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Home > News > Child Protection in America: Past, Present, and Future
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Child Protection in America: Past, Present, and Future

September 14, 2004

Tags: Faculty & Scholarship, 2004

Oxford University Press
John E.B. Myers
University of the PacificMcGeorge School of Law

Hitting Children Must be Outlawed

Long ago, under Roman law, a husband had the right to beat his wife for disciplinary purposes. The husband's right to use moderate physical force to "chastise" his wife was carried forward to England, and, through England, to America. Thus, in several American states, early court decisions approved chastisement with the hand or a stick no thicker than the man's thumb, giving us "the rule of thumb." By the mid-nineteenth century, the "right" of chastisement had disappeared from the American legal landscape. Today, it seems absurd that the law once allowed a man to beat a woman to "keep her in line."

If a husband's "right" to physically chastise a wife seems barbaric, why is a parent's "right" to physically chastise a child less so? One might answer, Because women are adults with equal rights. True. The law does not allow adults to assault each other. Then why is it acceptable to assault children? A child is smaller, more vulnerable to injury, and less capable of flight or fight than a woman. As for rights, children have the right to be free from assault by all persons except those closest to them. Thus, if you hit my five-year-old, you are a criminal. If I hit her, I'm a good parent. The traditional explanation for this remarkably unequal treatment, of course, is that parents need to assault their kids in the name of discipline. If you are among the majority of Americans who still believe hitting children is necessary for discipline, please keep in mind that not so long ago, some men thought it was necessary to hit women for discipline. In light of what we know today about children and about discipline, I argue that there is no greater justification for hitting children than there was for hitting women. 

There is mounting evidence that hitting children is not benign, and that it has deleterious consequences for some children.[i] Clifton Flynn wrote, "Recent studies have suggested that a host of potentially harmful behavioral and psychological consequences may result from so-called 'ordinary' physical punishment. These negative outcomes include alcohol abuse, depression, suicidal thoughts, behavioral problems, low achievement, and future economic insecurity."[ii]   Mary Eamon added, "Regardless of the child's age, gender, or race/ethnicity, physical punishment was related to children's socioemotional problems."[iii] Murray Strauss and Glenda Kaufman Kantor studied the association between corporal punishment during adolescence and later mental health problems.[iv] Straus and Kantor wrote, "Corporal punishment in adolescence is associated with a significantly increased probability of depressive symptoms as adults."[v] Adults who were physically punished as teenagers are more likely to think about suicide, and more likely to abuse alcohol. Straus and Kantor found that "the more corporal punishment the subjects experienced when they were teenagers, the greater the risk that they will go beyond ordinary corporal punishment to acts that are severe enough to be classified as physical abuse" with their own children. 

Fifty years ago, many parents used belts, switches, and paddles to "wallop" children. By the second half of the twentieth century, societal views on hitting children were in flux, and such methods were increasingly perceived as excessive. Toward the end of the twentieth century, various experts urged parents to abandon corporal punishment altogether. In the fortieth edition of his famous book Dr. Spock=s Baby & Child Care,[vi] pediatrician Benjamin Spock wrote in 1985, "In olden days, most children were spanked, on the assumption that this was necessary to make them behave. In the twentieth century, as parents and professionals have studied children here and in other countries, they have come to realize that children can be well behaved, cooperative, and polite without ever having been punished physically." In 1998, the American Academy of Pediatrics concluded that the negative consequences of spanking outweigh any benefits, and urged pediatricians to help parents find "methods other than spanking in response to undesirable behavior."[vii] In 2000, pediatrician Berry Brazelton and psychiatrist Stanley Greenspan, wrote, "Physical discipline, such as hitting or spanking a child is no longer an acceptable alternative to discipline. Discipline means teaching, not punishment. Physical punishment is not respectful and is bound to undermine the child's self-image. Anger may be stored up to be worked out later. In addition, we are living in a violent society and using violence to settle an issue is saying to a child 'This is the way we deal with things. Violence is the way to handle frustration or anger.' We cannot afford such a message any longer."[viii] In 2002, psychologist Elizabeth Gershoff reviewed the literature on corporal punishment and concluded, "At its worst corporal punishment may have negative effects on children and at its best has no effects, positive or negative. . . . The defining aspect of corporal punishment, and indeed the key to its potential for securing short-term compliance, is that it involves inflicting pain on children. Even proponents of corporal punishment argue that it should be painful. As a country, Americans need to reevaluate why we believe it is reasonable to hit young, vulnerable children when it is against the law to hit other adults, prisoners, and even animals. The difficulty of drawing the line between physical abuse and corporal punishment begs the question. Why should we risk harming our children when there are a range of alternative methods of punishment and discipline?"[ix]   ,[vi] pediatrician Benjamin Spock wrote in 1985, "In olden days, most children were spanked, on the assumption that this was necessary to make them behave. In the twentieth century, as parents and professionals have studied children here and in other countries, they have come to realize that children can be well behaved, cooperative, and polite without ever having been punished physically." In 1998, the American Academy of Pediatrics concluded that the negative consequences of spanking outweigh any benefits, and urged pediatricians to help parents find "methods other than spanking in response to undesirable behavior."[vii] In 2000, pediatrician Berry Brazelton and psychiatrist Stanley Greenspan, wrote, "Physical discipline, such as hitting or spanking a child is no longer an acceptable alternative to discipline. Discipline means teaching, not punishment. Physical punishment is not respectful and is bound to undermine the child's self-image. Anger may be stored up to be worked out later. In addition, we are living in a violent society and using violence to settle an issue is saying to a child 'This is the way we deal with things. Violence is the way to handle frustration or anger.' We cannot afford such a message any longer."[viii] In 2002, psychologist Elizabeth Gershoff reviewed the literature on corporal punishment and concluded, "At its worst corporal punishment may have negative effects on children and at its best has no effects, positive or negative. . . . The defining aspect of corporal punishment, and indeed the key to its potential for securing short-term compliance, is that it involves inflicting pain on children. Even proponents of corporal punishment argue that it should be painful. As a country, Americans need to reevaluate why we believe it is reasonable to hit young, vulnerable children when it is against the law to hit other adults, prisoners, and even animals. The difficulty of drawing the line between physical abuse and corporal punishment begs the question. Why should we risk harming our children when there are a range of alternative methods of punishment and discipline?"[ix]  

In 1979, Sweden became the first nation to prohibit "corporal punishment" by parents.[x] Julian Roberts reported, "Published evaluations have concluded that the Swedish law achieved its stated goal of changing public attitudes toward corporal punishment."[xi] Lack of physical assault by parents has not caused Swedish children to run amuck. Since Sweden's bold move, the following nations have abolished physical chastisement: Austria, Croatia, Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Israel, Iceland, Latvia, and Norway. Other countries are considering the issue. 

Hitting children for purposes of discipline is increasingly viewed as outmoded, unnecessary, and harmful. Nations that have abolished hitting have not experienced harmful effects. Millions of American parents refuse to assault their children in the name of discipline, and most research indicates their children are better off as a result. These reasons are more than sufficient to outlaw hitting for discipline. But these are not the only reasons to ban so-called corporal punishment. There is ample evidence that a great deal of physical child abuse results from "corporal punishment" that goes too far, inflicted by parents who believe they have a right to hit their kids. In the name of discipline, but in the heat of irrational anger, children suffer bruises, lacerations, black eyes, fractures, burns, head injuries, and death.  

We have to change the mindset of adults that it is okay to hit kids. It is no more "okay" to hit your child than it is to hit your spouse, your employee, or the guy standing next to you at the bus stop. In the latter three scenarios you'd be arrested and hauled off to jail. Children deserve the same protection. Outlawing "corporal punishment" will begin the long process of helping adults understand that hitting those we love is not acceptable. Banning "corporal punishment" will reduce child abuse.  

[i] See Mary Keegan Eamon, Antecedents and Socioemotional Consequences of Physical Punishment on Children in Two-Parent Families, 25 Child Abuse & Neglect 787-802 (2001)(Abstract: "Children who are spanked more frequently exhibit more socioemotional problems."); Clifton P. Flynn, Regional Differences in Spanking Experiences and Attitudes: A Comparison of Northeastern and Southern College Students, 11 Journal of Family Violence 59-80, at 59-60 (1996); Eric P. Slade & Lawrence S. Wissow, Spanking in Early Childhood and Later Behaviors: A Prospective Study of Infants and Young Toddlers, 113 Pediatrics 1321-1330 (2004); Murray A. Straus & Glenda Kaufman Kantor, Corporal Punishment of Adolescents by Parents: A Risk Factor in the Epidemiology of Depression, Suicide, Alcohol Abuse, Child Abuse, and Wife Beating, 29 Adolescence 543-561 (1994); Thomas Styron & Ronnie Janoff-Bulman, Child Attachment and Abuse: Long-Term Effects on Adult Attachment, Depression, and Conflict Resolution, 21 Child Abuse & Neglect 1015-1023 (1997).

[ii] Clifton P. Flynn, Regional Differences in Spanking Experiences and Attitudes: A Comparison of Northeastern and Southern College Students, 11 Journal of Family Violence 59-80, at 59-60 (1996).

[iii] Mary Keegan Eamon, Antecedents and Socioemotional Consequences of Physical Punishment on Children in Two-Parent Families, 26 Child Abuse & Neglect 787-802, at 798 (2001).

[iv] Murray A. Straus & Glenda Kaufman Kantor, Corporal Punishment of Adolescents by Parents: A Risk Factor in the Epidemiology of Depression, Suicide, Alcohol Abuse, Child Abuse, and Wife Beating, 29 Adolescence 543-561 (1994).

[v] Murray A. Straus & Glenda Kaufman Kantor, Corporal Punishment of Adolescents by Parents: A Risk Factor in the Epidemiology of Depression, Suicide, Alcohol Abuse, Child Abuse, and Wife Beating, 29 Adolescence 543-561, at 550-551 (1994).

[vi] Benjamin M. Spock & Michael B. Rothberg, Dr. Spock's Baby & Child Care (40th ed., 1985)(Bristol, PA: Pocket Books).

[vii] American Academy of Pediatrics, Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health, Guidance for Effective Discipline, 101 Pediatrics 723-728, at 726 (1998).

[viii] T. Berry Brazelton & Stanley I. Greenspan, The Irreducible Needs of Children 146 (2000)(Cambridge, MA: Perseus).

[ix] Elizabeth Thompson Gershoff, Corporal Punishment, Physical Abuse, and the Burden of Proof: Reply to Baumrind, Larzelere, and Cowan, 128 Psychological Bulletin 602-611 (2002).

[x] See Joan E. Durrant, Evaluating the Success of Sweden's Corporal Punishment Ban, 23 Child Abuse & Neglect 435-448 (1999).

[xi] Julian V. Roberts, Changing Public Attitudes Toward Corporal Punishment: The Effects of Statutory Reform in Sweden, 24 Child Abuse & Neglect 1027-1035, at 1028 (2000).