American Culture

Ban spanking in the US? It's probably not in the cards.

by JS O’Brien

Massachusetts state representative Jay Kaufman has introduced a bill in the state legislature to, effectively, ban parents from spanking their children. Naturally, the bill is not expected to pass, or even come close to passing. Hitting children is a deeply cherished cultural norm in the US, and despite the fact that many Western European countries have banned the practice, a 2002 ABC poll shows there is still widespread American support for it.

Studies on both the good and ill effects of spanking conflict. Most of the studies I could locate appear to be done by people or organizations with axes to grind, so the results are suspect. Others had methodological problems, some of them severe. Just defining “spanking,” let alone defining spanking context or being able to measure and track that context, presents issues that may never be fully resolved by a longitudinal study.

On the other hand, studies on the effects of physical abuse of children (child beating and torture, to use words less euphemistic than “abuse”) are pretty clear and do not appear to be in much dispute. Tortured children are much more susceptible than the general population to depression, suicide, being the victim or perpetrator of a violent crime, and incarceration. Of course, the line between mere child-hitting and child torture is not clear. One person’s “spanking” may be another’s “flaying.”

What the child hitters would have us believe is that a little hitting is good for children, but a lot is harmful. This could be true. After all, most drugs can do quite a bit of good in proper dosages, but can be deadly in larger ones. A single glass of red wine may very well be good for you, but guzzling a magnum of Mogen David would be ill advised (not to mention the fact that it would call your taste into question). But while it could be true that hitting children could have some benefits, the debate on the issue always seems to require proving that hitting children is a bad thing. Given the evidence that child torture is a bad thing, one would think that it would be incumbent on the child-hitters to prove that a little of something we know to be harmful in higher doses is, in fact, good for children. Further, since hitting any adult would land one an assault charge, it should be the child-hitter’s responsibility to prove that hitting provides some benefit to children that not-hitting cannot provide.

With that in mind, here are some of the positive arguments for child-hitting, and my take on them.

Hitting children makes them mind me. OK. I can see that. If someone that much bigger and stronger than I whacked me, I suppose I’d mind him, too. But is there no other way? Must we perpetrate an assault against a child to get him or her to “mind”?

They won’t mind if you don’t hit ’em. Spare the rod and spoil the child. I’m not entirely sure what’s meant by “spoiled,” but let’s take the “mind” issue. My wife is from a family of five children. Their parents were not child-hitters. They have all grown up to be successful, happy, adjusted, generous, caring human beings. None of their children have ever been hit. Those children are either like their parents, or even happier and better adjusted. Most of my children’s friends have never been hit by their parents. As a group, they represent the nicest, most polite, most trustful, and least cowed children I have ever known.

So, clearly, the end result of not-hitting would indicate that it is not necessary to hit to produce wonderful children who grow up to be wonderful adults. And if it’s not necessary, why do something that is illegal if you were to do it to adults?

But I have parental rights. The government has no business taking away my parental rights. Well, presumably, children have rights, too. Parents aren’t allowed, by law, to kill their children these days. This would suggest that parental rights have some limits. The issue is where to place those limits. Considering that hitting adults is illegal, why not place that limit at hitting kids, since there doesn’t seem to be anything we get from hitting kids that we can’t get using other child-rearing techniques.

A non-spanking law would be unenforceable. Would it? Why? I’m not suggesting that we would be able to find and punish all the child-hitters, but when have we ever been able to find and punish all the transgressors of any law. A law such as this one would give society a legal recourse in dealing with the perps we do find, even if it’s only to send them to parenting school.

The fact is, considering that there is an absence of credible evidence supporting the child-hitters but a wealth of evidence condemning the next step up to child-torture, and in light of evidence that it is not necessary to hit children in order to produce successful, happy, caring, healthy adults, there appears to be no justification for child-hitting.

So why does society continue to sanction it?

Good question.

15 replies »

  1. JS:
    I was never able to hit my kid. The one time I gave him a tap on the bottom when he was about 3 hurt me much more than it hurt him. I grew up in a house where I was spanked. My lovely wife, who was never spanked in her life, never had a problem giving our son a whack when he needed it.

    Personally, I’m against hitting kids, but I don’t want the government getting mixed up in the way I raise my kid. Every law, rule, and regulation takes away one more of your freedoms……Not to say that the freedom of hitting your kid is a good thing.


  2. Yeah, Jeff, exactly. Rights are funny things, and they conflict. What are a child’s rights? As for this …

    “but I don’t want the government getting mixed up in the way I raise my kid. Every law, rule, and regulation takes away one more of your freedoms……”

    … do we, as a society, through our government, not have a responsibility to children? Clearly, there are already laws restricting parental rights. Parents are not “free” to rape children. Generally, they cannot burn them, break their bones, and whatnot. However, they are allowed to assault them in ways they are not allowed to assault adults.

    I suppose that, theoretically, taking away a parent’s right to have sex with a child takes away one more freedom (though I know that’s not what you meant), but what about the child’s freedom from rape?

    The issue, to me, is not whether the government interferes, but when. I would draw the line at spanking and I suspect someday that spanking will be looked on the way putting children in workhouses is looked on, today. But we’re not there yet.

  3. Of course there are laws restricting what we can do to kids, as there should be. But I’m getting tired of the ever expanding governmental interference in our daily lives. I can see the government requiring one to ensure that their kids are immunized, if only to protect other people. I’m not sure how to handle what the governmental role should be where parents refuse essential medical for their kids under religious reasons…I’m really confused about that one.


  4. Recently I’ve been more and more conflicted on this one. I’ve always had pretty traditional views on the subject – and when you can’t go out in public without seeing children who desperately need a good beating those views are only enforced.

    But I reflect on my own childhood. I was raised very Southern, very working class, very Southern Baptist, by grandparents who had come up through the Depression. Which is to say I got beaten every day whether I’d actually done anything to deserve it or not. And this was in the NC public school system a long time before the idea that teachers shouldn’t beat kids ever took root, as well. So I can’t honestly even guess at the number of times I was the recipient of corporal punishment.

    More to the point, it wasn’t all what you’d call spanking. On more occasions than I can recall I was on the wrong end of punishment that would qualify as child abuse by any statute in America today.

    But it wasn’t child abuse, at least not in the context of the era.

    If I had a kid I’d never inflict that kind of damage on him or her, and I wonder how different I’d be had I grown up under other circumstances.

  5. I’m not sure how to handle what the governmental role should be where parents refuse essential medical for their kids under religious reasons…I’m really confused about that one.

    Yeah. Me too Jeff. On the one hand, I think people should be as free as possible to practice any weird thing their religion wants them to practice, like taking illegal drugs if that’s what the religion call for (so long as they hurt no one else). And I think they should be as free as possible to bring their children up in that religion.

    On the other hand, adult get to decide this stuff and children don’t get to decide. So, the adults are deciding the child will die. Is that a parental right? To make a decision to allow a child to die?

    I think where we differ is that I will come down on the side of a child’s rights really, really quickly. I don’t really care much about a parent’s rights to treat a child as property.

    BTW, I appreciate your comments on my entries and, while we don’t agree all that much, I most certainly enjoy our exchanges. It is a pleasure to deal with a reasonable man.

  6. when you can’t go out in public without seeing children who desperately need a good beating

    How do you know the reason they’re acting the way they are isn’t caused by being beaten in the first place? The worst-behaved kids in my elementary school were often from the most violent families.

    BTW, you’ve met my kids, haven’t you? They haven’t been hit. Are they some of the ones you think should be?

  7. I’ve met your daughter and she seems like the sort most other kids ought to be like.

    Maybe the issue with all the kids I see in public isn’t that they need beating. Maybe it’s their parents who need beating.

  8. A law such as this one would give society a legal recourse in dealing with the perps we do find, even if it’s only to send them to parenting school.

    Tough to take a child’s word against his or her parents until marks start showing up on the child’s body. By that point, it’s full-fledged abuse.

    A couple of years ago I read “The Emotional Life of Nations,” by Lloyd deMause, who, in a just world, would receive the Nobel Prize. DeMause’s master work is one of the top five books I’ve ever read.

    He’s one of the founders of psychohistory and along with others his journal publishes, like Alice Miller, believes all of history revolves around the way children are treated. It beggars the imagination how children have been treated over the centuries.

    That said, if you have a child a child who has, say, Oppositional Defiance Disorder (a pox on the cruel clinician who picked out this term with its cruel acronym — ODD), what’s the answer?

    My child has bordered on ODD at times and I’ve read some books in search of help. Unrealistic and of little help.

    I’m not a spanker. But some days with my son reminds me of when I briefly drove a Yellow Cab in Boston. One day the dispatcher gave me a car without a working horn. There’s no feeling more helpless than when someone walks in front of your cab at a busy intersection and you’re powerless to stop him.

    Thought-provoking post, JSO. Let’s keep this thread going, readers.

  9. I can’t comment on the government etc….except that the silver lining to this cloud is that they are not interfering with adults spanking other adults in public (right?).

    As for disciplining, it makes “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” come to mind…

  10. Dad never slapped or physically reprimanded me (although he used to play fight with my brother and I). That was quite important as we learnt how far we could go…

    Bro, however, was spanked once by Dad for wrongdoing. Father sent us to our rooms (because I had been naughty too) and he then entered Keith’s room (he got a smack) and then mine (he stood by the bed and clapped his hands and told me to shout out and say “oww oww”). So I did shout out. He then said not to tell my bro.

    I told bro years later…who felt he had been unfairly treated. 😉

    In the school system in South Africa I was punched once by a particular male teacher, victimised, systematically bullied, sworn at, sent to the Headmaster’s office regularly, accused on one occasion of theft (until they found said item) and after two years…ended up in hospital because I collapsed in school after yet another verbal assault. It was two months before I returned to the school and I spent two weeks in hospital. On my return…I was treated differently. My parents let me down because although Mum went into the school to complain I was not removed from the environment.

    The male teacher was a nasty Afrikaaner who hated the English girl in his class as did his friend the Afrikaans teacher, female, who would take great delight in finding things to pick me up on. She would then call me forward to kneel beside her so that she could inflict some type of Vulcan ‘death grip’ on my shoulder. It hurt like hell…but I never cried out.

    Have I smacked all my kids? Yes. It didn’t work with any of them because I would feel awful afterwards. So smacking just drops off the radar as it is useless as a punishment or deterrant – if they do it again…what am I going to do smack the backside harder? I do not think so.

    But withdrawal of privileges works wonders…

  11. J.S.
    I was spanked growing up but only when I had done something especially egregious and I believe I am a better person for it. My parents did not abuse me nor did they resort to corporal punishment on a regular basis but sometimes a spanking is warranted. One example is when I hit my brother through me parents bedroom door, putting a hole in the door and breaking his nose. I earned that spanking and to tell the truth the way my mother approached a spanking the actual pat at the end was the least of it. she would have me bend over and then she would tell me exactly why I was getting spanked and what I did and what I should have done. The lecture actually hurt more than the whack because I could hear her pain and disappointment as she lectured me. On another comment I want to address Russ’s comment about taking a child’s word. When I was in high school in the early eighties going after parents for child abuse on a child’s word seemed to be all the rage. On more than one occasion I know of parents that were charged and sometimes convicted of child abuse who were innocent. The case that most sticks in my mind was a spoiled brat who’s father told her she couldn’t go to a concert on a school night. She came to school the next day vowing she would get him for that. The next day he was arrested because she went to the school councilors and told him she was being abused by he father , beaten and fondled. She was up front with her friends that she was lying to get even with him. Even after some of her friends parents informed law enforcement about the lies he still spent months in jail awaiting a trial. She needed a beating for that if anyone does and I make no apology for that opinion.

  12. Rho:

    As I said, it seems there are many, many parents who raise wonderful children without ever hitting them. If that can be done, why hit? Clearly, hitting an adult is against the law. Why isn’t hitting children against the law? It’s against the law in many Western European countries, and most of their violent crime rates are lower than those in the US, so it wouldn’t seem that hitting children is necessary to avoid violent crime.

    Why hit children if you don’t have to?

    (BTW, how do you know your better for being hit than you would have been had other methods of punishment been used?)

  13. JS said:

    “I think where we differ is that I will come down on the side of a child’s rights really, really quickly. I don’t really care much about a parent’s rights to treat a child as property.”

    Actually, we don’t differ on that opinion at all.