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Spanking violates everything we say we believe in

On Life

Ruminations and provocations.

Spanking violates everything we say we believe in

Stephen H. Provost

Why is hitting someone OK?

I'm not talking about self-defense; I'm talking about taking your own initiative to hit someone who isn't threatening you.

That would be bad enough. But what about hitting someone who can't fight back?

Our society condemns "kicking people when their down." Football players are penalized for late hits. Boxers can lose points for hitting after the belt, and shooting someone in the back is considered the coward's way.

But somehow these rules don't apply to the most defenseless among us, those least capable of fighting back: young children. Somehow, spanking a child is viewed not only as appropriate, but necessary by a majority of Americans. It's rationalized as a "teaching tool" or a "deterrent" or a way to impose social norms on kids who don't know any better.

"Spare the rod, spoil the child," the saying goes.


But how is that different than "teaching someone a lesson"? That's what spanking is supposed to do, right? Teach the child a lesson?

First point: It doesn't work. A 2016 study by professors from the universities of Texas and Michigan found that the more children are spanked, the more apt they are to defy their parents. They're also more likely to exhibit anti-social behaviors and to develop mental health and cognitive problems. So, not only does spanking fail to achieve its supposed goal, it makes the problem worse. And not just for the kids, because ...

Second point: It doesn't stop there. Now, a new study has found that children who are spanked are more likely to engage in dating violence. The kids who are spanked aren't the only victims; they're more likely to victimize others, too.

Apparently, they are learning a lesson ... just the wrong one. They're learning it's appropriate, even desirable, to inflict physical pain upon people when they're at their most vulnerable.

Children can't fight back. They trust their parents implicitly, and spanking breaks that trust. It creates a conundrum of cognitive dissonance: "This person loves me, but he's hurting me." There are two ways to resolve this. Either the child can defy the parents (as the 2016 study found is more likely to occur among those who are spanked) or that child can learn to equate corporal punishment with love.


It should come as no surprise that spanking should be predictive of physical abuse in dating relationships, which also involve high levels of trust and vulnerability. If you agree to go out on a date with someone, you presumably like them (at least a little), and you put yourself in a position of being vulnerable, both emotionally and in terms of physical proximity. 

The link to future sexual abuse in the dating study should hardly be surprising: Spanking children not only involves hitting the most vulnerable people among us, it entails hitting them in one of their most vulnerable areas (the buttocks): an area that, in our society, remains covered in public because of its sexual associations.

If the person you're dating thinks it's appropriate, or even an expression of love, to hit you, trust and vulnerability go out the window. Not to mention that the person has just engaged in a criminal act (assault) according to our social norms.

But those same social norms tell us it's fine to spank a child. Parents can't be prosecuted for it, and they don't even have to endure much (if any) societal disapproval for it. A United Nations committee calls the practice "invariably degrading," and 53 countries ban corporal punishment outright, but the United States isn't one of them.

Indeed, nearly three-quarters of the U.S. population  agrees or strongly agrees "that it is sometimes necessary to discipline a child with a good, hard spanking."

The evidence against spanking is one of the most consistent findings in the field of psychology.
— Elizabeth T. Gershoff, associate professor of human development and family sciences at the University of Texas at Austin

The upshot: We tell our kids not to "resort to violence" and urge them to solve problems rationally, while at the same time resorting to violence ourselves ... and violence that's anything but rational, since it doesn't work.

I find this incomprehensible. When it comes to how we, as adults, treat other adults, we condemn "throwing the first punch" and justify physical violence only in self-defense. We don't shoot people in the back. We don't pile on after the whistle blows or the bell rings. We observe the boundaries that apply across society ... except, inexplicably, to the most vulnerable among us, our children.

Spanking doesn't work. It makes the problem worse. It's predictive of adult violence. But most of all, it's wrong.

It's wrong to hit someone without provocation, to inflict pain, and it's even more egregiously wrong if that person is defenseless. That's what we're supposed to believe as a society.

So why the hell do we keep doing it to our kids?