In light of recent events involving NFL players and domestic abuse—specifically the one reported case of child abuse (where bruises to the back and buttocks and blood on the scrotum were observed by a physician) it’s important to consider the efficacy of corporal punishment and its effect on the children being “punished” or disciplined.
I’ve been a spiritual and family counselor for over 30 years. My focus for the last several years has been on helping people recover from sexual abuse and trauma. I was raised by a strict, authoritarian, military father and was spanked/beaten bare-bottom with a belt, his hand, or wooden ruler from the time I was very young until I was 13 when he went missing in action (MIA) during the Vietnam War. Later in my life when I got married I helped raise two step-children before my biological kids were born. I spanked my step-son with a belt (over his jeans) once—I got sick to my stomach and never did it again. When my daughters came along I never spanked them like I had been, but I did on occasion give them a firm swat to their butt (over their clothes). This was primarily to get their attention and let them know I was serious, and yet I also admit that at times it served to vent my frustration.
For parents, it’s not easy raising children—in general, parents are sincerely trying the best they can. There’s a host of expectations for how a child is to behave and perform to be an acceptable member of a family, community, or society. Everyone including in-laws, the parent’s siblings and parents, neighbors, school teachers, and religious leaders has opinions on how a child should be raised and disciplined.
I have complete and utter empathy for what parents go through in trying to raise their children to become acceptable members of society and understand how to behave in a way that respects other people and property and to manage their impulses and refrain from hurting others. This is euphemistically called becoming “well adjusted” adults who are successful in the world. What is ironic, as I see it however, is that the typical method of disciplining children—instead of creating “well adjusted” mature adults—contributes to exactly the opposite.
Adults, who have been abused as children by receiving beatings, or worse, often must go through some type of counseling to undo the damage that treatment has caused them—and rise above their enculturation in order to not repeat the abuse they experienced onto others (their children, spouse, siblings, peers, neighbors, workmates). Many who don’t get counseling can appear to be “well adjusted” adults in society, however their behavior in private with intimate family members can be where they act-out and perpetuate the abuse they received.
Parents—From a Child’s Perspective
Corporal punishment is a commonly accepted tool that parents use in an attempt to train their children in what is “right” and “wrong.” The practice of hitting (spanking) one’s child goes contrary to all that the child expects from the parent—trust, protection, comfort, guidance. One of the ways children experience abuse is when their sense of autonomy is breached and their body is violated by someone who would otherwise be considered as their resource for love and care.
In my opinion, corporeal punishment (spanking, beating, or whipping) causes fundamental psychological damage that is at the root of why adults are prone to be abusive to their mate and/or children when they later start relationships and families. Is spanking necessary to train a child to behave in a socially acceptable way? It’s certainly easier to spank when one’s patience runs out. But isn’t your child worth the extra effort and time it takes to figure out how to reach him/her and get their cooperation? Granted, in some cases with very young children in dangerous circumstances who can’t understand what is being asked of them parental expediency can be best for the child’s safety—but is it necessary to hit the child when other direct action will do (i.e. pick them up and remove them from the situation)?
Is Spanking Sanctioned Abuse?
Spanking has a profound impact on the child’s understanding and experience of what it means to love someone, the message is “you can hit people you love if you feel it is justified due to their behavior.” If a child has been “bad,” acted disobediently or disrespectfully, or simply isn’t listening to his/her parent—that behavior is met by a parent’s anger and disapproval and these are the emotions that register with the child while it is being beaten.
As inappropriate a child’s behavior can be, it comes from a still developing mind that is not fully able to reason well or understand complex issues—and is unfamiliar (or isn’t retaining) all the rules of social etiquette.
A Child’s Perspective
At a simplified level, the child registers that “mommy/daddy is mad at me because I’m “bad” so I’m being hit by mommy/daddy because they love me.” It may be absorbed at an even more basic level: mommy/daddy hits me sometimes because that’s part of loving me. These are very confusing sentiments and experiences for the child to understand within their immature psyche. From their point of view, this person (mommy/daddy) who they are emotionally bonded to and who is several times bigger and stronger than they are is now (often suddenly) angry and venting that anger by striking the child.
A child being disciplined by an adult sees someone much bigger than they are standing over them, angry and upset with them, wielding a weapon at them. The child who is beaten or spanked is exposed to repeated episodes of fear and dread of physical harm and emotional betrayal (or at least inconsistency) that the child’s immature psyche has to try to make sense of. It is a conditioning and entrainment that enculturates fear, dread, and confusion regarding love and relating lovingly—no wonder there is rampant domestic violence and prevalent dysfunctional relationships.
Is it Child Abuse?
“Here’s a tip for all those NFL football players out there wondering if they’re child abusers—you can’t do something to a 4 year old that you’re not allowed to do to a 300 lbs. lineman!”
—The Daily Show with Jon Stewart
Mr. Stewart was commenting on a story about an indicted NFL football player who beat his 4 year old with a tree branch that left welts on the child’s back and buttocks and drew blood on the child’s scrotum. Anything that would be charged as assault on an adult is not OK to be done to a child, period. However, this only addresses the physical effects and doesn’t begin to understand the emotional and psychological effects associated with corporeal punishment.
Is all spanking, or hitting, your child abuse? Your parental privilege and responsibility does not give you ownership over your child to do with what you want to. Certainly, anything you are not allowed to do to an adult shouldn’t be allowed to be done to a child. Personally, I think anytime a parent raises a hand to strike their child they are causing damage to the child’s state of wellbeing—and this isn’t justified because you’ve lost your temper or are frustrated with the child’s lack of response. The idea that you are protecting them from some larger detriment if you don’t hit the child is ridiculous—you can’t “beat the stupid out” of a child you can only make them fearful and insecure.
Of course there are levels of hitting, or spanking, a child that won’t cause physical damage—but that doesn’t take into consideration the emotional and psychological damage that occurs when a trusted caregiver seen as a resource of love and a refuge from outside dangers suddenly turns into a monster that towers over a child while venting their anger through violence.
“Well, I got beat and I turned out OK.”
How have you dealt with your emotional and psychological wounds from the treatment you received? Your turning out “OK” is likely due to your ability to ignore or divert dealing with your feelings about being abused—and not that the abuse had no (or little) effect on you.
The pervasiveness of corporeal punishment normalizes abuse and attenuates the outrage that simmers below the surface of its victim’s consciousness and who fear being ostracized or demeaned if they speak up about their pain and suffering.
“You’re gonna learn how to listen to me and do what I say!”
Too often the lesson being taught the child is about the parent’s need for submission and compliance from the child and the parent’s unquestioned dominance and power over the child—squelching any rebellion or challenge to the parent’s authority. Whatever infraction that triggered the parent’s outrage gets sublimated and instead, the parent’s outrage becomes about the child’s lack of compliance. As the proverbial “last straw breaks the (parent’s) back”—“How many times have I told you…” is yelled at the child—an exasperation that feeds a perceived challenge to the parent’s authority. When administered to a 4 year old or other younger aged child this lesson is inappropriate to the child’s ability to comprehend and is likely to not even make sense to the child because it doesn’t understand what challenging authority means.
To the child the beating comes after being yelled at and disapproved, degraded, humiliated, shamed over its behavior. There was likely no premeditated intent or purpose to do wrong or disobey—and even if there were such scheming—after all, it is the product of an immature mind that is still learning and adjusting. The child was likely following its instincts and reacting to the flow of circumstances it finds itself in. Serious challenge to parental authority doesn’t happen until later on in adolescence and teenage years—and that’s because of the innate individuation process appropriate for that age group.
When training our pets, we understand that a puppy will “misbehave” and chew on something or dig holes in the yard, or pee on the carpet, several times until it understands these are things that it shouldn’t do. Is it OK to beat a puppy with a belt, fist, stick, or paddle to train it? Why is it OK to do so to a little child? Most people would realize that if you beat a puppy that way to discipline it you create an insecure pet that is afraid of you and obeys out of fear, not love or understanding. Is that the best way to discipline a child? Is the main point to create a fear-based relationship that produces blind obedience out of fear for physical violence? Do you want automaton children that mindlessly react out of fear of punishment or do you want competent, reasoning, discerning children who have self-respect and respect other people not out of fear but from empathy and compassion?
“If it was good enough for me, it’s good enough for my kids.”
Just because you were abused by your parent(s) doesn’t make it right to abuse your children. Did you really turn out so well? Are you really not affected by the beatings you received as a child? You haven’t had episodes of rage or shame that you’ve had to manage so as to not lash out or strike someone? How quick are you to use violence, or angrily shout abuse at someone who isn’t behaving the way you want them to?
Is There Ever a Good Reason to Hit a Child?
What we are teaching our children when we hit them is that violence is a solution to conflict and that love includes hitting someone. Hitting a child says more about the parent than it does the child’s behavior. A parent that hits a child rarely does so with a calm and loving demeanor—on the contrary, it is usually due to losing control and letting frustration push the parent over the top to vent their wrath with violence. Too often, hitting a child is the easy way out, the shortcut to getting what the parent wants—it’s a lazy parent who cannot figure out how else to reach the child’s attention or doesn’t want to spend the time to do so that acts out by hitting. To no surprise, children with experiences of being beaten lead to adults who solve their conflicts that same way with other adults, or children, later in life.
In my own case, it has taken years of personal growth work (with counseling) to resolve my inner rage and feelings of disempowerment to grow beyond the enculturated violence of my youth. I’ve turned my experience into an opportunity to help others overcome their feelings of shame and belittlement and realize their inherent value and empowerment—and it has been a long tough road.
The Bible says: “train up a boy according to the way for him.” (Proverbs 22:6) To me, this indicates parental patience and insight—not striking a child in frustration or as a default punishment. If you’re a parent, please don’t love your child by hitting him/her.