United States laws have evolved to prohibit hitting adults, animals, wives, laborers, prisoners, and soldiers, but still allow paddling school children in twenty-three states and spanking children by the parents’ hand. (Minnesota is an exception.) In other words, the assault laws, protecting all adults from personal violence make an exception in the case of children – the smallest and weakest in society. If a good reason does not exist for this exception, it is indeed time to extend to children the same rights all adults enjoy.
Advocates of corporal punishment argue that striking children is a way of loving them as God’s children because raising children without discipline is lazy and neglectful parenting. While I agree that parents who fail to teach discipline, limits, delayed gratification, and respect for self and others are lazy and neglectful, what does this have to do with hitting?
Is discipline synonymous with hitting as the advocates of corporal punishment say? Aren’t they confusing the means and the end? It is like saying teaching birth control is the only way to prevent unmarried pregnancy. They would not agree with this statement. I do not agree that corporal punishment is the only avenue to discipline.
Loving your wife is a good end, but historically many believed that beating her was a way of doing that. Loving children by teaching self-restraint and limits is the goal, but what are good means to that end?
Therefore those who continue to support corporal punishment need to prove two things: 1) Hitting is the only or, by far, the best means to our goal, and 2) that it’s negative side effects are fewer than other parenting methods.
Today, an entire body of teachable and effective parenting skills exists for responsibly teaching children without hitting. Furthermore, we know that hitting has potential side effects in putting many children at risk: at risk from the wrong thing being taught (might makes right), at risk from emotional scarring, (repressed anger and angry outbursts), at risk from an out-of-control parent who “loses it” with his or her child and does physical harm, and at risk of identifying pain with sexual pleasure (the buttocks being an erogenous zone).
With these known possible side effects, why don’t we end hitting, and teach parents to use more respectful ways of helping their children grow up strong and self-controlled, ways that do not include these side effects? An analogy might be made that cars without seat belts -- even though not lethal to all drivers -- were seen as more dangerous than cars with them. So instead of taking the risk, we all use seat belts. Why do we not follow a similar common sense standard in raising, teaching, and protecting our children?
Sadly, the most frequent defense of the practice of hitting children “for their own good” comes from many religious teachers who claim the Bible tells us to. (Proverbs 13:24, 22:15, 23:13-14, and 29:15) But does it?
Since people of the Old Testament or Torah do not use the Bible to advocate hitting children, why do so many Christians who profess to be followers of Jesus who abrogated much of the Old Law?
Would Jesus, who said, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the Kingdom of God," (Luke 18:16) “whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it, “(Luke 18:17) “whoever humbles himself like a child … is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven,” (Matt. 18:4) and, “anyone who welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me. But anyone who is an obstacle to bring down one of these little ones, who has faith in me, would be better drowned in the depths of the sea with a great millstone round his neck.” (Matt. 18:5-7) sponsor books advocating hitting children? Jesus clearly elevated the status of children from objects to humans of a high order. He did not teach they were sinful wretches needing the devil beaten out of them.
No one questions how difficult it is to raise children. Developing patience and consistency, learning to become conscious of our unmet childhood needs so we avoid passing the hurt on, and managing our stress levels in order to be better at handling parenting tasks, are all difficult. However, a life-long relationship with our children who become adults and appreciate our having listened to them, set limits with them, and passed on life skills without being punitive and harsh is a great reward for our service.
Furthermore, because we can learn from the positive results of several nations, which have ended corporal punishment, we have little risk of creating out-of-control, lawless youths ourselves. Currently our children are at risk from early childhood mistreatment: it is difficult to reverse, and creates damaged children who may grow into damaged adults who are likely to avenge themselves by harming others or themselves. Over fifty years of research in the fields of child development and neurobiology overwhelmingly confirms that the earlier and worse the mistreatment of children, the worse the outcome. The data repeatedly shows that children who suffer physical violence from adults are prone to depression, poor academic grades, school dropout, truancy, vandalism and spousal abuse.
Opponents will be quick to say, “spanking is not abuse.” Currently and legally, they are probably right; but I would argue that spanking has yet another big problem since parents are neither perfect nor always in control of themselves. By sanctioning hitting, we open a dangerous opportunity -- behind the closed doors of private homes-- for more serious abuses. Sanctioning hitting actually magnifies the risk of serious mistreatment by out-of-control parents.
In conclusion, the burden of proof to continue this outdated approach to childrearing lies with the proponents. They must prove there is an adequate reason to deny a fundamental human right to the smallest and least protected members of the human family – the right to be safe from assault.