Written for London/Ontario Free Press
Picture this: Grandma is getting up there in years, and, like many older people some of her memory and reasoning skills have diminished slightly with age. On a shopping trip with her, you notice that she starts to cross the street without looking for traffic. You've told her a number of times how dangerous that is, but she does it anyway. So you make her bend over while you give her a few good whacks on the bum, "to teach her a lesson" or "for her own good," right?
By now you must be thinking that I'm some sort of abusive maniac. We don't hit grandmas--we could go to jail, be fined, or be ordered by a court to seek counseling for anger control. Thank goodness we know better and would never resort to something so barbaric. We're patient, we explain again, and if grandma keeps forgetting, we provide the supervision to be sure she isn't injured. Now, substitute "five-year-old child" for grandma. Should we hit our children? Yes, spanking is hitting, so let's include that idea here. After all, if we "spanked" grandma, the law would see that as hitting, or assault.
For generations probably a majority of Canadians have spanked their children as a way of disciplining them without thinking twice about it. Think twice. Three times if you need to. How are children any different than grandma? Even if a child is angry, defiant, belligerent, should they be struck? No. That is setting a model for children of violence. It sends a message that there are times it is all right to hit someone smaller, weaker than you if you disapprove of that person's behavior. Hitting children makes them angry, risks injury to them, and research shows that children brought up with corporal punishment are less likely to internalize their parents' values, to make those beliefs their own. They are also more likely to hit playmates and siblings. For generations, many Canadians grew up with outhouses. As technology developed, we adapted new, improved ways of living into our lives. So should it be with spanking. There are better ways of teaching children to behave than by hitting them.
A side note--let's call it hitting--not that sterile euphemism "corporal punishment," nor any of the other terms that minimize what we do when we strike a child. Spanking, whacks, licks, slapping--all very cutsy terms, designed to diminish our realization that we are really hitting.
The religious arguments for striking children, quoting the Old Testament maxim about "spare not the rod..." are misguided and out of context. That quote for Proverbs is a statement by King Solomon. The man had countless wives and a multitude of children, and he enslaved and tortured his people. Hardly a model for good family values! The Old Testament also tells us to take disrespectful sons to the gates of the city and stone them to death. Neither idea has merit.
Abandoning the idea of spanking children is not a radical idea at all. Surveys of U.S. parents show a steady downward trend in hitting children. Fewer than 50% of U.S. parents now use any form of physical punishment-- the lowest usage since surveys began over 30 years ago. Seven countries in Europe now have laws prohibiting parental corporal punishment: Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark, Austria, Cyprus and Italy. Are courts being flooded with well- intentioned parents brought up on charges by their children? Not at all. Parents have, for the most part, simply switched to other, more humane disciplinary techniques. It is very rare that a parent is charged, simply because parents rarely hit. Parents are cautioned by children's services caseworkers if an infraction comes to light. There is also no increase in two-year-old being run over by cars nor an increase in juvenile crime. U.S. schools that have abolished physical punishment (banned now in 27 states) find that vandalism decreases and graduation rates improve.
In Minnesota, the state legislature removed from law a provision that gave protection from prosecution to parents charged with child abuse statutes if they were using "reasonable corporal punishment" for purposes of discipline. Critics of the law were sure that hundreds of innocent parents would find themselves in court. It didn't happen. In Canada, the Toronto-based Committee to Repeal Section 43 hopes to do the same thing--remove from law permission to hit. That's a good idea whose time has come.
But aside from matters of law, we as parents or teachers should choose alternatives. Just because we were raised this way and turned out ok does not mean that it should be continued. Try it--for a day, or maybe even a week, just don't hit. Discipline in some other way. Most other parents manage, you can too. Good discipline should be instilled through the mind, not the behind! [behind is U.S. for "bum"]