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Corporal Punishment (When parents hit their children)

We are now up to Chapter 15 in our journey together, and it’s time for us to discuss the 800 pound elephant in the room.  Specifically, let’s talk about corporal punishment (e.g., hitting, spanking).  

It is illegal to hit another person, unless that other person happens to be your own child.  Corporal Punishment is roundly condemned by early childhood experts everywhere.  For example, in 1975 the American Psychological Association (APA) Council voted to adopt the following resolution on corporal punishment:

WHEREAS: The resort to corporal punishment tends to reduce the likelihood of employing more effective, humane, and creative ways of interacting with children;

 

WHEREAS: it is evident that socially acceptable goals of education, training, and socialization can be achieved without the use of physical violence against children, and that children so raised, grow to moral and competent adulthood;

 

WHEREAS: Corporal punishment intended to influence "undesirable responses" may create in the child the impression that he or she is an "undesirable person"; and an impression that lowers self-esteem and may have chronic consequences;

 

WHEREAS: Research has shown that to a considerable extent children learn by imitating the behavior of adults, especially those they are dependent upon; and the use of corporal punishment by adults having authority over children is likely to train children to use physical violence to control behavior rather than rational persuasion, education, and intelligent forms of both positive and negative reinforcement;

 

WHEREAS: Research has shown that the effective use of punishment in eliminating undesirable behavior requires precision in timing, duration, intensity, and specificity, as well as considerable sophistication in controlling a variety of relevant environmental and cognitive factors, such that punishment administered in institutional settings, without attention to all these factors, is likely to instill hostility, rage, and a sense of powerlessness without reducing the undesirable behavior;

 

THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED: That the American Psychological Association opposes the use of corporal punishment in schools, juvenile facilities, child care nurseries, and all other institutions, public or private, where children are cared for or educated (Conger, 1975).

 

In their Position Statement, the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) strongly condemns use of corporal punishment (e.g., “…corporal punishment in such situations teaches children that physical solutions to problems are acceptable for adults and that aggression is an appropriate way to control the behavior of other people. The institutional use of corporal punishment should never be condoned….

Our society cannot afford the devastating effects of failing to protect its children. Each of us individually must commit ourselves to the actions that are most appropriate to our own sphere of influence.”)

I suppose I could join the chorus of experts and just simply write, “Parents should not hit their kids.”  That would make this section very short, boring, and, frankly of little or no use.  You see, I’ve been working with children and families since 1991, and I know a dirty little secret: many (and I mean many) parents hit their kids.  Although only half of parents say that they believe in corporal punishment, studies show that behaviors do not always match beliefs.  For example, one study showed that 64% of parents report that they spank their children, another 20% admit to “spanking but only rarely,” and 16% report that they have never spanked their child.  So now what?  Maybe I could mount my proverbial “high-horse” and proclaim, “Shame on you, you should never hit your kids under any circumstances, you bad parents.”  The result would be predictable.  Parents who hit their children would reject the advice as “just another bunch of psycho-babble.”  Then the discussion would end, and the hitting would continue.  So, let’s keep talking about this. 

In 2002 the debate around the contentious issue of corporal punishment was re-ignited following a thorough “meta-analysis” published in the APA’s most prestigious scientific journal, Psychological Bulletin (vol.128, No. 4, 539-579).  A “meta-analysis” is a “study of studies” or a method of research where the most scientifically rigorous and methodologically sound studies are compounded to yield a statistical concept known as an “effect size.”  In this case, author Elizabeth Gershoff reviewed 88 studies (from a 62-year period).  Immediate compliance increased following parental use of corporal punishment (i.e., the children became more compliant following corporal punishment).  Can we, therefore, conclude that “hitting kids works”?  Not so fast.  “Strong associations” were also found between corporal punishment and all 11 child behaviors and experiences that the authors examined, including increased child aggression, increased negative moral internalization, and decreased quality of parent-child relationship.  Further, the strongest association observed was between use of corporal punishment and an increased rate of physical abuse. 

So if hitting your own child has been demonstrated to have negative effects, why has corporal punishment at home not been made illegal?  Probably, for the same reason that we have not banned fast-food.  People in general and parents in particular vehemently defend their freedom of choice, which includes the “right” to make decisions (good or bad), even when those decisions involve a Big Mac or use corporal punishment with their children. 

From Gershoff’s meta-analysis, we start to see a couple of core issues that may help to explain this “phenomenon.”  First, the immediate effect of corporal punishment seems to be getting children to comply, but there are also less obvious (yet very real) longer-term, broad-based negative effects of corporal punishment.  Another core issue is (as Elizabeth Gershoff, herself, cautioned) that the results of this meta-analysis do not imply that all children who experience corporal punishment become aggressive, delinquent, or poorly bonded with their parents.  Indeed, we have all heard some apparently happy and healthy adults say things like, “My father hit me when I was a kid, I turned out just fine, and I still love my father.”  Indeed, the negative effects of corporal punishment can be minimized by other variables, such as parent-child relations, the forcefulness of the corporal punishment (e.g., mild, moderate, severe), the frequency of corporal punishment, the connection between a child’s behavior and consequences, etc.  To be sure, the meta-analysis found that the more often and the more harshly a child was hit, the greater the likelihood of child aggression or mental health problems. 

The responses from field to Gershoff’s corporal punishment meta-analysis were varied (and at times quite loud).  There were calls for further study of the differential effects of “corporal punishment” versus “abuse.”  There were extrapolations.  For example, in spite of the finding that corporal punishment lead to immediate compliance, since corporal punishment was also found to be “strongly associated” with so many negative outcomes, shouldn’t the fields of psychology, medicine, education, and law unite in strong opposition to outlaw corporal punishment?  Still others argued another position:  the fact that some parents punish excessively should not be used as justification to counsel every parent not to punish at all.  Gershoff wisely responded, "Until researchers, clinicians, and parents can definitively demonstrate the presence of positive effects of corporal punishment, including effectiveness in halting future misbehavior, not just the absence of negative effects, we as psychologists can not responsibly recommend its use."

The modern day ambassadors of good will and champions for children William Sears, M.D. and Martha Sears, R.N. have weighed in on this issue.  In “The Discipline Book: How to have a better behaved child from Birth to Age Ten” they argued against the use of spanking, yet, recognizing the reality of life and parenting, they offered suggestions on “safe” ways to spank that are “less abusive.”  

What can I add to this discussion?  As an idealist and optimist, I believe that if we are truly concerned about our children’s development, if we want to parent optimally, if we want to raise and lead our children by example, and if we want to be kind in our hearts and actions, then we should not use corporal punishment (and I have made great efforts throughout the rest of this book to offer effective alternatives).  But, sadly, as a realist, a pessimist, and a practicing psychologist I am compelled to beg you: If you choose to use corporal punishment please follow these crucial “guidelines.” 

  • Know your State’s definitions of Child Abuse and corporal punishment
  • Use corporal punishment as an absolute last resort, after all other reasonable behavior management strategies have been utilized
  • Use corporal punishment only when a child’s behavior poses a serious threat to himself or others
  • Do not use corporal punishment when enraged or angry
  • Do not hit more than once
  • Never shake, throw, or push/shove your child
  • Never hit with an object
  • Never kick, head-butt, knee, elbow, or strike with a fist
  • Never hit with significant force and never hit with force severe enough to result in any type of lasting physical effect (e.g., redness, bruising, laceration, broken bone, etc.)
  • Limit your hitting to “safe” areas (if there even are such areas), and never hit an area that may result in physical injury (e.g., the ear, the face, etc.)
  • Never hit exposed, bare skin
  • Do not take your child’s defiance personally
  • Use “correctional taps or swats” and make sure your intent is to ultimately help your child achieve more positive behavior
  • When you use corporal punishment make sure that your intent is not to hurt, harm, or “get even” with your child
  • Use corporal punishment at the time of the “offense” (not removed in time)
  • Do not hit when your judgment is impaired (e.g., by drugs, alcohol, situational stress, psychological or psychiatric problems, sleep deprivation, exposure to violent people or media, etc.)
  • Do not ridicule, humiliate or taunt your child
  • Do not “force confessions”
  • Corporal punishment should only be administered by a child’s parent
  • Imagine how you would feel getting hit by someone 5 to 10 times your size

Truly, use of corporal punishment is a “dirty little secret” and I hope this discussion has been helpful in going beyond a simplistic “don’t hit your kids” lecture.  As we discipline our beautiful children, I wish for myself and all parents on this planet the blessings of calm, wisdom, and love.  Don’t you?

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