It was and still is a commonly held belief that if you “spare the rod” you’ll spoil the child. In many parts of the world, corporal punishment is still utilised as a mainstay method of discipline. Yet, why do we persist in continuing such an archaic and barbaric practice? Because much of parenting tends to be adopted through a “hand-me-down” approach – that’s how my parents raised me.
However, if more parents knew about the true dangers of this practice, I’m sure fewer parents would continue to persist with this method of discipline.
Why is corporal punishment so damaging to a child?
Corporal punishment causes stress in a child that is no different to the stress a child experiences when being bullied or when that child is suffering from child abuse. Brain scans show structural and biochemical changes that affect social behaviour.
Cell death in the anterior cingulate gyrus affects a child’s ability to moderate fear and to empathise. Changes in the brain’s pathways affect a child’s ability to manage stress and being more prone to being impulsive, aggressive and/or anxious. Long term changes to the adrenaline systems in the brain affect the ability to think clearly. Impairment in the brain stem has been linked to ADHD, depression and impaired attention. It also leads to more aggression and irritability.
Other changes to the brain have also been observed:
- decrease in size of the corpus callosum causing manic shifts in mood states
- reduced amygdala and hippocampus resulting in depression, irritability and hostility; and poor memory function
- effects to the GABA system making a child feel unsafe and constantly living in a state of alarm
Violent methods of discipline have also been linked to children with anti-social behaviour and increased prevalence of psychiatric disorders, while non-violent methods of discipline is linked to higher cognitive function.
A common argument for the corporal punishment camp often runs along the lines of, “I was spanked as a child and I turned out okay.”
A couple of other arguments stem from this point as well. Firstly, what is okay? Could it be that if we weren’t smacked we might have more deeper and meaningful friendships? Better relationships? Lasting marriages? Feel less depressed? Perform better at work? Have a better outlook and attitude towards life?
Secondly, it was researched and found that children who were hit by misguided but well-intentioned parents are later able to reach a well adjusted adulthood because of the love, nurturance and appropriate limit-setting they also received from their parents, not because of the physical violence they received.
Jordan Riak from Nospank.net cites an excellent example that articulates the fallacy of this belief rather aptly:
Let’s test the I-turned-out-okay argument by examining a few real-life examples from my own childhood. See if they apply to you.
- There were ashtrays in every room of our house. My parents smoked, as did most adult visitors to our home. The aroma of cigarette, cigar and pipe smoke was always present. Nobody minded. In fact, not one day passed in my early life when I was not exposed to tobacco smoke. I was even exposed in the womb because my mother smoked when she was pregnant with me. And I turned out okay.
- The first family car I remember was a 1937 Chevrolet sedan. It had no seat belts. When we traveled, I was merely plunked down on the back seat with the expectation that gravity would keep me there. It did. And I turned out okay.
- All the places in which I lived as a child were painted with lead-based paint. And I turned out okay.
- I used a bicycle throughout my childhood and teen years, but never wore any kind of protective headgear. And I turned out okay.
Was my family wise or just lucky? Today, we don’t do those things anymore. We don’t take such risks, and we don’t expose our children to such risks – not if we know the facts.
Quite possibly, one of the uncomfortable notions about bashing corporal punishment is that many of us were smacked at some stage when we were children. The idea that our parents did wrong against us can be a rather uncomfortable one to face. That said, I am not saying that our parents meant ill towards us. They did what they felt was right at the time because they lacked the awareness of the possible side effects. All the examples listed by Riak above are other ways our parents did “wrong” against us but they were accepted practices in their day.
I could cite a few more…
When I was a kid, I was treated by dentists who never wore gloves. In this day and age, would you attend a dental surgery if you knew they didn’t wear gloves? I highly doubt it.
As a child, I was weaned by my mother because that was the recommended practice of the day. These days, many healthcare professionals wouldn’t dream of discouraging a mother from breastfeeding her baby. In fact, it is highly recommended as the best form of nutrition.
The Efficacy of Corporal Punishment
One might argue that corporal punishment is effective in conveying the message across to a child that they did wrong and that nothing else works quite as well. Longitudinal studies have shown the converse to be true. In fact, studies have found that schools which had the highest rates of corporal punishment also had the lowest graduation rates, the highest rates of teen pregnancy, the highest incarceration rates and the highest murder rates.
Studies also show a positive correlation between the severity of corporal punishment received and severity of crimes committed. For instance, 100% of the violent inmates at San Quentin bore a history of extreme physical punishment when they were children, whereas the majority of professionals experienced moderate to an absence of physical punishment when they were children.
You will also find that adults who were spank when they were children can seldom articulate any way in which it helped them even though they believe that it did them “no harm”. Let’s be honest, if you were smacked at a kid and you behaved after that, why did you behave? Was it because you knew it was wrong? Because you were afraid of getting smacked again? Or because you didn’t want to disappoint your parents?
Exactly what are the lessons learned from being hit? Often it leads to bullying and the acceptance that it is okay to hit others. What happened to the moral of the story? Your child might behave before you but how does he or she behave when your back is turned? Discipline should be about raising morally-aware children with a social conscience, and not creating fear-inspired behaviour in a child that doesn’t last once the child is out of sight.
There are Other Ways to Discipline
It seems to be a misconception that parents who choose not to use corporal punishment as a form of discipline are often perceived to be lax parents who let their children run wild. It is assumed that a refusal to hit a child in the name of discipline equates to a refusal to discipline a child. That is an extremely narrow view of discipline, for the root of the word discipline means “to teach”.
There are better ways to teach a child how to behave besides hitting them. These methods are generally more time consuming and they also require more effort. Let’s face it – it’s definitely a lot easier to just yell at your child or hit him for misbehaving. It doesn’t require much thought and the action alone will help you let off some steam from the anger buttons your child has just pushed.
In light of the fact that corporal punishment is not only harmful to a child but also an extremely ineffective method of discipline, shouldn’t we, as parents, make it a point to search for more effective and beneficial methods of discipline for our children? I think so.