Submitted by Kimberly Dienes, guest blogger.
This week on Wednesday, the state Appellate Division of New York determined that open-hand spanking of an 8-year-old boy at a party was ‘a reasonable use of force.’ According to an article published on the case in the New York Daily News, the perspective that spanking does not constitute “excessive corporal punishment” is a common finding in courts across the country, regardless of the type of spanking (hand, spoon, or paddle), and the frequency and duration of spanking (several times a day, once a week, one spank, 37 spanks). After yet another case involving child corporal punishment has hit the courts, we must turn once again to the question of whether child corporal punishment should be regulated, or perhaps even prohibited, by law.
The moral issue of child corporal punishment has been hotly debated, with people on either side arguing on the basis of personal experience, race, religion and culture. However, personal opinion aside, when we address this issue in our lives or in our laws it’s important to recognize several facts that have been well established in psychological research: a) spanking doesn’t work nearly as well as other behavioral techniques and b) it leads to immediate and long term negative consequences for the child.
Spanking is a form of behavioral modification called “positive punishment.” If you want to increase the frequency of behaviors you engage in reinforcement, positive or negative. If you want to decrease the frequency of behaviors you engage in punishment, positive or negative. Positive refers to adding a stimulus, negative to taking it away. Some examples are: giving gold stars in class for good behavior (positive reinforcement), cleaning your room to avoid mom’s nagging (negative reinforcement), spanking to reduce cursing (positive punishment), taking away allowance to reduce cursing (negative punishment). The majority of child psychological research suggests that reinforcement works better than punishment for learning. Punishment is moderately effective when employed immediately and consistently, but otherwise it just doesn’t work. Reinforcement is much stronger as a behavioral modification technique for children (interesting study on why).
Secondly, research has shown that spanking leads to a host of negative consequences. There is a wonderful meta-analysis by Gershoff (2002), where she summarizes the results from 88 studies on child corporal punishment and clearly supports point b. She reports that corporal punishment does result in immediate compliance (sometimes), but also immediate aggression. Corporal punishment actually reduces long-term compliance, and increases long-term aggression and antisocial behavior. There are a number of articles out there about the negative mental health effects of spanking as well.
Statements a and b are relatively well known and empirically supported, however the question remains whether the legislative branch of the United States should regulate child corporal punishment. 31 countries worldwide, with Sweden leading the way, have passed legislation to prohibit all child corporal punishment, with the US as a notable exception. The US is one of two countries along with Somalia that hasn’t ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child that recognizes the human rights of persons under 18. Approximately 90% of American parents have spanked their children according to polls from 1999 and 2005, and rates are relatively consistent. No US state prohibits corporal punishment, although 31 states and the District of Columbia do prohibit corporal punishment in schools. Most states do have statutes addressing child corporal punishment. Alaska has my favorite statute, because what on earth could constitute reasonable and appropriate non-deadly force (and incompetent people?! But that is another issue)?
“When and to the extent reasonably necessary and appropriate to promote the welfare of the child or incompetent person, a parent, guardian, or other person entrusted with the care and supervision of a child under 18 years of age or an incompetent person may use reasonable and appropriate non deadly force upon that child or incompetent person”
Most states have statutes against excessive corporal punishment of a child. This begs the question of what exactly is excessive corporal punishment? Straus and Gershoff provide reasonable definitions of corporal punishment:
“Corporal punishment is the use of physical force with the intention of causing a child to experience pain but not injury for the purposes of correction or control of the child’s behavior” (p. 4).
“Behaviors that do not result in significant physical injury (e.g., spank, slap) are considered corporal punishment, whereas behaviors that risk injury (e.g., punching, kicking, burning) are considered physical abuse.” (p. 564)
But a spank or a slap can result in significant physical injury depending on a number of factors. Further, it is almost impossible to determine cutoffs for mild, moderate, and excessive corporal punishment. In clinical practice, we are mandated to report anything that might leave a mark…but, for how long? How much of a mark? Is spanking once a week ok? What about spanking once a week, but with a wooden spoon, and lasting for an hour? The marks might be gone the next day and let’s face it, can be very well hidden. What about how hard the individual hits? I know that a wooden spoon in the hands of a heavy weight boxer intent on mayhem is a whole lot different than a wooden spoon in the hands of my 94-year-old grandma.
When a child has bruises and broken bones we are relatively certain excessive corporal punishment has occurred, but how do we determine what is acceptable when we get into the grey area where spanking resides? What about those mild and moderate corporal punishment categories where a child still suffers but isn’t going to the hospital? Who is going to take into account frequency, duration, strength of perpetrator, age of child, mechanism etc. of spanking and tell us that it is “acceptable?” I cannot conceive of a failsafe algorithm that would tell us whether a spanking is acceptable.
Therefore, based on the statements that spanking doesn’t work as a behavior technique, it leads to negative consequences for our children immediately and later on in life, countries who have banned it have shown very positive consequences, and that it is almost impossible to provide general criteria for excessive corporal punishment, why don’t we just prohibit spanking all together and create some legislation to that effect?
Sadly, realistically speaking, I don’t see us going black and white and banning all child corporal punishment any time soon on a countrywide basis. One argument against it is that we would be arresting 90% of parents. However, in Sweden, the social service representatives don’t immediately arrest parents for spanking their children, they will tell them it’s against the law and give them some support materials; and the transition to uphold the new legislation was moderate and smooth. But we aren’t Sweden. Assuming, knowing the US, that we aren’t going the route of Sweden, we can start with good personal steps. Can’t we as individuals realize that irrespective of whether spanking is ethically unacceptable, it really doesn’t work? Research has shown that parents who read literature illustrating how useless spanking is a behavioral technique tend to stop doing it or at least reduce the frequency, so let’s start there. Then let’s get some state legislation going against child corporal punishment.
Take a look at the definition of child corporal punishment above. Corporal punishment involves causing a child pain. I bet we can think of something better to do to help our children learn.
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