Upset problem child with head in hands sitting on staircase concept for bullying, depression stress or frustration

Like Lady Liberty holding her torch, the mothers of my childhood raised rolling pins and wooden spoons to be sure their children behaved. As a teenaged mother, I listened to the words of those around me who said “every good child needs a swat now and then.” I was a parent who spanked. It’s painful for me to admit that I hurt my oldest child. My misguided efforts at discipline were ineffective and harmful. I’ve parented seven other children since and I’ve learned to make more thoughtful choices.

Corporal punishment (CP) is any punishment in which physical force is used and intended to cause pain in response to perceived misbehavior. CP is the most common form of family violence. Usually, parents spank or hit for two reasons: they are frustrated and/or they are trying to change a child’s behavior. The vast majority of parents are disciplining the very best they know how.

Here’s what we know about the use of corporal punishment:

  • Children learn what they experience. Instead of correcting misbehavior, we teach children to hit when they are frustrated or upset.
  • Hitting has harmful effects on health. Long after the pain subsides, the effects linger. CP is related to negative child and adult outcomes. Confidence and self-esteem are damaged, which contributes to emotional and behavioral problems.
  • Children can be physically injured. When a grown-up is frustrated or angry it is easy to forget that they are little and you are big.
  • Families are healthier and stronger when they use non-violent ways to resolve conflict.

In honor of National Child Abuse Prevention Month, the University Of Vermont Children’s Hospital and the UVM Medical Center joins more than 30 hospitals nationwide in implementing a “No Hit Zone” program. The Emergency Department and the Inpatient Pediatric Unit begin the effort, partnering to educate staff about the effects of corporal punishment, and how to intervene while supporting caregivers. Information is available to share with children and families. Posters encourage everyone to learn better options than hitting.

Most people have witnessed a parent hitting a child. To help, stay non-judgmental and look for a private place to talk. Then, start a conversation, with either the adult or the child to direct attention away from the moment. For example with the adult you could say “She seems to be trying your patience ” or with the child “I like your baseball hat. Are you a Reds Sox fan?” Talk about “time-ins,” offering praise and attention to desired behaviors, as well as “time-outs,” how everyone can take a break from escalating behavior. A caring offer of help diffuses tense situations.

Isn’t it time to redefine what is acceptable behavior – how we treat our children and each other? If you or someone you know needs help don’t be afraid to look for support. Changing our ideas about physical discipline will offer our children a better way of life- the right to live in a nation characterized by peaceful, respectful, and non-violent relationships.

Tracey Wagner, RN, is the Inpatient Pediatrics Assistant Nurse Manager at the University of Vermont Children’s Hospital. She is also a pediatric forensic nurse involved in child abuse and prevention.  


Gershoff, ET (2013). Spanking and child development: we know enough now to stop hitting our children. Child Development Perspectives, 7(3), 133-137

Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children (2015). Ending legalized violence against children. Retrieved at:

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