Spanking and Mental Health; Prescription for Reform
By Herbert A. Falk, Ph.D.,
Excerpted from Corporal Punishment: A Social Interpretation of its Theory and Practice in the Schools of the United States, Bureau of Publications, Teachers College, Columbia University, 1941. pp. 144-47

Spanking and Mental Health

Before concluding the discussion on the practice of and attitudes toward corporal punishment, some comment should be made on the emphasis of the psychoanalytic school and the mental hygiene movement in so far as they are relevant to the problem on hand. The emphases of psychoanalysis have a definite bearing on the problem of corporal punishment. One need not necessarily subscribe to all the assumptions and conclusions of that school in order to grant the validity of the interpretations with respect to corporal punishment. The assumption is that impulses are the mainspring of human activities and that when they are thwarted, perversions are likely to result. This is by no means confined to the psychoanalytic school of thought. The danger that subjecting children to corporal punishment may result in a feeling of inferiority, and abnormal compensatory activities, such as daydreaming, evasiveness, etc., is real indeed. The literature on corporal punishment written from the psychoanalytic point of view especially stresses the dangers of masochism. Thus Schohaus writes:

It is well known that corporal punishment may lead to a pathological displacement of erotic impulses. The new psychology suggests that masochistic tendencies may already be found in children. By this term is to be understood the phenomenon that some people derive sexual pleasure from pain, that they like it to be given by others, and especially by those they love. If this perverse erotic tendency is established, it may in later years lead to severe mental disturbances and tragic inhibitions which may continue throughout life. One should not exaggerate these dangers, but they exist nevertheless, and there are a great many more persons who suffer from masochistic sexual difficulties than the lay public is commonly aware. 1
The importance of the early experiences of the child in determining his permanent character traits are relevant in connection with the recent tendency on the part of some teachers and parents to limit the infliction of corporal punishment to infancy and early childhood. Granted the importance of the early experiences of the individual, a point of view not necessarily limited to writers of the psychoanalytic school, the practice of corporal punishment in the case of young children would be open to even greater criticism than its infliction upon older ones.

1. Willi Schohaus, The Dark Places in Education, 1932

Prescription for Reform

For education to become an instrument of social reconstruction, the practice of corporal punishment, and the attitudes which form the basis of such practice, must be eliminated from educational procedure, orientation and thinking.... [W]e wish, however, to point out the lines along which progress must be made if modern education is to be free from the vestiges of passing educational and social systems. The abolition of corporal punishment is contingent upon special legislation, increasing social intelligence, and a better prepared teaching profession....

Progress towards forms of discipline consonant with contemporary social and educational ideals no doubt entails the increase of statutory provisions and board regulations prohibiting the use of corporal punishment.

It is clear, however, that an effort mainly directed to legislation will fall short of its purpose. For the enactment of such statutes and efforts to make them effective will largely depend on an enlightened public opinion. As yet the growing realization of the nature of the contemporary social setting, the need for social planning, the educational implications of social planning, the changing emphasis and practices of modern education are not definite enough. As this realization increases, corporal punishment in the schools will no longer be tolerated. The effort to abolish corporal punishment must, therefore, be part of a larger educational effort to render adults sensitive to the new social and educational needs and ideals.

Finally, the abolition of corporal punishment is contingent on a more intelligent and better-trained and better-selected teacher. A teacher who is emotionally balanced, who understands that education is a process whereby the individual recreates himself by engaging in what to him are meaningful experiences, and who is capable of guiding activities emerging from the children's individual interests along educationally fruitful lines will surely find no need for resorting to the infliction of pain as a means of school control.

Legislation, public enlightenment, and an intelligent teaching profession are mutually complementary factors in the abolition of corporal punishment. An enlightened public opinion will make prohibitive legislation possible and its execution effective. Legislation will habituate the public to an educative process not based on force. An intelligent and well-trained teaching profession will reconstruct education along lines which do not tolerate the use of coercion, thus reinforcing enlightened public opinion and in turn being reinforced by it.

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