Might Does Not Make Right

BY Shawnda Kerry

I love studying the brilliant tenderness of my two-year-old son’s sleeping face. I love holding his resting hands in mine. I study them with awe, for they are miracles to me. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to hurt him. I’d fight to the death to preserve his bodily integrity and his precious innocence.

Years from now, I imagine his adult hands will resemble his father’s and it will be my thumb and fingers that look small and delicate in comparison. For now, I’m the bigger and stronger one. Just as my strength can defend and protect him, I can also easily overpower him. When my heart is open and calm, such thoughts defy all sense. “How could anyone hurt a child?” my husband queries with equal sadness. We both know that too often the hearts of parents are hardened by anger, stress, unresolved emotional baggage, and ignorance. I learned this lesson long before I read headline news. Like the majority of American children, I learned it from direct experience.

At times, my parents used their power advantage to harm me in order to “teach me a lesson.” Generally, they relied on more peaceful means of disciplining, but the use of “mom’s wooden spoon” was always a real possibility. Sometimes, when I was slow to stop crying, a slap born from frustration gave me “something to cry about.” When the energies of sheer overwhelm and chaos threatened the tenuous harmony of our working-class household of nine, corporal punishment offered my parents a means to bring a momentary semblance of order to the fray.

But such order comes at a price. Fear rather than respect enters into the hearts of children when the larger-than-life people they depend on for their basic needs treat their bodies with cruelty. While a parent certainly has the power advantage, might does not make right. It took time to realize that the practice of hitting children is passed on through generations. Stories about the violence my father lived through as a boy helped me put important pieces together. It wasn’t until I became a mother that I consciously took the time to research the impact of our culture’s pervasive use of corporal punishment. The more I learned, the more I vowed never to raise my hand to purposefully harm the person who trusts me more than life itself –even if this harm is inflicted in the name of discipline. There are a multitude of very good reasons why a parent should never hit a child. Here are three.

The Rights of the Most Vulnerable

Some rights are inviolable. This means they can’t be taken away no matter how an individual behaves. The UN Declaration of Human Rights, composed following the horrors of World War 2, consists of thirty articles outlining rights that are to be regarded as universal. Among these are: the right to life, the right to be free from slavery or torture, and the right to freedom of thought and religion. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, currently ratified by 193 countries with the exception of South Sudan, Somalia, and the United States, specifically states that children have the right to be free from “all forms of physical and mental violence, injury, or abuse.” For this reason, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child actively works to end the use of corporal punishment and defines it as “any punishment in which physical force is used and intended to cause some degree of pain or discomfort, however light.”

One need not turn to legal structures in order to ascertain the existence of a child’s rights. For many, the idea that a child has the right to freedom from the use of physical force intended to inflict pain is intuitive. For others, the rights of a child are easily discernible with the clear use of reason. Whether we root our conception of human rights in religion, ethics, intuition, or reason, the fact that 31 countries in the world have outlawed corporal punishment in homes, schools, and institutions is worthy of note. Honoring the rights of children is a human rights movement whose time has come. It couldn’t be more needed.
“Harsh treatment of children is epidemic in all communities,” states Desmond Runyan, MD, professor of social medicine at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine. A 2002 study published by “Child Abuse Review” reveals that eighty percent of American preschool children are spanked by one or both parents. Of children aged 8 to 9, one-half are hit with an object. This last March, researchers at the University of Michigan conducted a longitudinal study of more than 2700 new parents. They found that thirty percent of babies, children under one, had been spanked by one or both parents at least once in the last month. According to the professors who headed the study, “spanking babies is particularly misguided.”

In “The Discipline Book,” William and Martha Sears reflect upon the language commonly used to describe the use of force against children. When a child strikes another child, it’s called hitting. When an adult strikes another adult, it’s also called hitting. Yet, when it comes to an adult striking a child, despite the obvious power differential, the description is “softened” to “spanking.” For the Sears, spanking is a euphemism for hitting and we use this softer term to assuage the guilt felt upon striking the most vulnerable.

An adult is not legally permitted to hit another adult even if she or he is in a position of authority and very much wants to correct, punish, or teach a valuable lesson. Interactions between adults involving physical force are rightly defined as intimate partner violence and/or assault. According to Los Angeles based blogger and mother Tracy Moore, spanking is “legalized assault against those we are bound to protect.”

Parenting Best Practices

A mother hears her one-year old crying. She walks into the room to find her three-year-old hitting the little one. “What do you think you are doing?” the mother raises her voice in alarm. She picks up the crying baby and grabs her toddler’s arm. “You don’t hit your sister!” The toddler’s eyes fill with tears.

“But, I’m just playing Mommy!” she cries.

William and Martha Sears relay this story in their chapter, “Spanking? No? Yes? Sometimes?” The Sears take a strong stand against corporal punishment. Point by point, they strive to convince their readers that creative and loving alternatives to corporal punishment truly represent the best practices of parenting. “Lasting authority cannot be based on fear,” they note. Furthermore, “parents who use spanking to control children enter into a lose-lose situation.” Decades of research on the subject concur.

In 2012, the Canadian Medical Journal Association (CMJA) published an analysis of over 80 studies documenting the effects of corporal punishment on children. Not one, not a single one, found any positive long-term effect and the list detailing the negative consequences would concern anyone invested in public health.

Hitting a child puts her or him at a statistically greater risk of developing depression, substance abuse addictions, and aggressiveness. It teaches children that interpersonal problems can legitimately be solved with the use of force. Corporal punishment is directly related to an increase in mental health disorders, specifically anxiety disorders. Children who are hit as toddlers have lower IQ ratings than their non-spanked peers. Furthermore, children who experience corporal punishment are statistically more likely to engage in future intimate partner violence and perpetuate the cycle of hitting with their own children. Only one short-term positive effect of using force to punish children was found: “immediate compliance.” However, such compliance is short lived. Recent research conducted by psychologist George Holden at Southern Methodist University in Dallas reveals that in the majority of occasions, the offending behavior resumes within ten minutes of spanking.

Parenting best practices are a world apart from the use of physical force to teach a lesson–even if this involves spanking a clothed bottom. When parents choose to raise their hands against small bodies, they harm not only tender skin. In hitting a child, the emotional bounds linking a parent to a child’s trusting and open heart are damaged. Psychologist Joan Durrant, the lead author of the CMJA analysis states, “If someone were to hit us to change our behavior, it might harm our relationship with that person. We might feel resentful. It’s no different for children.”

Safeguarding Our Future

I remember the last time each of my parents hit me. In both cases, I was in high school. Both incidences involved a hard slap across the face. My father’s slap made my head spin. We were standing outside in the backyard. I said something sarcastic. “Don’t be smart with me!” he demanded. Then, smack. I remember my hair flying across my face. But mostly, I remember feeling proud of myself because I didn’t cry. In the case of my mother, we were in the kitchen arguing. I said something harsh and she chased me to my room. I ran to my bed. She followed me and slapped me across the face. Without thinking, I returned her slap with one of my own. Then a moment of silence followed as we just stared at each other. Without saying a word, she walked away from me. My heart was in my chest. We never talked about the incident and she never hit me again.

Gratefully, these stories are in the past. Today, I can acknowledge all of the good I learned from my parents while making room for the fact that corporal punishment negatively impacted my life. I am committed to learning conflict resolution skills that lift up the human spirit. I want to honestly acknowledge and transform the energies of fear or anger when they rise up within me. As I mother my son, I work diligently to build upon the positive traits of my parents and heal those that caused harm. As professor of psychiatry, Charles Raison, MD states, “one generation full of deeply loving parents would change the brain of the next generation and, with that, the world.”

According to renowned child psychologist and attachment parenting theorist Dr. Laura Markham, parents often resort to the use of force when “flight or fight” energy is triggered. When this primal and reptilian function in our brain is activated, even a small child can appear as “an enemy.” Obviously, choosing to use the advantage of physical strength in moments of such clouded vision is unwise. Markham offers her readers many helpful ways to discharge the fight or flight energy — which will be triggered at some point in all of us working with little ones. In order to end corporal punishment, we must find skillful means of transforming the energies of frustration, rage, and overwhelm. The Sears note that if parents refrain from using corporal punishment when they were angry, “99 percent of spanking wouldn’t occur.” Once a parent calms down, more thoughtful and appropriate means of guidance or correction become apparent.

The Sears tell the story of a mother named Joan whose toddler becomes “withdrawn” after “several months of spank-controlled discipline.” For example, he avoids her eye contact and prefers to play alone in the corner of the room. Joan states, “My child now fears me and I’ve lost something precious.”

Leaving behind physical forms of punishment helps a society embrace the best practices of parenting affirmed through peer-reviewed research. It also safeguards the well-being of our collective future. We want all children to thrive. We want our children to thrive. For the sake of our children’s individual futures and the well-being of our collective human family, let us not lose something precious.

Recommended Resources

The Discipline Book: Everything You Need to Know to Have a Better-Behaved Child–From Birth to Age Ten, William Sears, MD and Martha Sears, RN, Little, Brown and Company, 1995

Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting, Dr. Laura Markham, A Perigee Book, 2012