The California Democratic Party has an opportunity to pass a resolution supporting ending all physical/corporal punishment at its upcoming convention. I hope they do so. [Editor’s note: They did!!]
At least 31 states have banned corporal punishment in schools, and public support for corporal/physical punishment in general is declining with each generation. This includes “spanking,” for which there is no clear definition. In fact, we now know that spanking young children can trigger negative behaviors for years, and is now considered an Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE), which impacts physical and mental health into adulthood. The jury is in, and the research is clear that spanking is harmful. Studies going as far back as the 1960s showed a correlation between spanking and decreased cognitive ability. The research since then has shown overwhelmingly that spanking contributes to mental health problems, aggression and antisocial behavior, low self-esteem, and substance abuse, as well as cognitive deficits and academic problems. Physical punishment actually alters the brain of children, causing them to have less gray matter in certain areas of the prefrontal cortex, which is linked to depression, addiction, and other mental health disorders. In other words, children who are spanked are more likely than other children to have mental health problems, antisocial behavior, aggression, negative relationships, and low self-esteem and, and are more likely to act out and abuse substances. Spanking is also correlated with not only being a victim of physical abuse at some point, but also with being violent toward women and being involved in intimate partner violence later in life. In fact, researchers have found little difference in the negative effects of spanking and other physical and emotional abuse.
Moreover, spanking just doesn’t work and makes children’s behavior worse. So why do so many parents continue to believe in this draconian practice, especially when more than half of the world’s countries have already banned it? An astounding 80 percent of Americans believe that spanking is appropriate. Spanking is, in fact, the last bastion of domestic violence that is legal and socially acceptable in this country. The belief that physically hurting a child in not an act of violence when it is “corrective” is how corporal punishment has been justified from a legal perspective. However, in our modern era focused on human rights, traditional legal distinctions between “reasonable” corporal punishment and criminal assault has begun to disentangle. Some researchers have even called out the paradox of protecting children from corporal punishment only in certain settings, such as school.
Nearly all professional organizations have advocated ending physical punishment as a public health issue. In addition, religious leaders from Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jain, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, and other religions have rejected the use of corporal punishment under the guise of religion in the Kyoto Declaration.
Yet there are many people using culture and religion to justify their use of corporal punishment. These excuses are perpetuated by generational cycles of power and abuse, and by believing that the only way to “protect” children is by exerting similar behavior they are trying to protect them from. For example, the black population, especially in the South, is most likely to use physical punishment. As Asadah Kirkland noted in her book Beating Black Kids, the culture of hitting kids in the Black community stems from slavery. She notes, “You heard people back in the day say, ‘Well, I had to beat them so master wouldn’t get him.’ Today’s correlation is, ‘Well, I have to beat him or the police will get him.’” It’s a generational cycle of trauma and of using physical violence to control, demand obedience, and “protect” the person being hit. In the book The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson stated, “The arbitrary nature of grown people’s wrath gave colored children practice for life in the caste system, which is why parents, forced to train their children in the ways of subservience, treated their children as the white people running things treated them. It was preparation for the lower-caste role children were expected to have mastered by puberty.”
The American Psychological Association also found that corporal punishment in the black community stems from slavery, noting, “While many black parents hit to keep their kids from ‘turning out bad,’ it is clearly not working because black children disproportionately suffer negative outcomes in educational achievement, juvenile arrests, and foster care placements. This type of family violence might actually be contributing to the negative outcomes that parents and caretakers were seeking to avoid.”
To be sure, there are legitimate concerns in a society where people of color, and especially black people, face daily indignities and dangerous situations that white people will never have to worry about. We have a broken juvenile and criminal justice system whose prison industrial complex is indeed the new Jim Crow. As important as it is to address the issues of inequity and racism, we should not make stopping violence against children contingent on that. These are connected, but separate issues.
In fact, Department of Health and Human Services data show that black children are more likely to be seriously injured or killed by a family member than by police. Using physical punishment at home creates the expectation that they SHOULD be treated poorly by anyone who has power or control over them. In her book Spare the Kids: Why Whupping Children Won’t Save Black American, Dr. Stacey Patton discussed how corporal punishment is related to white supremacy and our new Jim Crow justice system, noting, “The truth is that white supremacy has done a masterful job of getting black people to continue its trauma work and call it ‘love,’ while also noting that “the violence that black children experience . . . in the streets . . ., in schools, and at home is all interconnected. It is all strange and bitter fruit from the same tree.” Addressing the religious rationalization for corporal punishment in Black families, she stated, “African-Americans have only been Christians for about 200 years. And we came to Christianity through our brutal, horrible, and dark mistreatment during slavery. There’s absolutely no evidence that Black people in West Africa treated their children with this kind of ritualistic violence prior to contact with European missionaries. We need to interrogate this theology.”
Other experts are also speaking out. When talking about how it’s time we reject the idea that beating kids is part of black culture, Professor Khadijah Costley White pointed out that “we end up cloaking misogyny and abuse in this rhetoric of cultural rights, and it only serves to further harm folks who are most vulnerable — like women and children — in the black community.”
Because of the disproportionality both in the use of corporal punishment and in the criminal justice system, many are concerned that banning spanking will further criminalize black people, especially single mothers. However, a ban does not have to criminalize anyone. Similar to smoking bans, for which no one is being criminalized, formal policies create a culture where education and resources can be prioritized for families who need them most. The ban in Sweden did not create a new crime but rather clarified that “children have the full protection from assault, regardless of its severity or the adult’s intent.”
Research has shown that families with low education levels and low income levels, as well as those who are very religious and those from the South, are most likely to use physical punishment. When families buy into the idea that even light spanking is acceptable, those families have higher rates of child abuse than other families. Parents who use physical punishment are also more likely to be involved with the child welfare system and the justice system, and families with high ACE scores are more likely to use physical punishment. Families who are using physical punishment are thus most likely to need culturally responsive resources, support, and education, which can only be driven by laws.
A strong statement opposing corporal punishment can open conversations about how best to serve families who need those extra resources. Families cannot be expected to know how to implement appropriate discipline if they have only been taught inappropriate methods over generations. Banning corporal punishment, even without criminalizing parents, sends a message that parents should not hit their children under the guise of discipline, culture, or religion, and that there are better ways available.
A ban also makes child abuse distinctions easier to recognize as child welfare workers, law enforcement, and other agencies no longer have to wrestle with the questions of “who can hurt children, on what parts of their bodies, with what intensity, and with what degree of injury” and can instead focus on providing full protection from violence for all children.
In the 60 countries around the world that have banned corporal punishment, which include countries in Latin America and several African nations, we’ve seen improvement in child abuse cases and, importantly, in public opinion. In Sweden, for example, fewer than 10 percent of families now believe that spanking their children is acceptable. In Germany, within 5 years of banning spanking, more than 90 percent of parents stated that nonviolent childrearing is their ideal, and only a quarter of parents reported using physical punishment at all. In New Zealand, the percentage of parents who believed that spanking was acceptable and the percentage of parents who use physical punishment declined by half after the ban was put in place. Banning spanking has also been shown to decrease youth violence in general.
One researcher concluded that how parents feel about physical punishment is dependent of the “normativeness” in their community. Normativeness is driven by policy. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted that legislative approaches with public engagement and education campaigns to reduce corporal punishment are good ways to reduce rates of physical abuse. The UN Convention of the Rights of the Child (which has been ratified by every member country except the United States) stipulated that governments should take legislative and other actions to protect children from all forms of mental OR physical violence no matter whose care the children are in. New research has confirmed that a combination of legal prohibition and public education campaigns is most effective at reducing the use of corporal punishment and thus rates of physical abuse. A report on Caribbean progress on ending corporal punishment concluded,
Law reform to prohibit corporal punishment aims to ensure that children are legally protected from assault just as adults are. Achieving equal protection can be a struggle: it challenges deep rooted negative attitudes towards children as somehow not fully human and as needing to experience pain in order to learn and become acceptable members of society, as well as the notion that corporal punishment is acceptable and even a duty in childrearing.
It is time that the country lets go of harmful traditions and ban corporal punishment in any setting. Just as with vaccines or climate change, we should not allow our personal opinions or cultural traditions to disregard the overwhelming evidence. With so much research showing that legal protection from all violent punishment is key not only to protecting children from violence, but also to raising their social status and to their rights to health, development, and education, we should not allow anything, including a broken criminal justice system, to stand in the way of protecting all children.
California has been a leader in social justice and equal rights policies. I urge the California Democratic Party to pass the resolution to end physical/corporal punishment of children. Because as goes California, so goes the nation.
Dr. Amy Bacharach is a policy researcher, a delegate to the California Democratic Party, and a mom to two tiny humans. She also runs the blog Parenting In Politics.