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Where is Evidence That Non-Abusive Corporal Punishment Increases Aggression?

John S. Lyons

University of Northwestern Medical School

Chicago, IL, USA

Robert E. Larzelere

Father Flanagan's Boys' Home

Boys Town, NE, USA



Two recent reviews of parental corporal punishment have found little sound evidence of detrimental child outcomes such as child aggression. This paper explores whether the 1979 Swedish law against all corporal punishment has reduced their child abuse. Sweden's 1979 law was welcomed by many as a much needed policy toward reducing physical child abuse. Surprisingly, this search located only five published studies with any relevant data. The best study found that the rate of child abuse was 49% higher in Sweden than in the United States, comparing a 1980 Swedish national survey with the average rates from two national surveys in the United States in 1975 and 1985. By comparison, a retrospective survey of university students in 1981 found that the Swedish child abuse rate was 21% of the USA rate in the 1960s and the 1970s, prior to the anti-spanking law. More recent Swedish data indicate a 489% increase in one child abuse statistic from 1981 through 1994, as well as a 672% increase in assaults by minors against minors. The article discusses possible reasons for this apparent increase in child abuse and calls for better evaluations of innovative policies intended to reduce societal abuse and violence.

Poster presented at the XXVI International Congress of Psychology, Montreal, August 18, 1996

Send correspondence about this paper to: Robert E. Larzelere, Psychology Dept., 985450 Univ. of Nebraska Medical Center, Omaha, NE 68198; Email: rlarzelere@unmc.edu; (402) 559-2282

Where is Evidence That Non-Abusive Corporal Punishment Increases Aggression?

Two recent reviews of the literature on parental corporal punishment have found few methodologically sound studies. Further, hardly any of the soundest studies found detrimental child outcomes associated with corporal punishment. This paper explores whether there is evidence that the outlawing of corporal punishment by parents in Sweden and other countries has had any discernible effect, particularly on child abuse and, to a lesser degree, on child outcomes such as aggression.

Lyons, Anderson, and Larson (1993) attempted to review all journal articles on corporal punishment by parents from 1984 through 1993. Only 24 of the 132 articles (17%) included any empirical data on corporal punishment. Less than half of those (11) investigated corporal punishment as a possible cause of some other variable. Most (83%) of the studies were cross-sectional, and only one made any attempt to exclude child abuse from the measure of corporal punishment.

They concluded that there was empirical evidence supporting one of three hypotheses: Several studies found that parents were more likely to use corporal punishment themselves if their parents had used it. There was no sound evidence that corporal punishment was ineffective, nor that it was associated with child aggression.

Larzelere (in press) built on their review by extending the search of peer-reviewed articles to the period 1974 to 1995 plus older articles that met the inclusion criteria. The inclusion criteria were designed to exclude studies that were cross-sectional or whose measures emphasized the severity of usage of corporal punishment. Only 18 studies were found that both met the two inclusion criteria and limited the sample to children under 13 years of age. The 8 strongest studies found beneficial outcomes of corporal punishment, usually in 2- to 6-year-olds. The 10 other studies were prospective (6) or retrospective (4). Three of them found detrimental outcomes, but only 1 of those 3 made any attempt to exclude abuse from its measure of corporal punishment. Further, none of the 10 studies controlled for the initial level of child misbehavior. This seems to be an important methodological problem, since the frequency of every type of discipline response tends to be positively associated with child misbehavior, whether the associations are cross-sectional or longitudinal (Larzelere, Sather, Schneider, Larson, & Pike, 1996; Larzelere, Schneider, Larson, & Pike, in press). Finally, no alternative discipline response in any of the 18 studies was associated with more beneficial child outcomes than was corporal punishment, whereas 7 alternatives were associated with more detrimental child outcomes, mostly in 2- to 6-year-olds.

These reviews suggest that the empirical linkage between nonabusive corporal punishment and aggression comes only from cross-sectional studies, studies of teenagers, studies measuring particularly severe forms of corporal punishment, and, perhaps, studies of punitiveness. This led us to ask how well current societal experiments are working in countries that have outlawed all forms of parental use of corporal punishment.

In 1979, Sweden passed a law prohibiting all corporal punishment by parents. This was hailed as a crucial step in the effort to reduce child abuse (Deley, 1988; Feshbach, 1980; Ziegert, 1983). Several countries have passed similar laws since then (Norway, Denmark, Finland, Austria, and Cyprus), and organizations have formed to advocate against parental corporal punishment throughout the world (e.g., End Physical Punishment of Children [EPOCH]: Radda Barnen, no date).

This movement represents one of the most sweeping changes ever advocated by social scientists. In the United States, for example, about 90% of parents have spanked their 3-year-old children in the past year (Straus, 1983; Wauchope & Straus, 1990). Some social scientific research has been used to support the anti-spanking position (e.g., Hyman, 1995; Straus, 1994), but the reviews summarized above have found such support coming primarily from methodologically poor studies. Given the inconclusiveness of relevant research and the importance of the issue, it is desirable to know whether child abuse has decreased in Sweden following their 1979 anti-spanking law. Accordingly, this article asks two inter-related questions: (1) To what extent have social scientists evaluated the effect of the 1979 anti-spanking law in Sweden, and (2) what do those evaluations indicate about the effects of the anti-spanking law in reducing child abuse? We also report one finding about Swedish trends in assaults by minors discovered during our study.

Literature Search for Evaluations

Two procedures were used to find evaluations of the effects of Sweden's anti-spanking law. First, PsycLit was searched from 1974 through June of 1995 for all publications that included "Sweden" or "Swedish" and either "punishment" or "spanking" in their abstracts. Second, Social Sciences Citation Index was used to identify all articles citing Gelles and Edfeldt (1986) through April 1995, because their study reported a well-done survey of Swedish child abuse rates one year after the anti-spanking law was passed.

Empirical Evaluations of Sweden's Anti-Spanking Law

Five published studies and one unpublished paper were found that included any empirical information relevant for evaluating the 1979 anti-spanking law. Ziegert (1983) published a conceptual, preliminary article on why the law should be effective. His only empirical data was from a Swedish opinion poll showing that the percentage of respondents considering corporal punishment to be necessary had dropped from 53% in 1965 to 35% in 1971 to 26% in 1979 and 1981. In an article comparing Swedish and American use of corporal punishment, Solheim (1982) reported that 26% of Swedish respondents considered corporal punishment necessary in 1978. Like Ziegert (1983), Solheim's (1982) article was mostly nonempirical, discussing such issues as court decisions about corporal punishment in schools, the 1979 law, and expert opinions. Together these two articles show that the decline in support for the necessity of parental corporal punishment in Sweden preceded the 1979 law, and it did not decrease thereafter, at least through 1981.

A third article reported the rate of child homicides in various European countries, comparing 1973/1974 with approximately 1987/1988 (Pritchard, 1992). Note that this compared statistics before and after the 1979 law. The Swedish child homicide rate was the sixth lowest of the 17 countries at both time periods. However, it nearly doubled from 1973/1974 to 1986/1987. Sweden's 93% increase in its child homicide rate was the fifth largest percentage increase among the 17 countries. It should also be noted that the rate of accidental baby deaths in Sweden was the lowest of the 17 countries at both time periods. Unlike the child homicide rate, it decreased by 67% between the two time periods, although 10 of the other 16 countries decreased their accidental baby death rates by an even larger percentage.

A fourth article compared child abuse rates among university students at one Swedish university compared to one American university as reported in a 1981 survey (Deley, 1988). Because these were retrospective reports, they were child abuse rates during the 1960s and the 1970s as these students were growing up, a time period preceding the 1979 law. The critical question asked whether a spanking had ever left physical marks that lasted for more than 10 minutes. Two percent of the Sweden students reported receiving such physical marks from a spanking, compared to 9.5% of the American students. Although this is far from a representative sample, this suggests that the child abuse rate in Sweden was only 21% of the American child abuse rate in the 1960s and 1970s (i.e., 2.0 divided by 9.5 = .21).

The fifth and best study used telephone surveys of a nationally representative sample of Swedish parents to measure the rates of spanking and of child abuse in 1980 (Gelles & Edfeldt, 1986). It used the Conflict Tactics Scale, which was also used to measure the prevalence of spanking and child abuse in two National Family Violence Surveys in the USA (Straus & Gelles, 1986; Straus, Gelles, & Steinmetz, 1980). Gelles and Edfeldt (1986) compared their 1980 Swedish survey only with the 1975 National Family Violence Survey. They concluded that a smaller percentage of parents were spanking their children in Sweden than in the United States, but that there were no significant differences in child abuse rates.

It would have been more appropriate, however, to compare their 1980 Swedish survey with the 1985 National Family Violence Survey in the USA (Straus & Gelles, 1986), which reported a 47% lower rate of child abuse in the United States than in 1975. For one thing, the 1980 Swedish survey was closer to the 1985 USA survey in its method, because both used telephone interviews. In contrast, the 1975 USA survey used face-to-face interviews. Table 1 gives the percentage of Swedish and United States parents reporting the use of various forms of physical aggression in both national surveys in the United States and the national survey in Sweden. In contrast to Gelles & Edfeldt (1986), we report whether the Swedish rate was significantly different from the mean USA rate from both the 1975 and the 1985 surveys. This approach represents a compromise on the issue of which USA survey is the most appropriate comparison, and it assumes that the 1980 rates in the USA might have been halfway between the 1975 and the 1985 rates.

See Table 1

As can be seen, significantly fewer Swedish parents spanked or hit their child with an object, compared to USA parents. Nonetheless, 27% of Swedish parents reported spanking or slapping their child in the past year, reflecting imperfect compliance with the law. In contrast, most of the more serious types of physical aggression occurred more often in Sweden one year after passing the anti-spanking law than they did in the United States. The rate of beating a child up was three times as high in Sweden as in the United States, the rate of using a weapon was twice as high, and the overall rate of Very Severe Violence was 49% higher in Sweden than the United States average from the 1975 and 1985 surveys. Except for weapon usage, all of these differences were significantly different using a test of differences between proportions (Downie & Heath, 1974, chap. 13), p < .05. In addition, the rate of pushing, grabbing, or shoving was 39% higher in Sweden than the average rate in the United States, p < .001. Thus, the rate of spanking was significantly lower in Sweden than in the United States, but the rate of other forms of physical aggression, including child abuse, was significantly higher in Sweden than in the United States.

Because there were so few published studies with relevant empirical data, we also included an unpublished field study by Haeuser (1988) and sought additional data from Swedish sources. As co-founder of EPOCH-USA, an organization advocating the banning of all corporal punishment in the United States, Haeuser (1988) explicitly wanted to "promote positive visibility of this Swedish law in the U.S. and garner U.S. support for the possibility of promoting U.S. parenting norms which avoid physical punishment" (p. 2). Her paper was based on her 1981 and 1988 field visits to Sweden, using extensive interviews of 7 parents and 60 personnel in government, health and human services, and schools.

In the summary, she concluded, "Most, if not all, believe the law has not affected the incidence of child abuse" (p. iii). Specifically, she reported that concerns about sexual abuse and youth gang violence had superseded concerns about physical child abuse by 1988. She also reported that she observed toddlers and young children often hitting their parents in her 1988 visit.

According to her, "In 1981 both parents and professionals agreed that parents had not . . . found constructive alternatives to physical punishment [within the two years since the law was passed]. For most parents the alternative was yelling and screaming at their children, and some believed this was equally, perhaps more, destructive" (p. 22). Haeuser went on to report that most Swedish parents had developed firmer discipline techniques by 1988.

Haeuser (1988) concluded that the child abuse rate was lower in Sweden than in the USA based on Swedish police statistics of 6.5 cases of physical child abuse per 1000 children in 1986. Haeuser compared this to a "U. S. rate of 9.2 to 10.7" per 1000 (Haeuser, 1988, p. 34), but acknowledged, "Since the Swedish police data omits child abuse cases known to social services but not warranting police intervention, the actual Swedish incidence rate is probably higher" (p. 34).

However, the American survey that she cited (National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect [NCCAN], 1988) indicated that the basis of the rate of 9.2 or 10.7 per 1000 differed from the Swedish police statistic in two ways. First, the USA rate included sexual and emotional abuse as well as physical abuse. Second, the USA rate included not only cases known to police, but also cases known to at least one professional across a wide range of occupations, including those in child protection services, public health, education (schools, daycare centers), hospitals, mental health, and social services. If limited to only physical abuse, the USA rate was only 4.9 or 5.7 known to at least one of these professionals, depending upon the definition of physical child abuse. If limited to all three kinds of abuse known specifically to police or sheriffs, the USA rate was only 2.2 per 1000 (NCCAN, 1988).

The most relevant statistics we have obtained from Sweden are police-record trends in physical abuse of children under 7 years of age (Wittrock, 1992, 1995). Those records showed a 489% increase in the child abuse rate from 1981 to 1994 (see Figure 1). The same police records also indicated a 672% increase in assaults by minors against minors (under 15 in Sweden) from 1981 to 1994 (see Figure 2).

Discussion and Conclusions

Although the Swedish anti-spanking law was intended to reduce child abuse, the best empirical study since then indicated that the rate of child abuse in Sweden was 49% higher than in the United States one year after the anti-spanking law was passed. Does this mean that the anti-spanking law increased the rate of physical child abuse in Sweden? Deley's (1988) retrospective data indicates that the Swedish physical child abuse rate was 21% of the USA rate in the 1960s and 1970s. This suggests that the anti-spanking law not only failed to achieve its goal of reducing child abuse, but that the child abuse rate increased from 21% to 149% of the equivalent USA rate, a seven-fold increase relative to the decreasing rate in the United States. We doubt that the increase was actually that substantial, because Deley used a retrospective measure with a small unrepresentative sample. Nonetheless, the available evidence suggests that a sizeable increase in the Swedish child abuse rate occurred around the time of the 1979 anti-spanking law. The other studies indicate no changes in attitudes about corporal punishment nor in child homicides due to the 1979 law.

Was the apparent increase in the Swedish child abuse rate only a temporary increase following their anti-spanking law? More recent data on Swedish child abuse rates would help answer that question. One piece of subsequent data was the 6.5 cases of physical child abuse per 1,000 children in official 1986 Swedish police statistics, which was substantially higher than the 2.2 per 1,000 known to police or sheriffs in the USA. The other available evidence is the sharp increase in physical child abuse in Swedish police records from 1981 through 1994, along with a similar sharp increase in certain assaults by minors.

Why might Sweden experience an increasing child abuse rate and an increase in assaults by minors after outlawing corporal punishment? Haeuser's (1988) description of some parental frustration and yelling in 1981 might indicate an increased risk of escalation to abuse at that time. This is reminiscent of Baumrind's (1973) observation of permissive parents. Compared to authoritative and authoritarian parents, permissive parents were the most likely to report "explosive attacks of rage in which they inflicted more pain or injury upon the child than they had intended. . . . Permissive parents apparently became violent because they felt that they could neither control the child's behavior nor tolerate its effect upon themselves" (Baumrind, 1973, p. 35). Permissive parents used spanking less than did either authoritative or authoritarian parents. So it could be that the prohibition of all spanking eliminates a type of mild spanking that prevents further escalation of aggression within discipline incidents (see Patterson's [1982] coercive family process). Haeuser's (1988) report suggests that Swedish parents later developed new, firm discipline responses that reduced escalations to yelling and possibly to child abuse. But adequate data on the resulting child abuse rates are lacking.

In conclusion, the available Swedish data indicate that we cannot reduce child abuse just by mandating that parents stop using corporal punishment. Parents also need new, effective techniques to replace corporal punishment if it is to be outlawed. It is even possible that mild corporal punishment may play an important role in preventing escalation to abuse for some parents.

The other surprise is that there has been so little empirical evaluation of the effects of Sweden's anti-spanking law. Perhaps it has seemed so obvious that eliminating parental spanking would reduce the child abuse rate that people have felt that no evaluation was needed. If so, this summary of available evidence should shake us out of our premature complacency. The role of parental discipline responses in preventing aggression in parent and child is surprisingly complex (Grusec & Goodnow, 1994; Patterson, 1982; Snyder & Patterson, 1995). We need better research to understand the complexities involved in parental discipline, including its relationship to child abuse. We need to discriminate effective from counterproductive forms of discipline responses, including the role of different forms of corporal punishment in increasing or decreasing the risk of child abuse. We also need better evaluations of policies designed to change parental discipline, given that the effects of the Swedish anti-spanking law seem to have had exactly the opposite effect of its intention, at least in the short term.


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Haeuser, A. A. (1988). Reducing violence towards U.S. children: Transferring positive innovations from Sweden. Unpublished manuscript, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, School of Social Welfare & University Outreach, Milwaukee.

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Larzelere, R. E. (in press). A review of the outcomes of parental use of nonabusive or customary physical punishment. Pediatrics.

Larzelere, R. E., Sather, P. R., Schneider, W. N., Larson, D. B., & Pike, P. L. (1996, August). Power assertion enhances reasoning's effectiveness as a discipline response. Poster presented at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association, Toronto.

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Table 1

Prevalence Rates of Various Forms of Physical Child Abuse in the United States and Sweden



United States


Type of Violence

1975     1985


1. Threw things at




2. Pushed, grabbed, or shoved




3. Hit (spanked or slapped)




4. Kicked, bit, or hit with fist




5. Hit with an object1




6. Beat up




7. Threatened with a weapon




8. Used a weapon




Very Severe Violence (4, 6-8)





1 In the United States this item referred to attempted or completed hits. In Sweden, the item referred only to completed hits. The 1975 and 1980 surveys are taken from Gelles & Edfeldt (1986) and the 1985 survey from Straus & Gelles (1986).

*p < .05, 2-tailed t-test of proportions, comparing the combined USA samples with the Swedish sample.

***p < .001, same test.

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