Blame the British for the Global Legacy of Spanking Children

Why you should care

Because physical abuse is encoded in our legal system.

California Surgeon General Nadine Burke Harris, a pediatrician by training, learned quickly that discipline was dealt swiftly and painfully shortly after starting first grade in Jamaica. It’s an experience that contributed to her focus for the past several years on early childhood trauma and its impact on health concerns later in a person’s life.

Corporal punishment in the home gets plenty of attention, but it’s even more controversial when it’s being doled out in the classroom. A half-century ago, only three countries had banned the practice in schools: Italy, Japan and the Indian Ocean island nation of Mauritius. Perceptions have changed, as has the science showing its damaging effects. And by 2016, more than 100 countries had made school spankings illegal. 

Still, many kids are left vulnerable, according to an analysis by UNICEF last year. 

Worldwide, 732 million children attend schools where corporal punishment is not fully prohibited.

The reasons that so many children can still be spanked in schools are even more curious, as cross-disciplinary researchers at SUNY Albany in New York reported in a study released in July. Despite the United Nations adopting a decree against spanking in 1990, many member nations continue to allow it — particularly countries that are former British colonies, including the United States, India and Australia. In addition to that seemingly odd geopolitical context, there was another twist: Countries with more women in power disproportionately banned the practice. 

Why are countries influenced by Britain’s colonial legacy slowest to stop the spanking? The root cause appears to lie in the English common law system, according to Victor Asal, a political science professor at SUNY Albany. That system emphasizes stare decisis, the principle of letting litigation stand mostly on precedent. “Common law is kind of like a stain on your wood table — it takes a lot of scrubbing to clean it out,” Asal says. 

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British schoolchildren demonstrating In London’s Hyde Park, 1972. 

Source Getty Images

In countries that emphasize precedent, social change is often slow. That is why LGBTQ rights have also lagged in places with common law origins, Asal notes. Meanwhile, countries that rely on civil code — such as France, Brazil and the Philippines — can often change their laws through legislation without as much fear of courts interfering. That’s why South American and European countries with civil-code-based governments have been among the quickest to outlaw spanking in schools.

 

“Latin America doesn’t have a great civil rights record at all. But a lot of these countries have a civil law code, and they’ve had a ban since 2006. In Africa, a lot of the English colonies don’t have a ban. But the French colonies are likely to,” Asal says. 

The study authors also found that countries with greater female empowerment were more likely to ban corporal punishment in schools. An easy answer is that polls show women to be less supportive of spanking than men. But the trend is also a reflection of a larger truth — that nations led by women tend to have more progressive values as a whole. “Empowering women is changing the way policy happens,” Asal says.

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Corporal punishment is still legal in public schools in these 19 states, marked in red

Source National Center for Biotechnology Information, Map by Ned Colin

Just because spanking is banned on the books doesn’t mean it’s not still happening in schools. Lucy Sorenson, a study co-author and public policy professor at SUNY Albany, says the next step will be to do a broader analysis of implementation and enforcement of such policies. Corporal punishment can still happen at home and in the workplace. Studies have shown that physical punishment increases aggression in children, negatively affects academic achievement and often encourages bad behavior in the long run. 

She notes that one quirk in the study is that countries with patchwork laws like the United States — right now, spanking is legal at public schools in 19 states and at private schools in every state but Iowa and New Jersey — are included as non-ban countries despite them having partial bans in place. “There is a lot of nuance in the laws and what schools are covered, and we weren’t able to catch it,” Sorenson says. “Not only is there less regulation in private schools, but also less data coming out of them. … There is this invisibility problem that’s not being reported.”

The United States has another unique factor to consider when it comes to the spanking debate: the argument that swift discipline to immediately stop problematic behavior may be essential to young African American boys and girls. But the science is clear, say experts, that corporal punishment harms kids, and that the psychological hurt lasts longer than the physical sting. 

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