Corporal punishment – time to ban it.

About nine o’clock Renee sent her son off to bed to one of the small bedrooms in her shabby basement apartment.  It was me and three other guys there that evening, sitting in a circle on beanbags and a shag carpet.  Renee’s son was about six, and soon began fussing about being sent to bed.  One of the older men said Renee should make a recording of her son’s whining so she could click PLAY every night and save her son the trouble of doing it over and over again.  Renee yelled toward the bedroom for her son to go to sleep, but he kept whining.  She yelled that she’d spank him if he didn’t go to sleep, but he kept whining.

She had an implement she’d used to spank her son, but I can’t remember what it was.  It may have been a mirror.  Not exactly a belt, nor a paddle.  The business end was material I recall as an ornately crafted piece of leather.  Renee had been fiddling with this as she sat in the circle with us, after she’d gone to the bedroom and we’d heard her smacking her son, who began whining again later in the evening, causing Renee to yell that she’d spank him again.

“I’ve been naughty, spank me too.”

“I’m gonna spank the both of you.”

Renee looked a bit like Janis Joplin, but prettier and with bad teeth.  She looked nice in jeans.  She once told me that in high school she’d fallen while trying to walk seductively and had been laughed at in an unkind way by a group of teenage boys.  I thought this ironic as Renee didn’t seem to have trouble attracting men.  Indeed, one of the men that night, irritated that her flirtations hadn’t been directed to him, muttered that her I’m gonna spank the both of you remark was “bullshit”.

“I don’t care if my son turns out gay”, she’d said once – this almost twenty years ago.  And of course, that evening someone slyly remarked about spanking and sadomasochism.  To this she’d sighed and said, “Well, I just hope I don’t turn him into a serial killer”.

I tell this vignette to convey that most parents who’ve used corporal punishment are not anywhere near monsters.  Not monsters like some say Judge Adams is –referring to the Texas Court-At-Law Judge seen beating his daughter in this violent and graphic video.

“Candlelight vigil mode” seems the universal response to this kind of child abuse.  Reporters furrow their brows and speak in hushed very concerned tones.  Yet “candlelight vigil mode” is compensation for the laissez-faire attitude our society otherwise takes toward hitting children, so long as it isn’t “abuse”.  I first saw the video – which Andrew Sullivan called “sickening” – on Andrew’s blog, the Daily Dish, the same blog in which he’d earlier made this offhand remark about “caning” in school:

In my high school, caning was routine for misbehavior. The cane hung on the wall above the headmaster’s desk. It made even a dressing down seem threatening. But it wasn’t Asian style: and usually on a clothed bottom. One friend stuck a notebook in his underpants and didn’t disguise it too well. So he got it raw. He asked not to sit down when he came back to class. Request denied.

It’s hard to tell what Andrew Sullivan thinks about corporal punishment of children; he doesn’t say.  But the tone – speaking this time of an incident not videotaped – seems to have a mirthful when I was a lad in jolly old England quality to it.  And even if that’s not how he meant it, the media overall often approach what we euphemistically call “spanking” with a tedious air of forced levity – in what I’d call “tongue in cheek mode”.

But the problem with the tongue-in-cheek/candlelight-vigil dichotomy is that it’s based on the assumptions that “minor” corporal punishment of children is harmless in itself, and that it’s unrelated to the kind of abuse meted out to the daughter of Judge Adams.  Both assumptions are false.  Consider, for example, this exchange between Anderson Cooper and Hillary Adams:

Anderson Cooper:  This tape is extraordinarily difficult to watch.  Is it…  Did this kind of thing happen a lot to you?

Hillary Adams:  A lot of people are asking that and, uh, well, the corporal punishment was just corporal punishment when I was younger and… but then it escalated and got worse and worse over time until, when I was a teenager it started turning into full-blown abuse like… similar to what you see in the video…

I have a couple of thoughts about this.  First, it’s common for abuse to start out as “just” corporal punishment.  As Murray Strauss has noted, “Clinical work with abusive parents has shown that much physical abuse starts as an attempt to correct and control through corporal punishment.”  (Beating the Devil Out Of Them, Murray A. Straus, Lexington Books, 1994, p. 85)  As was discovered after Sweden enacted a ban in 1979, banning corporal punishment outright can nip abuse in the bud:

[R]ates of child abuse appear to have declined; the number of referrals to St. Göan’s Hospital in Stockholm, which receives all child maltreatment cases, had declined by 1989 to one-sixth of the 1970 rate. By the mid-1980s, Swedish rates of physical discipline and child abuse were half those found in the U.S., and the Swedish rate of child death due to abuse was less than one-third the American rate.

So banning corporal punishment reduces the amount of full-blown child abuse.  That’s an important point, and one for which proponents of corporal punishment don’t have a good answer.  But most corporal punishment doesn’t escalate into full-blown abuse, and that brings me to my second point.

In the interview, Hillary Adams said the corporal punishment was just corporal punishment when I was younger.  For a moment, imagine what actually happened when Hillary Adams was younger – when the corporal punishment was “just” corporal punishment.  Now, contrast that with what feminist blogger Jill Filipovich (who is against corporal punishment, by the way) said about her own experiences with “spanking” as a child:

I was spanked very occasionally as a child, although I use the term “spanked” loosely… I was definitely never hit hard enough to hurt and I was never hit on any other part of my body, and I would guess that the “spanking” happened fewer than five times in the course of my childhood.  “Go sit on the stairs” was a much more common punishment.

On a moment’s reflection, it’s obvious that Hillary Adams’ experience of so-called “non-abusive” corporal punishment was worlds apart from Jill’s.  For Jill, being “swatted” a few times was an utterly trivial thing.  And if that’s all we were talking about, I’d just shrug and say, “Well, who cares?”  The problem is, the sanitized version offered by proponents of corporal punishment – “a few taps, never done in anger” – is a Trojan horse.  Once you accept that parents have a right to hit their children, you open the floodgates.  And by that, I’m not talking about the progression to full-blown “abuse”.  That’s a terrible problem, but set that aside for a moment.  Corporal punishment – the infliction of pain but not injury – is harmful in itself.  It’s harmful because the reality of corporal punishment is more onerous than the misconception propagated by the “two taps never done in anger” canard, in part because that’s not anywhere near where the law actually stands on the issue of corporal punishment.  For example, the Texas Penal Code, with which Judge Adams is presumably familiar, says this:

Sec. 9.61.  PARENT-CHILD.  (a)  The use of force, but not deadly force, against a child younger than 18 years is justified:
(1)  if the actor is the child’s parent or stepparent or is acting in loco parentis to the child;  and
(2)  when and to the degree the actor reasonably believes the force is necessary to discipline the child or to safeguard or promote his welfare.

The limits are that the force can’t be “deadly”.  It says nothing about hitting in anger.  I can’t help wonder if Judge Adams might have restrained himself a bit if the law in Texas looked more like this:

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)

Of note, there’s nothing in the Swedish law about hitting in anger either.  Hitting is categorically prohibited, because “hit, but don’t overdo it” isn’t an effective way to protect children from psychologically damaging corporal punishment.

There’s also another peculiarity I’ve seen in the way corporal punishment is defended.  Imagined harms from a ban are often hinted at, rather than fully articulated.  For example, someone will say:

“If a child is trying to put his hand into an open flame, and his mother smacks his hand away, I wouldn’t call that child abuse.”

That’s not a fully developed argument against a ban.  Rather, it’s a description of a behavior that “shouldn’t be called child abuse”.  Now, if you consider why the speaker wouldn’t call that child abuse, it’s easy to imagine the arguments being hinted at in the previous statement:

(1)  Children would harm themselves, because parents would no longer be able to prevent dangerous behavior.

(2)  Good parents would be prosecuted, lose custody of their children, and face criminal penalties.

What’s interesting about the fully articulated argument is that it’s testable.  Corporal punishment of children has been fully banned in:

Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Costa Rica, Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Israel, Kenya, Latvia, Moldova, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Sweden, Tunisia, Ukraine, Uruguay, and Venezuela.

Some of the countries listed above have banned corporal punishment relatively recently.  But Sweden has banned this practice since 1979.  It’s been 32 years.  If hitting children were vital to maintaining a good society, we would expect that in Sweden the rot would have set in long ago.  So here are some questions:  (1)  Have Swedish children harmed themselves because their parents couldn’t prevent dangerous behavior?  (2)  In Sweden, have well meaning parents like Renee been thrown into prison and lost custody of their children?

These questions need to be asked and answered if we’re going to continue to allow children to be hit with impunity.  Vague discomfort with the idea of a ban on corporal punishment ought not be sufficient to deny children a non-violent upbringing.

A final vignette:  I had teacher in junior high, a man in his thirties.  One day he told us that his father would be coming to visit our class in a few minutes.  “My dad’s a good guy,” he said to the class, “a little rough with me sometimes when I was a kid, but…”  And then the teacher stopped in mid-sentence, glancing upward toward the ceiling, as though in self-rebuke, as though thinking I’m not sure I should have let that last part slip out.

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7 Responses to Corporal punishment – time to ban it.

  1. This post reminds me of the case a few years back here in Arizona where a 10 year old boy had been arrested for a multiple murder, killing his father and one of his fathers friends and investigators found a tally the boy had kept of how many times he’d been spanked, and the tally was at over 1,000 spankings.

    I don’t remember the details at this point, but I remember the way people talked about the case, and there were so many people taking the stance that the boy was just ‘no good’. They implied that being spanked over 1000 times by the time he was 10 should have been of no consequence, and that it was ridiculous that others (like me) were of the mind that the sort of and frequency of ‘punishment’ he’d endured just might have had something to do with the killings.

    That there were killings, (and as far as I recall it never really was proven that the boy actually did it, as opposed to him having been ‘framed’ in a way), and that the boy tallied 1000 spankings were terrible and disturbing things, but most disturbing was the angry reaction from too much of the general public directed at an abused 10 year old.

  2. Thank you so much for bringing up this issue. It takes so much courage to say this stuff and it’s so important. Violence against children is the root of both regular and political violence as adults, and the myth of “necessary” violence needs to be dispelled. In particular, I never understood the idea of spanking being better if it’s “not done in anger”–cool indifference to a child’s pain is less frightening? And also, why is it that touching a child gently on the butt is sexual abuse but hitting a child there is not?

  3. Clarence says:

    It takes much “courage” to be against harming children when the one phrase I’ve come to hate most is “for the children” because that’s abused nine ways till Sunday in this and in most western societies?

    And maybe the author of this piece should research the foster family system, before you start a process to take kids away from parents for even minor spankings.

    As for Sweden, and the other countries you listed, you’d be a fool to think kids still aren’t being physically punished in those countries. Indeed, in most of them I’m willing to bet the kids keep the spankings private because they are scared that their families will be torn apart by people trying to protect them from all aspects of authoritarian violence, as if that is ever possible in this world. I’m very surprised that the author also seems to know next to nothing about Swedish abuses of parental (particularly fathers rights), or heck, this in the USA:

    The last thing we need to do is to be giving these idiots more power.

  4. Clarence, I haven’t researched the foster care system, but Professor Murray Straus, Co-Director of the Family Research Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire, has:

    “When a law forbidding parents to hit children is mentioned, almost everyone believes it will result in the expensive and humiliating arrest and prosecution of parents, including parents who are struggling to do their best for their children, even if it is in misguided ways. If a non-spanking law has a policy of informing children and parents that spanking is prohibited, the specter arises of children informing on their parents. There is also a fear that welfare authorities will take children from their parents.
    The Scandinavian experience provides no basis for such fears. Sweden, for example, is sometimes depicted as a very interventionist society, but it has a much lower rate of children in foster homes or institutions than the United States. Furthermore, during the decade following the passage of Sweden’s no-spanking law, the rate of moving children into foster homes and institutions did not increase, it decreased. The fact that children are so rarely placed under state supervision in Sweden and are so frequently in the United States reflects different political and social policies. The United States is committed to minimum governmental interference in family life. But, although that is not the intent, this commitment denies help to many families who need it. The ironic result is more drastic intervention in the long run, such as removing a child to a foster home.”

    – Beating The Devil Out Of Them, Murray A. Straus, Lexington Books, 1994, p. 187

  5. Clarence says:

    A. We don’t live in Sweden. We live in the USA or at least I do, and I am reasonably certain you do as well. Sweden doesn’t have much legal history or political philosophy in common with us, and in practice, radical feminists control certain aspects of that society and people are prosecuted or not prosecuted for political reasons as much as anything else.
    I have no doubt that Swedens foster care system, like Sweden’s prison (aka “correctional” system here in the USA) are both more humane and better run than similar systems here in the USA, Land of Revenge. Once again, you might want to not only read that link that I posted from Fathers and Families , but also research how much physical and sexual abuse occurs in our foster systems, which, like everything else in this society it seems , operate less like a human services organization and more like a business.

    B. You keep referring to a polemic book by a biased researcher in the social sciences to make your points. You mean your mouth didn’t drop when you read this quoted part : “The United States is committed to minimum governmental interference in family life.”, given all you’ve learned from reading court cases, newspaper articles and other things on the internet? Just what does this guy consider “minimal governmental interference”? What level of governmental interference does he want? We’ve already got mandatory reporting out the Wazoo, overly broad definitions of abuse all over the place, all sorts of people from well meaning and smart people (Toy Soldier) to downright demagogues (Wendy Murphy) to represent victims in society. A personal anecdote: The year was 1976 and I was five y ears old. I went to kindergarten one day, and my mom was called in to see a social worker. You see, I had been slapped because I had been doing one of those temper tantrums that 2 to 6 year olds were known for, and the slap had left a small red mark on my cheek. Rather than threatening my mom with removal or criminal charges though such things were (i’m relying on my vague memory of the nice lady and what my mom later explained to me when I asked about it when I was a bit older) certainly mentioned, she suggested a few other options on how to parent. From then on, I was occasionally spanked, but I never got slapped again. And this was in 1976, back in the dark ages, before I guess, people you know cared about children supposedly.

    As for that video, ironically it’s not the 15 or so belt swipes (over her clothes i must add) that bother me about it. What bothers me about it is the rejection of the young lady involved – the attacks on not just her behavior but her person and the threats to basically disown her. Punishment of any type should be for the child or teens benefit and not for revenge or to sate anger, and its important to always let the person being punished know they are loved. Maybe that’s why so many people including myself , don’t consider a few spankings abuse: because we got enough love despite the physical discipline to let us know that our parents cared for us. It appears this Judge has spent years alienating his family, and he’s arguably done this more with his mouth and other means of control rather than with a belt or hand.

    I’ve read the Universal Convention on the Rights of the Child. It sounds so good, almost like the Violence Against Women Act. Who could be against such things? It’s almost like being against apple pie or mother’s milk. But the Devil, as they say , is in the details. I not only don’t think you can ever have a “world without violence”, but I think sticking the governments nose even more into family life will only accelerate the Tyranny already starting in our western societies, and the government, trust me, is no loving parent. As for Sweden, Children’s Paradise, well there’s a good chance they’ve went just a bit too far:

  6. Anonymous says:

    Well my whole take on this is simple: Since everybody has adopted the “Dr. Spock” way of doing things, our kids have run amok. They lack self discipline and direction. They are allowed to do as they like because their parents and guardians are deathly afraid to BE parents and guardians for fear of being thrown in jail. Corporal punishment is vital for raising kids to be well rounded responsible adults. As the bible says, spare the rod (so to speak), spoil the child. It’s just that simple. Parents just have to know when enough is enough.

  7. If by “the Dr. Spock way of doing things” you mean “not hitting children” then no, I’m sorry to say that “everybody” hasn’t signed on. More than 90 percent of children are hit by their parents at some point, and about half of adolescents are hit.
    And if by “running amok” you mean “hitting a sibling”, “assaulting a spouse”, “physically assaulting a stranger”, or “stealing” then consider this: Children who are hit by their parents are more likely to “run amok”, not less. (See generally: Beating The Devil Out Of Them, Murray Straus, Chapter 7 “Violence and Crime”)
    Your whole take on this is simple. And wrong.

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