No parent should get away with hitting their child with a closed fist. This can easily cause serious psychological and physical injury and should rightly be considered child abuse. Corporal punishment in schools is also illegal in the UK (since 1998), meaning that no teacher is allowed to punish pupils with the use of physical force. Whether an open palm or closed fist is used is irrelevant – caning is illegal, so is spanking or grabbing a child by the ear. Corporal punishment is defined by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child as “any punishment in which physical force is used and intended to cause some degree of pain or discomfort, however light.” Spanking can be defined as: hitting a child on the bottom with an open hand.
In the UK, while school corporal punishment is illegal, parental corporal punishment is legal. Parents are allowed to spank their child in the home or in public, although doing so in public will probably result in some public scrutiny and criticism. However, it is hard to decide when corporal punishment turns into child abuse. A child may be spanked so hard that they are left injured or emotionally scarred – a court judge may see this as evidence of abuse. Some may even argue that any sort of corporal punishment is child abuse. No doubt it is worse to slap a child in the face than on the arm or their behind, but should we still not oppose any act of violence inflicted on a child by an adult? Some countries have taken a firm opposition to any sort of corporal punishment, whether it takes place in schools or in the home. Most of Europe has outlawed all forms of corporal punishment, as well as countries such as Venezuela, Uruguay, New Zealand, Tunisia, Kenya and Albania.
One of the experts on this issue, Dr Elizabeth Gershoff, wrote an article entitled, Spanking and Child Development: We Know Enough Now to Stop Hitting Our Children (2013). By referring to a compilation of evidence, she concludes that corporal punishment is ineffective, harmful and should be banned as a matter of human rights. And it is bad for all kids. It does not teach children how to behave positively in a particular situation, only how not to behave if there is a threat of punishment. In addition, spanking destroys the relationship of trust that should exist between a child and their parents. A child will build a self-protective shield around themselves in regards to relationships in general.
Here is a list of peer-reviewed research on the issue, most of which proposes that spanking is ineffective because it leads to more spanking in the future. Therefore, instead of creating obedient children, spanking creates children who are disobedient and non-compliant. Moreover, such spanking is harmful in that it can contribute to a variety of behavioural, developmental and cognitive issues later in life. One notable negative change is an increased level of aggression, which can lead to a tendency to engage in delinquent or criminal behaviour. Spanking has also been linked to child abuse and physical health problems later in life.
The increase in aggressive behaviour should not be surprising. A young child’s mind is extremely sensitive and we know that a child has a tendency to repeat any violence or abuse inflicted on them. When a child looks up to their parent as a provider of rules to live by (which is natural) they will immediately interpret their violent actions as a normal way to respond to an undesirable situation. In this disturbing documentary, we find out that Beth’s desire to harm her own family resulted from the sexual abuse that she suffered as a young child.
Gershoff also had an article published in Psychology, Public Policy & Law, along with Susan Bitensky, from Michigan State University, College of Law. In it both authors argue that corporal punishment should be opposed in all areas as a human rights and ethical issue. They argue that if child abuse is to be seriously tackled, then corporal punishment must be banned. As it stands, there is currently some confusion and inconsistency in the law – why do we have a legal system that permits some form of violence against children and not others? Furthermore, it was the removal of a husband’s right to hit ‘his’ wife that led to a substantial decrease in cases of domestic violence against women. Likewise, the right of a parent to spank their child should be abandoned. In all likelihood, the ban on corporal punishment would lead to lower rates of domestic child abuse. The US, for example, has one of the worst rates of child abuse in the world and domestic corporal punishment is legal, while school corporal punishment is still legal in many States.
The philosopher, blogger and host of Freedomain Radio, Stefan Molyneux, is a non-spanking parent who believes that ‘philosophical parenting’ is a much healthier alternative to corporal punishment. In dealing with toddler tantrums, he believes that situations of conflict with the child come down to a lack of preparation and it is the duty of the parent to resolve that conflict in a rational and constructive way. Molyneux contends that any repetitive behaviour displayed by the child that annoys the parent is caused by a failure to instil the correct behaviour and a lack of consistency on the parent’s part. Getting a child to commit to promises and using skills of negotiation are a more effective, mature and ethical way to prevent conflicts or resolve them if any arise.
Molyneux is an advocate of the non-aggression principle which asserts that aggression, in any sphere of activity, cannot be justified. He considers spanking a violation of this principle. We can define aggression as a behaviour which is hostile, forceful or attacking and it can be expressed physically, verbally or non-verbally (through facial expressions and body language). Molyneux probably presents a very idealistic method of parenting; after all, it must be extremely stressful to deal with a tantrum in a calm and collected manner. But this doesn’t mean that parents shouldn’t do their best to achieve this ideal. If some tantrums escalate to the point where the child attacks or hits the parent, I see no problem in using physical restraint, if necessary. Physical violence and aggression, on the other hand, should be avoided at all costs.
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