Monday, July 25, 2011

Should Spanking Be a Felony?

In my previous post I argued that hitting a child or dog is neither nice nor necessary. Positive motivation and the desire and willingness to develop a warm relationship are what generate influence to channel behavior in appropriate ways. The implication about hitting a child is that it transgresses legal boundaries.*

Indeed, spanking would seem to violate child abuse laws and some judges have concurred (1, 2, 3). Current law says that any marks or bruising left as the result of physical contact constitutes abuse (1, 2, 3). In most states, however, the law exempts “reasonable disciplining,” though precisely what that means is not always clear. The trend is unmistakably in the direction of banning spanking.

Whether it leaves a mark or not, spanking is the initiation of the use of physical force. Its purpose is to cause pain and to command obedience to the will of the adult. Its consequence is usually humiliation. In light of modern theories of child psychology and child rearing, such adult behavior is unacceptable. Whether every spanking parent should immediately be arrested is an issue of the implementation of new law. A long and unquestioned historical context of using physical force as a teaching technique calls for education of the populace and gradual, not impulsive, execution of the new principle. Uninformed parents can be well-meaning when spanking their children. The complications of parental and child psychology call for a grace period.

Consider the young father of a toddler I observed a number of years ago. I was having my hair cut and the toddler was supposed to be obediently crawling into the barber chair across the way, but he was not cooperating. The father became exasperated and swatted the child on the behind. The boy cried and obediently sat in the chair. What struck me about this incident were the emotional expressions of the father: embarrassment, probably because his child in public view was not “minding” him, and guilt, probably for having had to resort to force. The father’s behavior was not mean-spirited or felonious. He just needed to learn better ways of relating to his son.

In contrast, our daughter’s first experience with a haircut was completely pleasureful. Before getting her near the barber’s chair, her talented hair stylist bounced her on his knee for a few minutes and said funny things to make her laugh. Her haircut was a pleasant success—no need for physical force. Bottom line: it’s all in the technique. Teaching method is everything. The hair stylist used the fun theory of behavioral influence.

The most significant emotion present in all spankings, including the young father’s behavior above, is anger. To be angry enough to inflict pain, one must feel that an injustice has been committed, which then is allegedly righted by the spanking. This is the absurdity of spanking. Has the child committed an injustice? Has he robbed a bank? No, he refused to sit quietly in a barber’s chair! When parental anger in the twenty-first century rises to the level of using an implement, such as a paddle, stick, belt, hairbrush, or wooden spoon, etc., the intent is mean-spirited and sometimes vicious. I do not sympathize with anyone who calls this “reasonable disciplining.”

Psychologies are complex, though, and parents have reportedly cried after using such implements on their children, saying they didn’t mean to or couldn’t help themselves. Is such behavior criminal? Some murderers have regretted their killings and said they couldn’t help themselves. What’s the difference between these two kinds of behavior? One has thousands of years of cultural tradition behind it saying that it is okay to hit children, the other has the same number of years of tradition saying that it is wrong to kill another human being. Saying that it is okay to spank because of our historical tradition is cultural relativism. Other cultures have equal numbers of years of tradition saying that it is okay to hit women and mutilate their genitals. Historical context is only relevant in putting the new law into practice.

Spanking should be a felony because behavior is controllable, and whether or not a mark or bruise is left on the body, physical force has been initiated by a big, powerful adult against a small, helpless child. The issue here is one of fairness to the young father with the toddler in the hair salon. Throwing him in the slammer or putting him on probation would not help him become a better dad. As always, the issue is one of education, of the adult.

*In spite of what animal rights advocates say, dogs are property and rights belong to the owner. Children are human beings and their rights derive from that nature as such.


Jerry Kirkpatrick said...

As my blog's description states, I prefer that commenters identify themselves by name, first and last. I have yet to publish a comment by anyone named "Anonymous," yet a recent "Anonymous" has raised an issue concerning the legality of spanking that I would like to address.

The issue is the usual one about allegedly interfering with the parents' rights to discipline their children, especially if the child "smashes a glass on the kitchen floor in a fit of rage." The question to ask here is not: "Why don't I have the right to spank this child for damaging my property?" Rather, it is: "Why is the child in a fit of rage in the first place? Why the rage?"

"Follow the child," as Montessori would say. Probe the psychology to uncover the motivation, then address it peaceably. That means talking to the child lovingly to find out what is bothering him or her and discussing the issues. Spanking only encourages more of the same or similar behavior later and teaches the child that hitting is okay.

The glass is just a glass, even if it's cystal. Your child's mind is precious. "Controlling the environmnet, not the child" means putting the crystal out of reach of an angry child.

A hitting child, to follow this up a bit more, is restrained until calmed down, then talked to. A disruptive student is removed from class without punishment, then talked to. "You mean all you do is talk to them?," an incredulous adult might ask. Yes. Talk in an unconditionally accepting manner is the only solution. That's what psychology is all about: talk. That's what teaching is. As I concluded this post on spanking, I said, ". . . the issue here is one of education, of the adult." Adults need to learn psychology and they need to learn it well before having children.

Robbie Gipson said...

You write: "Spanking only encourages more of the same or similar behavior later and teaches the child that hitting is okay." To your first point, I haven't seen the empirical evidence on this (though from the nature of the case such studies would obviously be highly flawed and incapable of controlling all relevant variables), but I know from my own case that fear of being spanked had the opposite effect on me and strongly encouraged me to NOT engage in the behavior that brought on the spanking. To the second point, this is redolent of the argument writers often make against capital punishment ("How can we as a society tell people it's wrong to kill and then do that very thing to criminals?") that fails to distinguish between retaliatory and initiatory force. The parent could easily prevent the child from getting the idea that hitting is okay by explaining to the child the differences between when force is acceptable and when it is not.

If force was your SOLE method of dealing with your child, you would obviously fail miserably as a parent. You can't neglect teaching, which should indeed be the dominant feature of a proper parental approach. But I disagree that spanking can have no place in child-rearing and should even be legally punished.

Many parents would rightfully be afraid to have children if they knew they could very well end up in a scenario where their kid is out of control and impervious to persuasion yet they can do nothing physical about it (beyond moving all their glassware to the top shelf) without being punished by the state.

As I see it, the ideology that regards the state as the true guardian of children is so dangerous that the last thing defenders of liberty should be clamoring for in our current sociocultural context is greater government interference in childrearing, even if you believe that in a properly constituted society certain types of interference would be desirable.

Jerry Kirkpatrick said...

Robbie, thank you for your thoughtful comments.

I have to say, though, that there is quite a lot of research on corporal punishment. No one disputes that punishment can stop an unwanted behavior temporarily. As you describe, spanking stopped me also. But it’s the long-term consequences of punishment that matter. One researcher reviewed eighty-eight studies, concluding that corporal punishment “decreased moral internalization, increased child aggression, increased child delinquent and antisocial behavior, decreased quality of relationship between parent and child, . . .” plus a half-dozen additional unpleasant behaviors including the feeling that love has been withdrawn (quoted in Alfie Kohn, Unconditional Parenting, p. 231).

The relevant legal issue is that the child is not a small adult and cannot be held to the adult’s standards of discrimination between initiatory and retaliatory force. The child’s mind is not yet fully formed. Powerful emotions may overcome a child, leading to what an adult would call “irrational behavior.” But the adult’s mind is fully formed, hence the adult should be in better control of his or her emotions and know better than to hit. “Be the adult,” as the child care experts say. What the child needs is first to calm down, then to be further comforted with patient discussion of the child’s and family’s needs and how best to meet those needs. A teenager might cause some serious damage, but then again, as Glasser says, “When you stop controlling [your child], you gain control.”

In this second decade of the twenty-first century the works of Montessori, Thomas Gordon, Haim Ginott, and William Glasser, among others, are too widely distributed to ignore; their ideas have become part of our culture. Many parents today, and in the last several decades, have demonstrated that children can be raised without using physical punishment. It can be done. It just requires a commitment to learn and implement these new ideas.

As I said in my original post, the issue of making spanking illegal is “one of fairness to the young father with the toddler in the hair salon. Throwing him in the slammer or putting him on probation would not help him become a better dad.” Becoming better parents is what my post is all about; historical context requires grandfathering and the gradual implementation of new law, not the heavy-handed and self-righteous impulsiveness of some of today’s social service agencies. Retaining an alleged right to hit is not going to make anyone a better parent. The evidence is too strong against it.

Many people today think that laissez-faire capitalism is an outrageously unjust and impractical idea, but I still argue for the repeal of enormous numbers of laws that are on the books, laws that initiate the use of physical force and thereby violate our rights. One more law should be added to the list, the one that protects parents from liability and allows them to initiate the use of force on their children. Scare adults away from having children? They should embrace the new ideas and celebrate the maturity and independence the practices produce in their children.