Punishment: The Cruelest Abuse

By: Eddie SantoPrieto

This is gonna hurt me more than you.

 

How many of us heard those words while growing up? I know I heard it many times. I wasn’t a bad child in the sense that I got into trouble. I was more a “questioner” – I had to have a “why.” My mother was old school, asking for a reason was equivalent to disrespect, and so her response was usually, Because I said so,” or, if I pressed too hard, a smack, a chancletazo[1], in some cases an “ass-whoopin’,” or a genuine beat down. Like the time I managed to create a swimming pool out of our tenement apartment bathroom. That was a crime deserving of a beat down.

I wasn’t bad, just creative.

Many of us remember getting beat downs and ass-whoopins. My mother actually made us fetch a leather strap kept specifically as a tool for punishment and make us smell it as a warning. Then people wonder why today I like the smell of leather and spanking women’s behinds. Most of my young life was spent in power struggles with my mother. I would take her physical punishment, but all it did was make me want to do more of whatever it was I was being punished for.

Growing up my father never touched me, he spoke to me, respected me, and inspired me to create higher standards for myself. If my father asked me to do something, I did it happily. My mother on the other hand had to hit me constantly. Her favorite form of punishment? Smacking my face. To this day, I have issues with anyone touching my face. To this day I sometimes still reflexively flinch from a lover’s caress.

Some parents argue that newer forms of discipline don’t work. They argue that the old tradition, derived from the Biblical dogma of “spare the rod, spoil the child,” offered an effective physical discipline, that when done correctly will only have to be enforced a few times. The adherents of physical discipline often point out that all they need is to give a “look.”

Others (and I happen to be one of them) respond that the punishment methods used by our parents actions with roots in anger and based on religious dogma, personal frustration, and a lack of respect for children as people. I also differentiate between punishment and discipline — the two are not the same.

Who’s right?

 

 

He who spareth the rod, hateth his son: but he who loveth him correcteth him betimes.
— Proverbs 13:24

 


Some Bible readers argue that this adage has been taken out of context — that it was not originally intended as advocacy for physical punishment. Whatever the case may be, this is the way it’s been commonly understood. Today, I argue from the vantage point of a minority since there’s a plurality in America that disagrees with my stance. So it makes sense to explore whether this statement makes any sense.

There are very few instances of absolutes in the study of human behavior. However, even a cursory glance at the literature suggests that no other “common sense” saying has done so much harm to so many people. I can’t think of any other proverb that’s founded on so ignorant an understanding of human development.

Does physical punishment “teach the kid a lesson”? Absolutely. It teaches that “the way to solve problems is to beat up others,” as one researcher put it. Now, I am aware that there different degrees of punishment, not all “rods” are the same. There’s a big difference between a light tapping on a child’s behind and the sort of punishment that causes bruising (and let’s be clear: if you’re bruising your child, you’re a child abuser!). However studies spanning over fifty years by a larger range of researchers have clearly demonstrated that slapping, spanking, or otherwise using violence on children is never necessary and always potentially harmful.

Studies going back as far as the 1950s and 1960s show conclusively that physical (corporal) punishment produces children who are more, not less, aggressive than their peers. A study conducted in 1960 studied 875 eight year-olds and found a clear-cut relationship between the severity of the physical punishment they received and how aggressive their peers judged them to be. Twenty two years later, the researchers tracked down some of the same subjects and found that many of the aggressive children had grown into aggressive adults. Even more disturbing, many of them were now using physical punishment on their own children. In fact, there is a strong relationship between corporal punishment, the resulting shame, and criminal behavior.

Of course, you’re probably saying that you turned out fine and that your children seem to be okay and you have been subjected to corporal punishment and physically punish your own children. Growing up in an abusive household doesn’t guarantee that one will eventually become an abuser. Still, even so-called “acceptable” levels of physical punishment can result in perpetuating violence and unhappiness. Research continues to find:

 

  • A large survey revealed that people who had been punished most severely as teenagers were four times more likely to beat their spouses than people whose parents had never hit them at all.

 

  • Another study found that alcoholics and people suffering from depression were much more likely than other individuals to have been physically punished when they were children.

 

  • A more recent study found that three to five year-olds who were spanked by their parents were more likely than other children to be aggressive while playing at a day care center. Watching violent TV programs and playing with toys such as toy guns was also found to be related to aggression, but not as strongly as physical punishment was.

 

Apart for the long-term damage it may cause, physical punishment is simply ineffective. It may suppress the misbehavior (or what the parents deems misbehavior) in the short run, but ultimately it promotes little more than a determination to avoid getting caught. The most effective way to raise children who respect others is to respect and care for them, to explain what they’ve done wrong and help them to understand why it’s wrong, and to work with them in creating solutions to the problems.

I have a colleague who’s at her wits end as to why her four- year-old daughter has been kicked out of two day care centers and pre-school. My colleague is only now beginning to listen to what I’ve been telling her for years: she needs to stop using physical force as a way to raise her daughter.

My brother once called me in the middle of the night. I had sent my son to Florida to stay with him for summer vacation and late one night he calls and informs me, “Yo, I gotta tell you something. I’m here at Blockbusters with your son, and I told him that he could watch any movie he wanted to watch. I even took him by the porn section.”

By now, I’m fuming.

My brother went on, “Anyway, even though I told him he could watch whatever he wanted and I would never tell you, he said he couldn’t do it because his father trusts him and he wouldn’t want to do anything to mess that up. You got a good kid, Eddie,” and he hung up.

To me, that was the greatest thing. My son had internalized positive values, which meant that he would behave in accordance with certain values and principles even when I wasn’t around to punish him. I didn’t teach these values to my son through coercion, or threats of physical pain. Rather, this was done through a long and engaged process of mutual discovery and respect, modeling behavior, and actually teaching my son critical thinking skills.

This is not so for children raised on a diet of fear and coercion/ violence. In fact, it could be that hitting children makes things worse even for toddlers. As reported in the journal Developmental Psychology, “infants of physically punishing mothers showed the lowest levels of compliance and were most likely to manipulate breakable objects.” An earlier study of more than 800 toddlers and their mothers discovered that “the more frequent the punishment for the child” — especially physical punishment and especially administered by the mother — “the more severe were all the behavior problem syndromes studied in the child.” Even if the punishment didn’t cause these behavior problems, it damn sure didn’t eliminate them.

Not too long ago, I watched as a mother of two young children hit one child for hitting the other. Great! It’s true that a huge number of Americans choose this way of dealing with a child who deliberately hurts someone else. Apparently it’s “common sense” to believe that the best way to teach that hurting is wrong is by well… hurting. Despite of the overwhelming research showing just how harmful and ineffective physical punishment is, an overwhelming majority of Americans still resort to using physical punishment.

Why? Well, one rationalization I hear a lot is that “real harm” is caused by “child abuse” (what other people do) not by “normal” spanking. Perhaps they lack the self-control needed to cope with their children more positively and productively. Perhaps they have themselves been raised this way and see nothing wrong with it, and rather than confront the implications of what was done to them at a tender age, prefer to treat their children the same way. Whatever the reason, be clear that we live in a different world today. Children have a heightened awareness of the consequences for punishing the “old fashioned way” and with access to 1-800 numbers and cell phones, hitting your kid just might be more painful to you.

My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization…
Resources
Miller, A. (1990). For your own good: Hidden cruelty in child-rearing and the roots of violence (3rd ed.). New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. (click here)

 

Gilligan, J. (2003). Shame, guilt, and violence. Social Research: An International Quarterly of Social Sciences, 4(70), 1149-1180. (click here)