June 4, 2009

Child Behavior: Spanking

Don't hit your kids. I was actually asked about spanking this past week, and thought it was worth committing some of these concepts to whatever this medium is. The issues with spanking, of course, overlap with most other discipline issues. The question was posed to me as a philosophical one. I was asked how I feel about it. This post is only a little bit about my feelings and a lot about statistics.

A group of researchers at Phoenix Children's Hospital compiled a Report on Physical Punishment in the United States. I learned a lot.

Spanking is not a philosophical question. True enough, I don't like the idea of anybody hurting anybody. I'm not alone—29% of Americans are against physical punishment by parents and 77% think that school personnel shouldn't either. Wait, I did the math too. I was surprised to learn that 71% think it's OK for parents to hit their kids, and 23% think it's OK for somebody at school to hit their kids. Though I was surprised to learn I was in the philosophical minority about parents hitting their kids, I didn't have more than a philosophical set of objections. I found statistics.

I wondered why a school would find it necessary to physically hurt a child. Curiously, African-American students were 2.5 times more likely to get physical punishments than white students, and boys 3.4 times more likely than girls. So even if no one was consciously selecting who to hit, there was definitely some selection going on. That didn't sound fair to me.

Parents are more likely to hit their kids if:
  • They believe that it works.
  • They were hit when they were kids.
  • They are under stress.
  • They are frequently frustrated with their kids.
  • They are under 30.
  • The child is a preschooler (age 2-5).
  • They think their religion approves of it.

It's reasonable to think that the more aggressive and oppositional the child is, the more frustrating it would be to manage these behaviors. Sure enough, the active and aggressive kids get hit more. But what if it was the physical discipline that was contributing or even causing the aggressive behavior? A study was done in which new types of parenting interventions were taught to parents. Within a short time, the problem behaviors decreased. Studies of all kinds have showed that decreasing the amount of physical discipline caused a decrease in the child's problem behaviors. So it doesn't work to control the very behaviors it's aimed at—it makes them worse.

Increasing amounts of physical punishment are associated with increasing substance use problems and increasing mental health problems. These problems persist into adulthood. So you're hurting your kids for years to come.

It also won't help your children to feel close to you. Of those physically punished, children themselves, and adolescents looking back, say explicitly that they feel less warm and open toward their parents. That doesn't sound helpful.

Here's my take on this, from a parenting point of view.
  1. Spanking often was used for aggressive behavior. But the aggressive behavior of the parent actually provides unintended positive feedback that supports the child's problem behavior. It confirms the idea that hurting someone is an effective way of getting what you want from them. It's confusing at best, and counterproductive at worst.
  2. It teaches that the reason for good behavior, or not doing an unwanted behavior, is to avoid punishment. All of us are capable of being conditioned, like Pavlov's Dog. With severe enough rewards and punishments, we will find a path of least resistance. So I think it's possible that punishment will indeed get the kid to do what's desired. But they won't learn anything that could apply to a new situation. Maybe if we take away the threat, the kid won't have any reason to behave well.
  3. It's a good way to get children to be afraid of their parents. How will they model loving relationships? Is love tied to violence?

Don't hit the kids. Or anybody else's kids, either. In fact, it's probably a good idea to keep your hands to yourself.

The photo above is not from my collection. It is from Vanity Fair magazine, 1903. Under the title 'Bifurcated Girls,' it was risqué not for the scene, but for the fact that the women were wearing pants.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much for taking a stand on this. I was raised in a religious home that relied heavily on spanking as the primary form of behavior modification. You're right, it didn't make for a warm, open relationship. I have chosen to do differently with my children, and even though I deal with difficult issues (my oldest daughter has severe ADHD and my son has behavior issues related to chronic pain), not hitting them is something that preserves our relationship. I don't hit anyone else when I don't like what they do, why would I hit my kids?


Please let me know what you think. Do you know a child or situation like this?