Today, one finds no support for spanking in the scientific literature. This opinion, shared by mental health and child development experts, and other professionals in related fields, has been evolving for many decades and its beginnings can be found centuries ago. That is not to say there are no advocates for physical punishment of children, as indeed it would be false to claim there are no advocates for physical punishment of wives. Both practices are widespread and people who hit other people usually believe they have valid reasons.
The Lasting Effect on Children
Some researchers claim that every act of violence by an adult toward a child, no matter how brief or how mild, leaves an emotional scar that lasts a lifetime. To some extent we can demonstrate this from personal experience. Most of us must admit that the most vivid and most unpleasant childhood memories are those of being hurt by our parents. Some people find the memory of such events so unpleasant they pretend that they were trivial, even funny. You’ll notice that they smile when they describe what was done to them. It is shame, not pleasure, that makes them smile. As a protection against present pain, they disguise the memory of past feelings.
- In an attempt to deny or minimize the dangers of spanking, many spankers have been heard to argue, “Spanking is very different from child abuse,” or “A little smack on the bottom never did anybody any harm.” But they are wrong.
- A good comparison to spanking is exposure to chemical compounds containing lead. In earlier generations, most people lived in houses painted with lead based paint, and most survived with no apparent ill effects. Were they smart, or just lucky? Today, we don’t do that anymore. We know better. Likewise, informed parents recognize that spanking children is like exposing them to a dangerous toxin. No good can result and the risk is great.
- But some parents will ask, “How can you claim to be a responsible parent if you don’t grab the child who is about to run out into traffic and deliver a good smack so that your warnings about the danger of the street will be remembered?” In fact, being spanked throws children into a state of powerful emotional confusion making it difficult for them to learn the lessons adults claim they are trying to teach. Delivering a so-called “good smack” neither diminishes the adult’s anger nor improves the child’s behavior. Adults who spank tend to get angrier; spanked children tend to behave worse. And spanking’s negative effect on a child can be long-lasting or permanent. It does not teach children that cars and trucks are dangerous. It teaches them that the grownups on whom they depend are dangerous.
The spanked child is less able to regard the parent as a source of love, protection and comfort which are vital to every child’s healthy development. In the child’s eyes the parent now appears to be the source of danger and pain. Fear, resentment and mistrust that result from spanking, undermine children’s feelings of attachment to the most important adults in their lives. A child who is thus betrayed, like the child who is denied adequate food, warmth or rest, suffers and fails to mature in the best possible way.
Some parents rarely spank or don’t spank at all, but are always threatening to do terrible things. “If you don’t keep quiet while I’m on the phone, I’m going to sew your mouth shut with a big needle,” or “Better watch out, or somebody is going to chop your fingers off. That’s what they do to naughty children who are always touching things they shouldn’t.” They find it easy to manage children by these means -at least temporarily.
At first, while children believe adults’ threats, they obey out of fear. But they soon learn to sneak and tell lies in order to evade the terrible punishments they believe are in store for them. Later, as they discover the threats are empty, they conclude (correctly) that the grown-ups they once trusted are in fact not trustworthy.
When trust between children and their closest caretakers is damaged in this way, the children’s ability to form trusting relationships with others is also damaged. This may render them incapable of ever achieving cooperation or intimacy with anyone. People who have been damaged in this way tend to see all relationships as negotiations, as deals to be won or lost. They see innocence, honesty and trustfulness in others as weaknesses to be exploited, exactly as it was once done to them.
Spanking teaches children that human interaction is based on force, that might makes right. The more a child is spanked, the greater is the likelihood that that child will become an adult who deals with others, not by reason and good example, but by force. What kind of person are we describing? The bully is such a person. The rapist is such a person. The wife beater is such a person. The quack, the cheat, the con artist, the crook-each of these is such a person. And so are cowards and hangers-on who derive their power secondhand by clinging to such people as those we’ve just listed.
Spousal Battery and Spanking
In the overwhelming majority of cases, husbands and wives whose relationship includes violence are also violent toward their children. Such parents surely were spanked when they were little and witnessed others being spanked. Battering and battered spouses who spank their children are raising them to be batterers and victims exactly like themselves. The children learn from their parents’ example that the way to vent frustration, express disapproval and assert authority is by hitting someone smaller and weaker than themselves. They see this principle demonstrated every time they witness their parents fighting, as well as every time they are on the receiving end of violent punishments. They learn that once they are big enough and strong enough, they can control others by threatening or hurting them. They learn that it is okay for husbands and wives to batter each other and for adults to batter children.
- When children, whose personalities have been formed in violent households, grow up and produce children of their own, they find it very difficult to break free from the behaviours they have witnessed and experienced. The skills they apply to family life will be the poor ones they learned from their parents, and they are likely to carry on the cycle of violence through their own innocent children. As spanking disappears from family life, other forms of domestic violence will also disappear. Not before.
Physical injuries and deaths of children caused by their caretakers often are the consequence of physical punishment carried to extremes. Perpetrators of even the most horrendous acts against children typically explain that the child’s misbehaviour called for punishment, and the outcome was unintended or accidental.
- Many of the babies who die annually “falling out of the crib,” “falling down the stairs” or because they “just stopped breathing for no reason” would be added to the statistic of non-accidental deaths if the truth were known. Sometimes the victim is blamed for his own misfortune, e.g, the child “bruises easily,” “is accident prone” or “refused to stand still while being punished, and that’s why the belt buckle caught his lip.
- Spankers are often heard reciting the soothing catchphrase about never spanking in anger. This bogus claim belies what typically motivates people who hit children: anger. Many spankers are habituated to the act because it provides an instant outlet for feelings of frustration and anger — not because they’ve found it an effective way to improve a child’s behaviour. Because anger, by its very nature, tends to escalate as it is indulged, there is no safe way to hit a child.
Sexual Molestation and Spanking
Spanked children don’t regard their bodies as being their own personal property. Spanking trains them to accept the idea that adults have absolute authority over their bodies, including the right to inflict pain. And being hit on the buttocks teaches them that even their sexual areas are subject to the will of adults. The child who submits to a spanking on Monday is not likely to say “No” to a molester on Tuesday. People who sexually molest or exploit children know this. They stalk potential victims among children who have been taught to “obey or else” because such children are the easiest targets.
Spanking the Buttocks and Sexual Development
Spanking of the buttocks can stimulate immature sexual feelings in some children. They have no control over those feelings, nor do they understand what is happening to them. The tragic consequence for some of these children is that they form a connection between pain, humiliation and sexual arousal that endures for the rest of their lives. Even though they may marry, raise families, hold responsible positions in the community and show no signs of emotional disturbance, they may be secretly and shamefully tormented by a need which, in some cases, compels them to hire prostitutes whom they spank or from whom they receive spankings. The pornography industry does a thriving business catering to the needs of these unfortunate individuals.
- Medical science has long recognized and documented in great detail the link between buttocks-beating in childhood and the later development of unnatural sexual desires and behaviours. This should be reason enough never to spank a child.
Physical Danger of Hitting the Buttocks
- Located deep in the buttocks is the sciatic nerve, the largest nerve in the body. A severe blow to the buttocks, particularly with an instrument such as a piece of wood, could cause bleeding in the muscles that surround that nerve, possibly injuring it and causing impairment to the involved leg.
- The very delicate tail bone at the base of spine is also susceptible to injury when a child is hit there. And when children are required to bend over for beatings, their sex organs may be injured. Dislocation of the tail bone and bruising the sex organs as a result of violent punishments are frequently reported by hospital authorities.
- Some people, in their attempt to justify battering children’s buttocks, claim that God or nature intended that part of the anatomy for spanking. That claim is nonsense. No part of the human body was made to be violated.
Physical Danger of Hitting the Hands
- The child’s hand is particularly vulnerable because its ligaments, nerves, tendons and blood vessels are close to the skin which has no underlying protective tissue. Striking the hands of younger children is especially dangerous to the growth plates in the bones which, if damaged, can cause deformity or impaired function. Striking a child’s hand can also cause fractures, dislocations and lead to premature osteoarthritis.
Being shaken can cause a child blindness, whiplash, brain damage and even death.
Spanking at Home, Performance in School
Most teachers will tell you that the children who exhibit the most serious behavior problems at school are the ones who are the most mistreated at home. Children who are spanked at home have been conditioned to expect the same kind of management by authority figures outside the home. For many of these children, the battle zone which is their home life extends to school life. This sets them up for academic failure, dropout, clashes with juvenile authorities and eventually perhaps with the criminal justice system.
- In their attempt to erect a shield against what they see as a comfortless, hostile world, these children naturally seek the company of other children with similar problems. “My parents and teachers don’t understand me-my friends do,” they say. And they have good reason to believe that. This is one reason street gangs evolve and why they are especially attractive to children whose self-esteem has been ruined by spanking, whupping, paddling, switching, humiliation, insults, threats, relentless criticism, unreasonable restrictions and physical and emotional neglect.
- We should not be surprised that many youngsters reject the adult world to the degree they believe it has rejected them. Nor should we be surprised that adolescents, who throughout childhood have been the brunt of violence, will utilize violence as soon as they are able. As it often turns out, the aggressiveness that many young people cultivate, believing it is essential to their survival, propels them toward failure or catastrophe. Our crowded prisons are proof of this.
- Some teachers work tirelessly to redirect the aggressiveness which violence-ridden children have far too much of and instill trust which violence-ridden children have far too little of. But that is a monumental task requiring specialized skills and a level of dedication which not all teachers possess or can maintain for extended periods. It requires extraordinary resources unavailable to the public school systems.
- School dropout and juvenile delinquence would diminish substantially if only it were possible to persuade parents and other caretakers to stop socializing children in ways guaranteed to make them antisocial and/or self-destructive. In other words, to stop the spanking and start the nurturing.
Spanking, Smoking, Drinking and Drugs
To be spanked is a degrading, humiliating experience. The spanked child absorbs not only the blows, but the message they convey: “You’re worthless. I reject you!” That message powerfully influences the child’s developing personality. It instills self-hatred.
- Sooner or later every child is exposed to substances that promise instant relief from feelings of worthlessness and rejection. Everywhere people can be seen putting things into their bodies to make themselves feel good. It is difficult to convince a child who is suffering that such relief is an illusion, that one cannot rebuild damaged self-esteem by means of something swallowed, inhaled or injected, but can easily bury it deeper under the weight of new problems.
Spanking and Criminal Behaviour
Everyone is familiar with the list of social maladies believed to be at the root of violent criminal behaviour: poverty, discrimination, family breakdown, narcotics, gangs and easy access to deadly weapons. And it’s clear that every item in the above list contributes to violence and crime. However, one key ingredient is rarely acknowledged-spanking.
- In 1940, researchers Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck began their famous study of delinquent and nondelinquent boys. They discovered how certain early childhood influences cause children to develop antisocial, violent behaviours. They showed that the first signs of delinquency often appear as early as three-long before children come into contact with influences outside the home. The Gluecks showed that parents who fail to manage their children calmly, gently and patiently, but instead rely on physical punishment, tend to produce aggressive, assaultive children. The more severe and the earlier the mistreatment, the worse the outcome.
- The Gluecks also found that the lowest incidence of antisocial behaviour is always associated with children who are reared from infancy in attentive, supportive, nonviolent, non-spanking families. The message here for all parents who want their children never to see the inside of a jail or prison is a simple one: guide gently and patiently-never hit.
Spanking, Racism and Collective Hatreds
Spanking fills children with anger and the urge to retaliate. But this urge is almost never directly acted upon. Even the most severely spanked children, as a general rule, will not strike back at those who have hurt them. Instead, they are likely to seek relief in fantasy where they can safely vent their anger against make-believe adversaries. Sometimes younger brothers or sisters or family pets serve this purpose. Popular entertainment also caters to this need.
- As children grow and come under the influence of the prejudices of their community, their anger can be easily channelled toward approved scapegoats. Hate cults and extremist political factions beckon to them with open arms, offering an opportunity to convert fantasy into reality. In every generation, more than a few seize that offer. Their behaviours constitute the worst fallout of the spanking tradition.
Spanking at School
Throughout the developed world spanking by teachers has almost disappeared. It is illegal in every European country and many developing countries. (In Austria, Croatia, Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Israel, Italy, Latvia, Norway and Sweden no one, including a parent, may legally spank any child in any circumstance.) Among the major, developed industrial nations, the U.S. is the most resistant to reform in this regard. But gradually more states are banning school corporal punishment and in the states that allow it a growing number of school districts are wisely forbidding the practice.
- Still, there remain many uninformed teachers and school administrators who, like many uninformed parents, persist in believing that it is okay to manage pupils by means of physical violence or the threat of it. What should enlightened, responsible parents do?
- If you knew that a school bus had bald tires and faulty brakes, you would not let your child ride that bus and you would demand that your school authorities correct the problem immediately. If you knew that the air ducts in your school were contaminated with asbestos, you’d remove your child immediately and alert other parents to the danger.
- Corporal punishment is no different. It is very dangerous and all sensible people in the community should immediately unite in opposition to it. As a parent you have a right and an obligation to protect your child from known danger. Inform your local, regional and state education authorities that no one has your permission, nor the moral right, to endanger your child at school.
Spanking and Brain Development
In early childhood, the brain develops faster than any other organ in the body. By age 5, the brain reaches about 90 percent of its adult weight, and by 7, it is fully grown. This makes early childhood a very sensitive and critical period in brain development.
- Stress associated with pain and fear caused by spanking can negatively affect the development and function of a child’s brain. It is precisely during this period of great plasticity and vulnerability that many children are subjected to physical punishment. The effect can be a derailing of natural, healthy brain growth resulting in life-long and irreversible abnormalities.
- According to researcher Dr. Martin Teicher of McLean Hospital, Belmont, Massachusetts, “We know that an animal exposed to stress and neglect in early life develops a brain that is wired to experience fear, anxiety and stress. We think the same is true of people,” (“Child Abuse Changes the Developing Brain,” Yahoo! News, Dec. 29, 2000).
- In Teicher’s article, “The Neurobiology of Child Abuse,” Scientific American, March 2002, he wrote, “New brain imaging surveys and other experiments have shown that child abuse can cause permanent damage to the neural structure and function of the developing brain itself. This grim result suggests that much more effort must be made to prevent childhood abuse and neglect before it does irrevocable harm to millions of young victims (p. 70)… Society reaps what it sows in the way it nurtures children (p. 75).”
- No responsible parent would deliberately jeopardize a child’s normal brain development, yet that is precisely what spankers unwittingly do We are confident that some day soon civilized humanity will look back with astonishment and pity at the time when people believed hitting children was good for them.
Resources and further reading:
Jane Bluestein. Creating Emotionally Safe Schools: A Guide for Educators and Parents. Deerfield Beach, Florida: Health Communications, Inc., 2001 Alan DeWitt Button.
The Authentic Child. New York: Random House, 1969.
Susan Forward. Toxic Parents: Overcoming Their Hurtful Legacy and Reclaiming Your Life. New York: Bantam Books, 1989.
Ian Gibson. The English Vice. London: Duckworth, 1978.
James Gilligan. Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1996.
Thomas Gordon. Teaching Children Self-Discipline At Home and At School. New York: Ramdom House, 1989. [PTAVE strongly recommends Thomas Gordon’s Parent Effectiveness Training (P.E.T.) and Teacher Effectiveness Training (T.E.T.)]
Philip Greven. Spare the Child: The Religious Roots of Punishment and the Psychological Impact of Physical Abuse. New York: Random House, 1991.
Mitch Hall. The Plague of Violence: a preventable epidemic. Checkmate Press, www.CheckmateNow.org 2002.
Irwin A. Hyman. Reading, Writing and the Hickory Stick: The Appalling Story of Physicaland Psychological Violence in American Schools. Boston: Lexington Books, 1990.
Irwin A. Hyman and Pamela A. Snook. Dangerous Schools: What We Can Do About the Physical and Emotional Abuse of Our Children. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1999 Dorothy Otnow Lewis. Guilty by Reason of Insanity – A Psychiatrist Explores the Minds of Killers. New York: The Ballantine Publishing Group, 1998.
Mike A. Males. The Scapegoat Generation: America’s War on Adolescents. Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 1996.
Michael J. Marshall. Why Spanking Doesn’t Work. Springville, Utah: Bonneville Books, 2002.
Alice Miller. The Truth Will Set You Free: Overcoming Emotional Blindness and Finding Your True Adult Self. New York: Basic Books, 2001. Alice Miller, For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child Rearing and the Roots of Violence. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1983.
Eli H. Newberger. The Men They Will Become: The Nature and Nurture of Male Character. Cambridge: Perseus Publishing, 1999.
Jane & James Ritchie. Spare the Rod. Sydney:George Allen & Unwin, 1981.
Murray A. Straus. Beating the Devil out of Them: Corporal Punishment in American Families. New York: Free Press, 1994.
Felicity de Zulueta. From Pain to Violence: The Traumatic Roots of Destructiveness. London: Jason Aronson, Inc., 1994.