes to the latter, presenting a comparative view of how the world's legal systems treat corporal punishment meted out by both parents and teachers, discussing the differences between parental corporal punishment and corporal punishment done by a teacher in theory and practice. …

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