Early in my counseling career, I witnessed for the first time in my adult life, what I’m pretty sure constitutes child abuse. I was in line at Big Lots and a young woman got in line behind me. She had a little boy in the shopping cart who had been crying the whole time I was in the store. I’d say the boy was between 18 and 24 months old and I believed he may have had a cold since he had a raspy cry and his face was covered in snot. The woman began to tell the child “Shut. Up! Shut. Up! Shut. Up!” Each time she said the word “up,” she smacked him in the mouth with her hand--over and over. Not super hard; not like she was going to leave any marks, but still, this was a baby!
I tried making eye contact with several others in the store. An older man in front of me was paying for his items. The cashier attended to the transaction. Another woman in line kept her eyes fixed to the floor. By now the woman had hit the boy 4-5 times and I felt strongly that I had to do something, with or without anyone else’s backing, so without thinking through what I was going to say, I blurted out.
“Ma’am. Excuse me, but could you please stop hitting that baby?” She was dumbfounded for a moment, but she did stop, so I turned back around to the cashier’s disapproving look. He must have known that my intervention was going to create even more of a disruption in his store. And it did.
I won’t go into the details of the woman’s response, but I assure you, F bombs were dropped. I was told to mind my business. “Don’t tell me how to raise my child!” I tried to explain calmly, and honestly, with the least amount of condescension possible, that if she wanted him to stop crying, that hitting him was likely to have the opposite effect. She wasn’t having it. I heard her cursing me as I made my way into the parking lot. And as far as I know, she didn’t continue hitting that poor, sick baby. As far as I know.
Do abusers know they’re abusing?
If that is how she treats her child in public, I thought, what is she doing to him at home? Would she consider what she was doing to be abusive? I doubt it. Apparently nobody else in that store seemed to think so either. And I’d bet that many abusers would not consider their actions to be abusive. Adrian Peterson, NFL running back for the Minnesota Vikings, didn’t think so when he left multiple lacerations and bruising on the buttocks, back, legs, and scrotum of his 4-year-old son with a tree branch. He was actually surprised that anyone might consider his “parenting” to be abusive.
This story has brought the use of physical punishment back into the spotlight. Those who support it would say they are also fervently against child abuse and that there is a line somewhere that parents should never cross. However, spanking apologists fail to define that line with any consensus whatsoever. Is there a line with domestic abuse? Is there a marker somewhere on that spectrum of assault that could be considered beneficial or loving before it is considered abuse? Can you hit ANYONE, without the possibility of legal repercussion? Nope. Just defenseless children. Children are the only people in our society that it is legal to physically assault.
Why is spanking exempt from our general ethics regarding physical aggression?
Polls indicate that 90% of Americans believe corporeal punishment is an appropriate form of discipline. These are people who probably also feel that physical aggression toward others is generally a bad thing. They may have a moral belief that the use of physical force is generally not the best way to get what you want. If there is a sound reason for physical coercion, it better be a last resort kind of solution. Spanking apologists probably also believe that there is a moral or ethical requirement of those who are bigger and stronger when it comes to inflicting violence on a person smaller and weaker. Thus, we say, “Pick on someone your own size.” So where does this moral go when it comes to children, the smallest and weakest of all people?
The burden of explaining why spanking is exempt from these moral principles is on these 90%. They must provide rational arguments why this is so and why spanking is beneficial for children or an effective form of discipline. I’ve compiled a list of some of the most common arguments for the use of spanking and address them each below.
It’s common practice.
The fact that something is common practice does not make it scientifically viable or effective. Study after study have shown that spanking does physical, emotional and cognitive damage and really has no benefits other than stopping an unwanted behavior in the moment. There are plenty of examples of parenting from our past that are no longer supported by science or the law. I never had a car seat as a child, but I’d be arrested if I drove my kids around with them rolling freely about in the back seat today. There was a time when outright child abuse, or domestic abuse for that matter, was not illegal. That was also part of a longstanding culture, but we have laws against it today. Just because something is culturally accepted, does not make it the right thing to do. Bottom line is that “because everybody does it” isn’t an argument for the benefits of spanking.
It’s funny how so many things can shift the course of what’s appropriate in parenting culture. When articles came out about infant deaths, many attributed it to babies sleeping on their stomachs without any scientific evidence proving causation, and suddenly everyone is putting babies on their backs (including me). When BPA was found to have an unofficial link to cancer, bottles or anything plastic were immediately taken off the shelves and replaced with BPA-free bottles. Again, no hard scientific proof of causation. But countless scientific studies confirm the damage of corporeal punishment and still 90% of Americans believe it’s appropriate to hit children.
The Charles Barkley Argument.
Charles Barkley came out in defense of corporeal punishment when the news of Adrian Peterson’s case came out. Essentially, Barkley’s argument stated that if corporeal punishment were a crime, every Southern black parent would go to jail. According to statistics, he’s actually not too far off. Spanking is widely practiced in black families, but is that really an argument for why it’s an effective form of discipline? Of course not. For a great article on a racial perspective of spanking go here.
I was spanked and I turned out just fine.
First of all, says who? Unfortunately, we don’t know how you might have turned out had you not been spanked, so we can’t compare this hypothetical. Second of all, it does not follow logically that because you turned out o.k. that it was because you were spanked. There are many, many factors that may have contributed to your ability to function in society as an adult. This would be like saying, “George Burns lived to be 100 years old and he smoked cigars every day, therefore, cigar smoking is good for your health.” All you’re saying with this argument is that spanking did not seemingly create any maladaptive behaviors for you as an adult, but is this a reason why you should spank your children? No, it is not.
Children need discipline.
Agreed. Spanking is not discipline though. If you’re doing something I don’t approve of and I hit you hard enough, you might temporarily stop doing it, but will you have learned anything? You might learn to avoid me if I make a habit of doing it. You might even fear me. And this is the only thing that is learned with spanking. You learn to avoid getting in trouble, or you get sneakier, which doesn’t have much to do with learning correct behaviors. Discipline involves teaching what should be done. And that means you have to give instruction, model appropriate behavior, create opportunities to demonstrate what is right. It’s not easy. It takes a lot of time. Spanking only takes a few seconds. And if it happens at a time when you are frustrated or angry, it might even be pretty easy—for you.
Spanking is necessary because children are not capable of reason.
Reason precludes the ability to make connections between cause and effect. If they are not capable of reason, then spanking, which is dependent on cause and effect learning, would not work. So don’t do it. But if they are capable of reason, then spanking is no longer your only option. Find another option; one that actually works to create long-term positive behavioral change.
It’s the only thing that works when kids don’t listen.
Listening is a skill and it needs to be taught. Something tells me that whoever is making this argument is not talking about listening the way I was trained to do in my counseling education, for example. I have to assume that whoever is making this argument means that the child is not doing what they are told. They aren’t being obedient.
Obedience is not a highly prized human characteristic. Unless you’re in the military, when does obedience really serve you in your adult life? I would much rather have a child that I could talk to, empathize and reason with, than one who is just good at following orders. We spend way too much time and energy expecting obedience from children who will have little use for it as adults. Alternatively, the ability to actually listen well, think critically, and collaborate with others, are skills that will serve them well as adults. I can recommend several ways to teach these truly valuable skills to children through respectful and collaborative means.
The Bible says “Spare the rod, spoil the child.” It’s the Christian way.
I actually agree with the intent of this scriptural passage, not how it has been widely misinterpreted. The “rod” here is what shepherds in those days used to corral their sheep. I am not an expert at herding sheep, but I doubt that the practice was to beat their livestock into submission. This scripture has nothing to do with spanking, or striking children, or much less about using rods as disciplinary tools. It just means that children need guidance. They do need discipline and to be taught what is right. What does this have to do with beating them with sticks? I chalk this up to the vast practice of misconstruing the Bible to suit one’s own needs and cultural biases.
The Real Reason Spanking Is Still Used
There are many, many reasons to spank a child. It’s just that none of them are any good. And having lots of bad reasons don’t add up to one good one. I left out something important here. These arguments are just the ones that have been debated, but they probably aren’t the reasons why spankings actually happen in the vast majority of households. Most of the time spanking is not done as a conscious effort to raise your children well, even if parents really do buy into the reasons given above.
Most of the time, with most people, it’s the parent’s inability to cope with their own frustration in the moment, which elicits aggression. And aggression seeks a close target. The reasons are a way of masking an impulse that is already there; an impulse that in any other context would be shameful to display in public. But because it’s their child, they have society’s approval to act on it in the name of raising well-behaved children. They say to themselves that it is for the child’s sake. But what is really under that frustration they feel? Impatience? Embarrassment? Stress? Maybe they recognize something in them that they hate in themself and they want to punish it. Stomp it out.
Another important factor is that children have historically been regarded as property, not people. At one time this was also literally true of women. If you own something, you can do whatever you want with it, treat it however you see fit. I’m old enough to remember television sets that you could pound with your fist in order to correct a scrambled image. But as with children, your television didn’t improve in the long run, it finally wore out after years of beatings. People are not property and they should not be treated as such.
Parents have a great responsibility to protect and guide the little people they are privileged to raise up. We want our children to be respectful and that cannot be taught if delivered by disrespectful means. One cannot elicit respect through violence or by force. To curb that impulse would be a real strength and not just a parenting skill. It could very well change your life.
Written by Jiovann Carrasco, LPC-S
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