October 21, 2008
When Is Spanking Child Abuse?
by Lisa Belkin
A hearing is underway in a Wisconsin courtroom, for Barry Barnett, a 43-year-old pastor. He and the state department of social services both agree that the father of nine and minister at the Lighthouse Family Ministries in Poynette, Wisc., used a wooden paddle to punish his 12-year-old son for lying last spring. But they differ on whether that paddling, which left bruises on the boy, was child abuse.
. . .Spanking, which has never really gone away in many parts, is back in the news. Sometimes it is still the schools doing the hitting. This summer, the Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union issued a joint report, estimating that more than 200,000 children were spanked at American schools during the previous school year. (Corporal punishment in school is still legal in 21 states.)
Sometimes it is the parents. Alan E, Kazdin, director the Parenting Center and Child Conduct Clinic at Yale, where he is a professor of child psychology, wrote in Slate late last month, that “Despite the rise of the timeout and other nonphysical forms of punishment, most American parents hit, pinch, shake, or otherwise lay violent hands on their youngsters: 63 percent of parents physically discipline their 1-to 2-year-olds, and 85 percent of adolescents have been physically punished by their parents.”
Is it legal? In the United States, yes. While the United Nations has set a target date of 2009 to end corporal punishment by parents, and while 23 countries have already banned hitting kids, the United States is not one of them. All states prohibit “abuse” of children, and some specifically prohibit the use of “unreasonable force,” against children, which is what Barnett is accused of doing.
Isn’t all hitting child abuse? That’s what the hearing in Wisconsin is trying to decide. But however it starts, warns Kazdin, who is also the author of “The Kazdin Method for Parenting the Defiant Child, it usually escalates.
“More than one-third of all parents who start out with relatively mild punishments end up crossing the line drawn by the state to define child abuse: hitting with an object, harsh and cruel hitting, and so on,” he writes. “Children, endowed with wonderful flexibility and ability to learn, typically adapt to punishment faster than parents can escalate it, which helps encourage a little hitting to lead to a lot of hitting.”
The message that has not gotten through, say those who are trying to spread the word, is that spanking doesn’t work. Six years ago the psychologist Ellen Thompson Gershoff, of Columbia University, published a review of 62 years of research, analyzing 82 separate studies. And while there was a lot of evidence that spanking makes children do what they are told in the very short term, it seems only to teach children not to get caught. What it doesn’t do is teach them to do better.
I can’t imagine using spanking as a deliberate and proscribed punishment. I have, however, hit my boys a small handful of times, in white-hot anger. They were already stronger than I was, and practically taller than I was, so I didn’t really have the power to physically hurt them. Yet I still cringe at the memory of my own loss of control, of the knowledge of what that could mean in a stronger parent with a smaller child.
We tell our children “do not hit.” Shouldn’t we all practice as we preach?
About The Motherlode
The goal of parenting is simple — to raise happy, healthy, well-adjusted kids. The road from here to there, however, is anything but simple. In The Motherlode, Lisa Belkin tackles it all — homework, friends, sex, baby sitters, eating habits, work-family balance and so much more — subjects culled from the news, from her own experience as a parent, from the latest books and studies and, of course, from reader input. So take a look at what Lisa has to say, and join the discussion about the way we raise our kids now.