Horrifying Ways Of Punishing Kids Throughout History

Gone are the days of old-fashioned school punishments like dunce caps and hickory-stick beatings: methods used to punish children have evolved with the times. As comparatively benevolent penalties like time-outs and groundings demonstrate, older discipline techniques have mostly been replaced by non-violent and progressive approaches. However, it's still rather harrowing - and fun - to revisit the childhood discipline tactics that one's grandparents (and one's grandparents' grandparents) endured on a sometimes routine basis. From blood-curdling tribal consequences to old-school Victorian humiliations, the below list details just a few of the disciplinary methods the world once saw fit to practice.

  • Terrorizing Through Folklore
    Photo: Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY

    Terrorizing Through Folklore

    Folk tales were often used to deter children from undesirable behavior. The English used tales like that of Jenny Greenteeth – the corpse-like apparition who pulled disobedient, wandering children into ponds and bogs – and Raw Head and Bloody Bones, who, in the words of folklorist Ruth Tongue, "lived in a dark cupboard, usually under the stairs. If you were heroic enough to peep through a crack you would get a glimpse of the dreadful, crouching creature, with blood running down his face, seated waiting on a pile of raw bones that had belonged to children who told lies or said bad words.”

    Remnants of some of these folk tales are still present today, such as the German tale of "Der Struwwelpeter," which would eventually inspire the character of Edward Scissorhands. Others may take the form of games, such as the Japanese tale of Hanako-san, a ghost-child who haunts girls' bathrooms.

    Preemptive discipline via folk tales is rarely practiced anymore, though the tradition continues to inspire countless artists and horror films.

  • Withholding Food (AKA "Going To Bed Without Supper")

    Sending a child to bed without dinner used to be a fairly common disciplinary practice since a child's access to food was something parents could easily control. In the last several decades, however, withholding food as a punishment is generally thought to be both ineffective and somewhat cruel. Parenting columnist John Rosemond derided the tactic in 2011, claiming,

    "A hungry child isn’t thinking about the ‘wrongness’ of his actions; he’s thinking that he’s hungry. That’s counterproductive, obviously. Consequences need to focus the child’s attention on what he/she did wrong." 

  • Washing One's Mouth Out With Soap

    Few methods of discipline are as infamous as washing out the mouth with soap. Usually administered when a child lied or swore, this tactic was common throughout much of the 19th and 20th centuries. The practice has largely fallen out of favor, however, especially following multiple lawsuits. In one instance from 2009, a child suffered an allergic reaction following the antiqued punishment. The young girl did eventually recover, and she and her younger sibling were placed into protective custody following the occurrence.

  • Dunce Caps In School

    The term "dunce" and its infamously accompanying hat have a rather surprising origin. As stated by the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica,

    "The word [dunce] is derived from the name of the great schoolman, John Duns Scotus, whose works on logic, theology and philosophy were accepted text-books in the universities from the 14th century. When, in the 16th century, [followers of Duns Scotus] obstinately opposed the 'new learning,' the term 'duns' or 'dunce' became, in the mouths of the humanists and reformers, [a derogatory term], a synonym for one incapable of scholarship, a dull blockhead."

    A blockhead, or a conehead, referred to the infamous pointed dunce cap. Though the tool was used as a disciplinary method in schools for centuries, it is almost never used today.

  • Being Dangled Over Smoking, Red-Hot Chilies

    Between the 14th and 16th centuries, unruly Aztec children were sometimes punished by being held over smoking habanero peppers. This ritual usually lasted for only 30 seconds or less, but even brief intervals could cause children acute distress. Long-term exposure to the chili smoke was known to cause "weeping, skin irritation, a strong burning sensation, prolonged coughing, and difficulty breathing." This tactic was sometimes even used as an execution method for criminals.

  • Corporal Punishment In School
    Photo: Queensland figaro / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Corporal Punishment In School

    Though the hickory stick is one of the most common symbols for old-school scholarly discipline, objects such as paddles, canes, straps, and yardsticks were also widely used. Today, physical punishment is prohibited in most schools in North and South America, Australia, and Europe, among other locations, though some parts of the U.S. still allowed such practices as recently as 2012.

    Physical discipline is still widely utilized in other parts of the world and wasn't completely banned in many European countries until the 1990s.