“Parents and caregivers should reduce and potentially eliminate their use of any physical punishment as a disciplinary measure.”
– Statement from the American Psychological Association’s
Task Force on Physical Discipline (Schrock, 2010)
The guidelines on physical punishment are simple: It’s ineffective, counterproductive, and you should avoid doing it. Yet despite decades of public awareness campaigns trying to get parents to abandon the use of physical discipline, corporal punishment is still used by more than 90% of American parents at some point and condoned by more than 70% of the population, according to surveys conducted in both 1995 and 2005. (ibid) More concerning still was that in 2014 a legislator in Kansas essentially tried to legalize child abuse by introducing a bill that would make it perfectly fine to assault your child in a manner that leaves welts and bruises.
We’re not interested in shaming parents or making you feel guilty about what you’ve done in the past. Nor do we believe in forcing parents to raise their children in a certain way. But we are hoping that when you see the facts for yourself, you’ll make a conscious and educated decision to eliminate physical punishment in your household. We hope that you’ll give us a few minutes of your time and approach this material with an open mind.
What is corporal punishment?
Physical discipline can include any number of practices. Spanking is the most common, but a number of other things fall under the label of corporal punishment:
- Whacking a child’s wrists with a ruler
- Whipping them with a switch
- Pulling hair
Or any other technique that is physically aggressive or designed to induce physical pain.
Giving up the ghost: Unconscious motivations that cause parents to defend corporal punishment
Before we get into the research on physical discipline, we want to take a few moments to talk about why this practice is still so widespread (and often so fiercely defended) despite the fact that it has little to offer parents. So please take a quick journey of self-reflection with us and see if any of these things may be warping your beliefs:
Spanking is a heritage
I can almost guarantee you that the reason you spank now is because you yourself were spanked as a child. In fact, one of the most common defenses against physical discipline is for people to say: “My parents whacked me as a kid, and I turned out just fine.” Therefore when it’s suggested that spanking is inappropriate, it feels almost like an attack against your family and your heritage. Parenting practices are much like religion: We’re indoctrinated into a certain way of thinking and behaving and then continue that pattern because it’s what we know. It’s familiar, and therefore comfortable. These early experiences quite literally left an imprint on your brain. Parents come to the habit of spanking not by reason or choice, but because it’s what they were taught. Yet when you repeat the same patterns your parents engaged in, you’re parenting subconsciously, not thoughtfully.
This is not necessarily a mark against your own parents – many things that were once commonplace have now been found to be harmful. Today most parents flip about any lead that might get near their children. Yet for decades we quite literally pumped lead into the very air our children breathe in the form of leaded gasoline. Does this mean parents in the 1970s were monstrous and callous? Of course not. They were simply living in a different time with a different set of assumptions. When we learned more about lead, we began phasing it out of gasoline. It’s time we do the same thing with physical discipline.
If spanking is bad, that makes me a bad parent
Another common protest that emerges from the subconscious is the idea that if spanking is labeled as wrong, then if I lose my temper and swat my child that will make me a “bad” parent. Most parents already feel as though their every move is being scrutinized, and so when experts say you should never use physical discipline, it feels as though this vice grip against parental freedom is being squeezed even further.
This idea emerges because we fall prey to all-or-nothing thinking traps. Therefore when we hear people speak out against spanking, if it’s something we’ve done ourselves, rather than listening to the arguments against it, all we hear is, “you’re a bad parent is you spank your child.” But this is silly. We all probably know we shouldn’t yell and scream at our children, yet most parents will do this from time to time. We need to take the same approach towards physical discipline. Accepting something as wrong or counterproductive doesn’t mean we won’t break down and engage in it from time to time, especially if it’s something that’s been hardwired into our brain such as spanking. We need to forgive ourselves for making a mistake and then try to do better in the future.
“We must point out time and time again, until it becomes ingrained in our national character, that violence is negative. Violence stems not from love, but from hate. It proves nothing and resolves nothing. If anything, it only makes a negative situation worse. In child rearing it is a sign of parental weakness not strength.”
– David Walters (1975, p. 179)