Spanking Children Should Be Illegal
It is a terrible idea to write a blog post about parenting. Perhaps it is the uncertainly of our decisions combined with the fierceness of our love for our children that turn reasonable discussions into all out wars. Yet the recent case of NFL running back Adrian Peterson disciplining two of his children, both four-years-old at the time, has struck a nerve that I just cannot let go. I also should not be writing this, because it is too close to home for me. I am challenged daily parenting a high spirited and strong-willed two-year-old. There are other personal reasons that are far more mundane and common than American society seems willing to admit to itself. I also know that people I love and am close to will vehemently disagree and may even be offended by what I say on the subject. And yet…I am clearly going to write and publish this post anyway.
Peterson’s argument that the whippings he received contributed to his success as a man are commonly made in the south, where I grew up, and are certainly not limited to black culture as some have suggested in the ongoing public debate over Peterson’s actions. Of course, believers in the benefits of corporal punishment can be found everywhere in the United States, although it does appear to have greater legal permissibility and perhaps public acceptance in the south.
Not only does spanking not produced the desired result as numerous studies have unambiguously concluded, the line between physical discipline and abuse is never as clear cut as we pretend. Legally, unreasonable discipline is usually defined in terms of physical injuries that require seeking medical attention, but even here this leaves a lot of space for a parent’s and doctor’s judgment. Judgment that may all too often come at the expense of a child.
Moreover, rarely does the discussion on corporal punishment include the deeper internal injuries that often result from this form of discipline. A meta analysis of more than 80 studies looking at the long term effects of corporal punishment, found that children who are spanked often “feel depressed and devalued.” As adults, they are more likely to suffer from “mental health problems including depression, anxiety and drug and alcohol use. There’s neuroimaging evidence that physical punishment may alter parts of the brain involved in performance on IQ tests and up the likelihood of substance abuse. And there’s also early data that spanking could affect areas of the brain involved in emotion and stress regulation.” Crucially, not a single study was able to find a positive behavioral change associated with being spanked. Source
Parents who employ and advocate for the use of physical discipline often have a code that separates themselves from abusers — if you hit a child in anger it is abuse, but if you hit them after they have done something wrong and the punishment is delayed until the parent has calmed down, hitting your child is a form of tough but loving discipline. This code allows individuals, such as Peterson, to believe deep in their hearts that they are not child abusers. In Peterson’s own words, “I am not a perfect parent, but I am, without a doubt, not a child abuser. I am someone that disciplined his child and did not intend to cause him any injury.” Source
Deviations from this code are often justified in terms of the fact that the child “deserved it” and “they brought it on themselves.” After one of his four year olds injured his head on the car seat while being disciplined by Peterson, he texted the boy’s mother “I felt so bad. But he did it his self.” Source
It also appears that just about everyone deviates from this code. A recent observational study found that “parents who approve of corporal punishment contend that they only spank as a last resort, do it for serious misbehavior and only when they are calm. But the recordings often revealed the opposite. Parents seemed angry when striking their child, they did it reactively and for minor transgressions”. Additionally, while parents typically self report spanking their child 18 times a year, the real-time audio found that the median spanking administered was 18 times a week. And this was in a study where the parents knew they were being monitored! Source
There are numerous reasons why corporal punishment should not be left as a parental choice. Chief among them is that there is no safe line between discipline and abuse. Even using the parent’s own definition, it is a line that is nearly always crossed. Peterson admits that “I have to live with the fact that when I disciplined my son the way I was disciplined as a child, I caused an injury that I never intended or thought would happen.” Source
Most parents who use corporal punishment probably do love their children, but their actions are not a loving form of discipline, they are violence towards those who are least able to defend themselves. As long as spanking remains legal in this country, children will continue to be victims of parents who went a little too far and worse. The injuries may not always require immediate medical attention, but they will live on in both the child and the society that permits it.
image by codenamemama