Questions and answers about disciplinary violence

New revised and expanded edition 2005

Olivier Maurel

Foreword by Alice Miller

Original Title: La Fessée: Questions sur la violence éducative (2005 – La Plage)

Translated by Tom Johnson (2009)

Call Number: HQ770.4 M34 2009


This book is a gift to the millions of young people who are yet to become parents. A gift also and especially to every child yet to be born whose parents will have had the good fortune to read it. Without question, it will be appreciated as a rare source of essential and valuable information that refrains from laying blame; rigorous, yet presented in a way that is free of pretension.

What is not apparent right away is how this guidebook allows us to open our eyes, to emerge from blindness and look squarely at this obvious fact which the taboo against judging our parents' behavior has kept hidden from us: children should never be beaten. We all knew this in our hearts, but early on when we were little we had to learn the opposite: that being hit was beneficial, that it was "for our own good," that it caused us no suffering, that it was just and normal to assault a weaker being than oneself while claiming it to be a beneficial act.

Olivier Maurel rejects all of these lies, all of these habits which consist of looking for excuses, deflecting the truth, or hiding it. He reveals it simply, gradually, with every new question that he answers, clearly, without blaming the reader, but with no concessions or ambiguity. That is what makes this an innovative, clear-sighted, and important book, despite its compact size.

As we proceed through its pages, we emerge little by little from everything that was instilled in us throughout our lives. By the end, it becomes apparent to us that reading this book has taken us to a place where we always wanted to go but were always kept from reaching. We feel relief as everything falls into place. We are finally allowed to take seriously what we felt so clearly as far back as our earliest days: that it is not right, and is even harmful, to hit a small person.

I thank Olivier Maurel for collecting all this information and for providing it to us with such skill and simplicity.

This book must be distributed quickly and as widely as possible. It would be a shame if any parents had to say to themselves, "Oh! If only I had read this book before my children were born."

 Alice Miller

Why is it that hitting an animal is called cruelty, hitting an adult is called battery, and hitting a child is called discipline?

— Anonymous

We cannot rid ourselves of an evil  without first naming and judging it as an evil.

— Alice Miller 1

Treat children exactly as you would like children to treat you.

— Norm Lee


In writing this book, I was constantly mindful not only of spanking as evoked by the title but the whole array of corporal punishments that children across the world suffer. It is important in a country like France, where anything more violent than a spanking or a slap constitutes child abuse, to realize that it took a century or two of progress to bring us to this point. In most of the world's countries, this progress has not taken place, and inflicting blows with a cane or other blunt instruments is considered normal and beneficial for children, just as it was in France one-and-a-half to two centuries ago. We also must never forget that in justifying and tolerating slaps and spankings in our own midst, we enable the justification of caning in those places where it is a facet of ordinary, everyday disciplinary violence.  

Children virtually everywhere are treated with a brutality that few adults suffer, and what is more, hardly anyone is concerned about it. All this violence unfolds on a dead end street of our consciousness. This is no accident, since, as we shall see later, disciplinary violence is itself the very cause of our ignorance and apathy in this regard.  

I would like to begin this book, if I may, by urging readers not to skip Part 2, even if the format of cataloging countries does not make for easy reading. Only this country-by-country presentation will provide a concrete vision of how children are being treated every day of our lives, all around the globe, not by torturers but by parents and teachers whom nobody advises of the consequences of such treatment.   

Just a few dozen years ago, it was possible for us to doubt the harm caused by subjecting children to corporal punishment. That is no longer the case today. The latest research on brain function unequivocally shows that blows received by children cause brain lesions and hinder their development. Internationally renowned neurologist Antonio R. Damasio endorses the idea that the way children are treated can account for a number of cruel and aberrant behaviors particular to mankind, which we casually attribute to "human nature."   

The World Health Organization, moreover, has taken a stand, ranking corporal punishment among the causes not only of adolescent and adult violence but also of a great number of illnesses. But very few people have read this report.   

It is therefore hoped that this book will sound an alarm not only for the benefit of parents and everyday citizens but also for governments, major religious authorities and especially Christian churches, human rights organizations, and of course groups dedicated to protecting children's rights, groups which, paradoxically, deal with child abuse yet often remain indifferent to ordinary disciplinary violence.   

Since the first edition of this book in March 2001, there has hardly been any progress. Only one country, Iceland, has joined the list of eleven countries to have prohibited disciplinary violence at the family level. There was reason to hope for the same progress in Canada and Great Britain; however, in January 2004 and July 2004, respectively, these countries decided, despite the rallying of children's defense organizations, to maintain the right to use "reasonable" chastisement, which means virtually nothing was changed. With regard to schools, Delaware was the only state in the U.S. to ban corporal punishment, as 27 out of the 50 states had previously done. In the Punjab region of Pakistan, they are preparing to take the same step, though again it applies to school and not the home. Even in France, we have childcare professionals at the highest levels continuing to oppose legal abolition under the pretext that "public opinion is not there yet." But when do we expect it to arrive if none of our appointed defenders of children will get the ball rolling? On the other hand, in Africa (Cameroon and Togo) and Haiti, we are starting to see some groups that are committed to combating disciplinary violence. Also just created in March 2005 is the Observatory of Ordinary Disciplinary Violence, whose main objective is to make the reality and the dangers of disciplinary violence plainly evident in all nations of the world (see the Observatory's presentation in Appendix IV).   

In terms of our potential for self-awareness, the practice of corporal punishment also generates error and ignorance. Indeed, we continue to talk of man in the general sense without any consideration of whether the brain's integrity was preserved or was turned upside-down during the long and critical childhood years by blows received within the family and at school. We continue our discourse on violence without considering that the earliest violence children suffer is at the hands of their parents. Attempts to alert intellectuals, public authorities, or even licensed defenders of children to the toxicity of ordinary disciplinary violence and to the need for an outright prohibition quite often go unanswered, as if these concerns were completely incongruous and unworthy of attention. Whatever responses they do get are faintly condescending and dismissive: what possible bearing could some childhood melodrama have on the truly serious realms of politics and history? But once someone has studied the matter a bit, they no longer take umbrage. We know that the majority of people were hit, that they had no choice but to take their parents' side, that they were ashamed of the blows they received, that they look with derision upon the child they once were, and that for them to take their own past suffering seriously would make them feel they had lost their sense of being a serious grownup and their claim to membership in that segment of humanity--adults--which has the right to hit another.   

The expansion that this edition of Spanking brings to the first edition is three-fold. First, there are ideas that either came to me in response to the questions and objections of readers/listeners or which they suggested directly. I would like to give special thanks to the parents of the Internet discussion group Parents-conscients, whose questions and personal accounts never fail to inspire reflection upon the raising of children. Secondly, there is a great deal of information borrowed from new books on the scene, in particular the works of American neurobiologists who are currently involved in state-of-the-art brain research and whose findings confirm the toxic nature of physical punishment. Lastly, there has been much reporting from all around the world about the state of affairs regarding disciplinary violence.  


Whom does spanking concern?

According to a January 1999 SOFRES poll, 84% of French children are hit by their parents. Only 16% of parents surveyed never strike their children at all. In a great many countries around the world, the proportion of children who are hit goes up to 90 or 95%, with children being hit both at home and at school. This means that virtually all of mankind has been subjected to more or less violent blows at an age when we are most fragile and impressionable. In many countries, moreover, the most commonly used punishment is the bastonnade (strokes of a cane, rod, paddle, whip, belt, vine, plastic hose, or electrical cord). There is no animal, no matter how ferocious, that inflicts this kind of suffering on its young in order to teach them. And yet, hardly anyone thinks twice about all the disciplinary violence that is advocated or tolerated, nor about its devastating effects.  

Why is this book completely free of humor?

There is a tacit agreement that we are supposed to talk about spanking with a good-natured and indulgent smile ("A good spanking never hurt anybody") or with a knowing smile ("Spanking? So this book's on the racy side, eh?"). But why all the smiling? In Costa Gavras' film The Confession, a defendant in the court of Prague is taken to the bar before his judges, wearing neither suspenders nor a belt. When he is ordered to place his hands on the bar, he lets go of his pants, which fall to his ankles, causing an uproar of laughter in the assembly. The defendant likewise begins to laugh, complicit in the laughter of his tormentors. Those who laugh at the blows they have received are like this unfortunate man, forced to take his distress lightly. By laughing with those who hit us thinking it was the right thing to do, and with everyone who hits children, we become their accomplices. One of the worst consequences of corporal punishment is that upon reaching adolescence or adulthood, each person comes to see those punishments as trivial and something to laugh at. There is only one true perspective on corporal punishment: that of the children who are terrified by it.  

Why are children the only class of people permissible to hit?

Over the centuries, masters could beat their slaves or servants. Husbands could beat their wives. Officers could beat sailors and soldiers. Prison guards could beat inmates. Most countries have abolished these usages. Adults are protected by law. No adult-vocational trainer would think they had authority to slap around an inept or uncooperative trainee. No one would think it was normal if a man or woman were to slap their mother or father who, due to age and diminished mental faculties, refuses to eat or to wash. We do find it normal, however, to slap children for similar behaviors that are just as much a function of their age and immature brain. What justifies this blatantly unequal treatment?  

Why are children treated more violently than machines?

What would we think of a computer novice who, failing to master the functions of his PC or Mac, tries to get results by banging on it every which way?

This is nevertheless what the human race on all continents has been doing for millennia to its own children, who by contrast are equipped with a cerebral organ more sensitive than any computer. And one thing that can be said for children, they are more sensitive but more resistant than computers are.

Mishandled, a computer will break down. The user therefore finds it is wiser to consult the manual than to hit the machine. A child, for his part, if no vital organs are hurt, does not break down but continues to function apparently as normal. He even behaves like everyone else. And later we wonder, perplexed, what could have been the source of his incomprehensible violence.  

Aren't there worse things than corporal punishment?

Since early civilization and no doubt even today in certain non-literate societies, children are subjected to four major types of violence: bodily mutilation and deformation, sexual violence, infanticide, and disciplinary violence.

These classes of violence do not have equal quantitative importance nor equal standing. The first (circumcision, clitoral excision, various deformations) relates only to certain societies. Sexual violence and infanticide are common but generally considered criminal offenses. The only violence universally allowed, even advocated, is disciplinary violence (raps, face slaps, spanking, caning, and other painful and humiliating punishments).

A child can also be marked by other things besides parents and teachers' blows. Looks, judgments, and punishments of the "Write 100 times: I am a dimwit" variety can have devastating effects. But no other manner of wounding is regarded as an educational practice, which is why none is used on the same massive scale as hitting and other physical punishments are. No one, for instance, recommends calling children names, whereas books recommending a "corrective smack" or spanking are still to be found on bookstore shelves. The whole human race for the most part believes that hitting children is "for their own good" and that there is no way around it.

At the same time, hitting and other physical punishments are addressed directly to the body. And the human body reacts the same as the body of an animal when facing an attack. It sets off an array of instinctive reactions that nature has provided for the survival of the species and which drive us, like any primate being attacked, to either flee or defend ourselves.

Later we shall see that when neither fight nor flight is an option, such as when a child is hit by his parents, the normally life-saving stream of hormones through the body becomes destructive. It makes no difference whether the blows are given with or without affection. The body does not take stock of intention; it takes stock of aggression.

Doesn't criticizing corporal punishment risk making parents feel guilty?

Should we avoid criticizing domestic violence so as not to make violent husbands feel guilty? Road signs marking "Danger!" are not intended to "blame" drivers but to do the favor of bringing a real danger to their attention. Unfortunately, there is no equivalent to the rules of the road when it comes to parenting. It is nonetheless imperative to point out the inherent dangers of corporal punishment and to try to suggest ways to avoid it. It is normal to feel guilty about hitting a child, as well as to apologize and look for ways to avoid doing the same in the future. This book might be able to help. That is its aim in any case.

Outline of this book

The first major part reveals the history of corporal punishment, describing its various forms as well as religious and institutional viewpoints. From there, it is explained why we should do away with disciplinary violence, how it is possible to raise children without hitting, and what has been the experience of countries that have abolished it. This is followed by some ideas for learning more and taking action, along with two series of questions for the author and for the reader.

The second major part presents a continent-by-continent, nation-by-nation "state of the world" with respect to disciplinary violence. As dense and overwhelming as this section may be, I recommend diving right in to get a concrete picture of the gauntlet of violent training that nearly all the world's children go through on the way to becoming adults. Once this sets into our consciousness, we are less astonished by man's capacity for extreme cruelty in light of all that people are subjected to during their most formative years.

Lastly, there are some appended texts, including an appeal to Christian churches. The advantage of a book made up of questions and answers is that the readers may leaf through, choosing questions that interest them without having to follow the page order. The downside is that several different questions may have overlapping or somewhat similar answers. It is hoped that those who opt to read this book from cover to cover will forgive the often inescapable repetitions which they will come across.

1 – A Brief History of Disciplinary Violence 2 – The Nature of Disciplinary Violence and Opinions on the Matter 3 – Why we must stop using corporal punishment
4 – How can we raise children without hitting? 5 – Why is it necessary to ban disciplinary violence? 6 – What to do?
7 – Question for the author 8 – Questions for the reader 

World geography of disciplinary violence by continent and country

APPENDIX I                               APPENDIX II
Introduction for the EMIDA Family Education Program Why the Church must denounce ordinary disciplinary violence

APPENDIX III                               APPENDIX IV
Resistance every advocate of a spanking ban can expect to face Declaration against "disciplinary" violence

About the author

Visitors since August 2009


1. TRANSLATOR'S NOTE: Translated from the French citation; original English quote not found.