Editorial: Time to end corporal punishment
By John M. Crisp
Scripps Howard News Service, March 21, 2011
|Among the many acts of violence, great and small, that we commit regularly against each other and against animals, I wonder if we’ll ever dispense with one of the most common: hitting children.We call this “spanking,” but the term is used to describe a variety of practices that range from a mild open-handed pat on the bottom to a vigorous session with a coat hanger. At some point spanking shades over into abuse, but the precise point is too indistinct for many parents. If there are responsible ways to spank, many parents, in their anger, are incapable of practicing them.|
All spanking shares several characteristics: it always involves the expression of authority of one person over another, it always inflicts pain, and the vast majority of the time it is administered in anger, or at least frustration. Essentially, it’s always one person hitting another.
Our culture has slowly moved in the right direction on corporal punishment. Unfortunately, plenty of American women are still beaten by their husbands, often with the same hallmarks that characterize spanking: authority, pain, anger. But we take a much sterner view of wife beating these days. Hit your wife and you could be arrested; you’re much freer to hit your child.
Schools used to be a place where a child regularly ran the risk of being hit by an adult. According to the Center for Effective Discipline, twenty states — nearly all in the South, Southwest, and Midwest — still permit corporal punishment in schools, but the trend is in the right direction. And we no longer permit beating or caning of criminals, a method of punishment still practiced in some countries.
In fact, the only members of our society who can be hit with impunity, outside of a boxing ring or hockey rink, are children — the citizens with the least capacity to defend themselves.
And we appear to be a nation of committed spankers. Occasionally this subject comes up among my students: anecdotally, most of them grew up being spanked and, by god, they mean to spank their own children. Spanking often has that hereditary quality.
More scientifically, a study by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, published last summer in Child Abuse Review, indicates that the “spanking rate” for children ages 3 to 5 runs at about 80 percent. The study also found a significant increase in North and South Carolina of parents who use objects to spank their children.
But, we insist, children need discipline. Of course. Ironically, however, a number of studies indicate that, despite any apparent positive effect of spanking, its long-term impact is predictable bad behavior. Alice Park, writing for Time Magazine last May, reports on the work of Catherine Taylor, a professor of community health sciences at Tulane University. Taylor’s study of 2500 children indicates that those who were spanked more frequently at age 3 were much more likely to be “aggressive” by age 5.
In fact, even when other variables are controlled, spanking is a strong predictor of defiance, temper tantrums, demands for immediate satisfaction, frustration, and physical abuse of other people or animals.
Studies like these — and many others — are why the American Academy of Pediatrics, as well as a number of other respected organizations, have refused to endorse spanking in any form. And why some 25 countries have outlawed corporal punishment, even by parents.
I’m not sure that I want to support such deep governmental reach into people’s personal lives. But a careful examination of the motivations and conditions under which we hit our children might reveal that, like capital punishment, we do it more for ourselves than to achieve some goal. In fact, for many people, it’s just “payback” for what they got when they were kids.
In fact, mostly, I suspect, we hit children simply because we can. It’s time to stop.