by Norbert Schady

corporal punishment

A study shows that more than 70% of Americans agree that sometimes, children need to be disciplined with a good, hard spanking. In practice, the acceptance of corporal punishment varies in terms of frequency, severity and culture. How frequent is the practice of corporal punishment of young children in Latin America and the Caribbean?

First, Let’s Define some Terms

Researchers generally distinguish between “mild” corporal punishment, or spanking (striking a child on the buttocks or extremities with an open hand without inflicting physical injury), and “harsh” corporal punishment, or child abuse (including beating or hitting with an object, a closed fist, or striking a child on the face or torso).

In general, there is broad consensus among child development specialists that harsh corporal punishment of children results in lasting psychological damage, including elevated rates of mental health problems and aggression in adolescence and adulthood. No such consensus exists with regards to the effects of spanking. Some researchers have argued that spanking can be both effective and desirable, while others have argued that it is both ineffective and harmful.

Corporal Punishment in Latin America and the Caribbean

In this post, I present evidence on the incidence of, and socioeconomic gradients in, harsh corporal punishment of young children in ten countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. The countries are Bolivia, Colombia, Peru, Argentina, Belize, Costa Rica, Jamaica, St. Lucia, Suriname, and Trinidad and Tobago.

In four countries, Belize, Bolivia, Jamaica and St. Lucia, 40% or more of children have been harshly punished in the last month, and in another four, Colombia, Peru, Suriname, and Trinidad and Tobago, this proportion is around 30%.

In terms of gender, the following figure shows that in all countries boys are harshly punished more frequently than girls, a difference of between 2 and 4 percentage points.

Corporal punishment gender

Note: Author’s calculations based on the data from Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS): Bolivia (2008), Colombia (2010) and Peru (2012); Multiple Cluster Surveys (MICs): Argentina (2011), Belize (2011), Costa Rica (2011), Jamaica (2011), Suriname (2011), St. Lucia (2011) and Trinidad and Tobago (2006).

Another point that I looked into in all countries is maternal education gradients. Children of mothers with more education are less likely to be harshly punished. These differences are significant in Argentina and Suriname. For example, in both, Argentina and Bolivia, a child of a mother with some tertiary education has 50% less chances to be harshly punished than a child of a mother with elementary schooling only. Take a look at the figure below comparing all 10 countries by schooling of mother.

corporal punishment schooling

Note: Author’s calculations based on the data from Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS): Bolivia (2008), Colombia (2010) and Peru (2012); Multiple Cluster Surveys (MICs): Argentina (2011), Belize (2011), Costa Rica (2011), Jamaica (2011), Suriname (2011), St. Lucia (2011) and Trinidad and Tobago (2006).

Other important points worth mentioning from my findings:

  • There is an increase in harsh corporal punishment as children get older, until about age 5 or 6 years, when the incidence of harsh punishment stops increasing.
  • Children of older women are more likely to be harshly punished than children of younger women.

What about Consequences?

It is very difficult to identify causal effects, rather than simple associations, between corporal punishment and how the person performs later in life. However, a study shows that children of mothers who used little or no corporal punishment “gained cognitive ability faster than children who were spanked.”

Are you surprised by the findings? What do you think about other consequences in the long term? Tell us in the comments section below or on Twitter.

Norbert Schady is the Principal Economic Advisor for the Social Sector at the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB).

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