Physical punishment is a commonly used parenting method in the United States—over 70% of parents utilize this technique for directing the behavior of children. It is so common and believed to be so necessary that parents who do not strike their children are sometimes chastised (the old adage is “spare the rod and spoil the child”).
Corporal punishment (as it is sometimes called) of children is likely something relatively new in our evolutionary history given observations of modern hunter-gatherers found it to be extremely rare (and these observations are suggestive that our Paleolithic ancestors may not have used this method). It is very often the case that new social behaviors are harmful to the humans that experience them, especially later in life when the accumulations of various traumas impact health. And even though there is evidence that physical punishment harms the developmental progress of children that are subjected to it, it is still widely used and widely supported by parents.
Before I go any further, I want to state this writing is not intended to judge anyone or force a particular view point (so please do not take offense to anything you read here). I am hopeful it can foster positive discussion around this topic—but for that to happen, we need to stop automatically defending the method. Instead, let’s think about what this style of parenting may be saying about our society (i.e., what symptom or symptoms it may be exposing).
To begin, let us state a truth of physical punishment: most physical discipline occurs after the parents have lost their patience and lash out at the child. They are not calmly applying a discipline method to their child after careful deliberation of which method will be most effective in a given situation. I have personally experienced aggression of this kind as a young person, watched it happen to my young friends and relatives, and have seen it frequently as an adult when in public.
When someone loses his or her patience and strikes someone (which, by the way, you can’t do to an adult or you will be arrested for assault), it is not a parenting method. Parenting should be practiced in a state that does not qualify as rage. Getting angry and then striking someone who cannot defend his or herself is accurately called abuse. Remember, even if you are not bruising the child, they are experiencing stress that causes psychological harm—because they are being hit by the people they trust most.
I would offer that any parenting method in which the line is sometimes difficult to draw between acceptable discipline and legally defined abuse should be questioned altogether. No parent will be arrested for speaking too calmly to “his or her” child (or perhaps we could say, the child to whom they are responsible for his or her existence). No parent will be prevented from being alone with their children because they were too patient.
But, some parents will be placed in jail for abuse that they claimed was merely physical punishment (i.e., in their eyes, they did nothing wrong). Our society won’t let dogs be hit with rigid objects (such as a stick) without complaints made and potential arrests occurring—but we can hit small children with all kinds of objects and it is deemed appropriate behavior in many households. (I’m not claiming that dogs are lower life forms, though many would consider this to be the case, which indicates our children are sometimes placed even lower on the imaginary ladder of hierarchy.)
Physical punishment is bullying. Don’t believe me? Here a definition of bullying (this one is from Wikipedia):
“Bullying is the use of force, threat, or coercion to abuse, intimidate, or aggressively dominate others. The behavior is often repeated and habitual. One essential prerequisite is the perception, by the bully or by others, of an imbalance of social or physical power, which distinguishes bullying from conflict.”
When parents strike their children (or use the threat of violence to alter behavior), they are employing this action on someone who is often much smaller (i.e., the imbalance of physical power). But there is also an imbalance of social power because children are not afforded the same rights as adults (remember, striking an adult is assault but striking a child is considered parenting). Physical punishment is aggressive domination because parents are upset most of the time they use it (whether they are willing to admit that or not).
Parents actually role model bullying to their children when they use threat of or carry out actual physical punishment. Children then replicate this at school and are punished for it—they are punished for a style of interaction that they learned from having it perpetrated on them by their caregivers (who are not punished for doing the same thing). Hitting your child to force a specific behavior is exactly what bullies do to other people.
The only reason that physical punishment occurs today at all is because human children are not considered to be sovereign individuals.
Said another way, they are not provided the same level of rights and privileges afforded to adult humans. While they do require care, and even guidance, this should not negate the fact that they are still people. It is very telling that some elderly persons who require the care of adults are also subjected to hurtful (and even injurious) behaviors by their caregivers. For some reason, modern humans believe that the people in their care are beneath them. They consider people who require care to be less than sovereign.
This was not the case in pre-agricultural societies. For some reason, when patriarchy became the dominant social system (i.e., one where men hold the primary power), those who are not independent due to age or health were viewed as having lower social status.
Physical punishment is a symptom of an unhealthy society—one where different people are afforded different statuses and privileges. It is yet another manifestation of rankism, where some people receive abusive or discriminatory behavior because they are considered to be in a lower position of social hierarchy. Physical punishment demonstrates that a society believes some people are worth less than others.
To make this point very clear, how many times have you heard (or said yourself) “They’re my children and I’ll do what I want to/with them!” This is a perfect indication that children are literally treated as possessions until they reach adult age when then they are considered to have full social standing.
Unfortunately, part of American parenting is about defending American parenting. If someone doesn’t want to breastfeed their child (for non-medical reasons), they don’t have to, and other parents will rush to protect their “right” to deny infants peak nutrition for their developing years. If someone wants to use “cry it out” training, they can, and other parents will support this despite the fact it is known to have real consequences for the child. If someone wants to place a plastic pacifier in the mouth of their infant, which exposes the child to endocrine disrupting compounds and potentially changes the shape of their palette altering bite patterns, it’s their decision and discussion about the detriments the infant may experience later in life are discouraged.
The sad fact is that American parenting is by and for the parents and we can’t even have a dialogue about it.
Please keep in mind, these sentences aren’t insinuating that parents don’t need to be considered as well—because they do, especially in a society with non-functional communities (i.e., in a society that forces nuclear families to do it alone).
But it can be demonstrated that many parenting decisions place the majority of the harmful or potentially harmful consequences on the child. When all the parents are defending the other parents, who is advocating for the children so that they have an equal opportunity to experience positive outcomes with the decisions made on their behalf?
To close this writing, please remember that there is little evidence that physical punishment “improves children’s behavior” in the long run. Children who decide not to perform an action out of fear is not an improvement of behavior. However, there is a lot of evidence at this point that physical punishment has drawbacks, such as children who grow into more aggressive adults and children who are at greater risk for mental health problems.
Also, I would like to restate that this writing isn’t meant to judge anyone. We’ve grown up in this society being told that physical punishment is appropriate and necessary. Further, we’ve watched many parents role model this behavior. But none of that means we need to continue this parenting style or defend it as essential. Simply because it has been done in the past and is legal, doesn’t mean it should be continued (by that reasoning, we would still be doing many barbarous acts on some of our citizens).
Not until our children are considered sovereign people will they grow up into truly independent and emotionally healthy adults.
In order for this to happen, we need to stop defending harmful or potentially harmful methods of interaction with children—solely to preserve our egos—and seek alternatives that benefit both parents and child.