Hitting children.

Children are entitled to care, security and a good upbringing.  They shall be treated with respect for their person and their distinctive character and may not be subject to corporal punishment or any other humiliating treatment.

– Swedish Children and Parents Code, ch. 6, 1 (tr. Swedish Ministry of Justice)

Corporal punishment of children is an area where policy in the United States lags far behind Europe.  A couple of posts on corporal punishment appeared recently in “This is Hysteria” and “Womanist Musings,” and for anyone interested in exploring the subject further, I’d recommend:  Beating the Devil Out of Them, by Murray Strauss, Transaction Publishers, 2006.  Mr. Strauss lays out many important arguments in the preface to his book, which I’ll quote at length here:

For more than 20 years I argued that slapping a wife is a unique type of family violence.  Writing this book caused me to reconsider that and come to what will seem like an outrageous conclusion to most people – that slapping a child deserves equal billing with hitting wives because the problems are equivalent.  Consider some of the ways that hitting children and hitting wives are believed to be different, but are really similar.

Hitting children is legal and socially approved, but hitting a spouse is a crime.  This is the case now, but hitting a wife was legal until the 1870s, when courts in the United States stopped recognizing the common-law principal that a husband had the right to “physically chastise an errant wife”  It is time to also change the law on hitting children.

Children themselves believe they sometimes need “strong discipline.”  This is not very different from the fact that many wives think they “deserved it,” as did many slaves who were “disciplined” by their masters.  The battered-woman’s movement has worked for years to tell women that no one deserves to be hit and no one should tolerate it.  Now it is time to do the same for children.  All children misbehave, but no child deserves to be physically assaulted.

Hitting children is thought to be different from hitting wives because it rarely results in physical injury.  The low injury rate is correct, but this also applies to hitting wives.  There have been only two studies of assaults on wives in the general population.  One shows that 97 percent of women who were physically assaulted by their spouses did not suffer an injury that required medical attention.  The other study showed that 99 percent were not physically injured.  Staff members at battered-women’s shelters do not see this because injury is one of the reasons women go to a shelter.

When done in moderation, corporal punishment is believed to be different from hitting wives because it does not cause the psychological injuries that assaulted wives experience.  On the contrary…  children who have been hit by their parents suffer serious psychological harm, just as wives suffer serious psychological injury as a result of being hit by their husbands.

Minor assaults on wives, such as slapping, are thought to be different from minor assaults on children (corporal punishment) because the minor assaults on wives can escalate into severe assaults, namely, wife beating.  Unfortunately, corporal punishment can escalate into physical abuse as well.  While slapping a child and slapping a wife can escalate, research shows that “minor” violence against wives does not typically escalate into severe assaults in the form of wife beating.  Usually, minor violence stops there.  Of course, this is not apparent because women whose partners have stopped hitting them do not seek help from a shelter.  Just because violence against wives typically stops at the minor level does not mean that minor violence is acceptable.  Minor violence against women must stop, and the violence by parents that goes under the euphemism of physical punishment must also stop.  Sweden has taken the lead by making all spanking and other forms of corporal punishment illegal.

Spanking or slapping a child is an act of violence, just as slapping a wife is an act of violence.  In both cases, the perpetrators can say, as one man told me, “I didn’t hurt her.”  Almost all parents say the same thing about slapping their children.

The campaign to end violence against women and the creation of shelters for battered women are major achievements of the women’s movement.  Ending corporal punishment of children should be added to the feminist agenda for at least two reasons.  First, since hitting children is an act of violence, ending that violence is part of the feminist ideal of a non-violent world.  Second… ordinary spanking is one of the root causes of wife beating.  Ending corporal punishment is an important step toward protecting women from such assaults.

– Murray Strauss, Beating the Devil Out of Them, Transaction Publishers, 2006, p. xvii-xix, (internal citations omitted).

Some people may take umbrage at the comparison between hitting a woman and hitting a child, because women are adults.  But how does adulthood make things different?  There are rights that one only obtains at the age of majority, of course.  The right to vote, get married, enter into contracts, and so on are all rights we acquire as competent adults.  We don’t have these rights as children, and if we become mentally incompetent because of brain injury, Alzheimer’s disease, or mental illness, then we can lose these rights, because mental competence is a prerequisite for the responsible exercise of these rights.  But a man or woman who has lost the ability to reason does not thereby lose the right to bodily integrity, nor should children be deprived of this basic right merely because they cannot yet reason as adults.

For example, defenders of corporal punishment will sometimes say a child needs to be “taught” to avoid dangerous situations, such as wandering into the street.  But we would be rightly horrified were anyone to suggest physical punishment to “teach” a 90 year old man with Alzheimer’s not to do the same.  Why the difference?  I’m sure there are many baroque philosophical explanations for this, but allow me to offer a realist explanation:  None of us will be children again; all of us might someday lose our ability to reason.  Hitting the elderly shocks the conscience, as it should.  But if the hitting of children doesn’t shock, it’s because our safe and permanent distance from childhood robs us of empathy.

It should give us pause that children, the only class of people who cannot effectively advocate for themselves, are also the only class of people who can legally be physically assaulted.  Think about that for a minute.  It’s illegal and socially unacceptable to hit your wife, and that’s progress.  But effective laws protecting women from domestic violence came into being only after women gained some voice within political and social institutions, not before.

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Here is Murray Straus and Barbara Howard discussing Swedish law and ways to end corporal punishment of children:

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One Response to Hitting children.

  1. Jim says:

    I agree with the thrust of your post. Child abuse is the main form of domestic abuse in the US and always has been.

    “But we would be rightly horrified were anyone to suggest physical punishment to “teach” a 90 year old man with Alzheimer’s not to do the same. Why the difference? ‘

    Because an Alzheimer’s patient can’t learn anything. It’s pointless.

    Even so, when you have to really, really impress something on a small kid, such as staying out of the street, physical punishment is not what does the trick. What a kid that age picks up is the parent’s emotional state, directly. Just the normal level of panic and anger is going to be enough; you don’t have to express it with a swat. You do have to express it clearly and not try to mask it, and then follow it up with some kind of gesture of reconciliation.

    With older kids, if you have to resort to phyical punishment, you are already a long way to failure.

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