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There was a time in America when some people were treated as property, forced to do whatever other people wanted, abused without any ability to respond, and unable to obtain their freedom. Such behavior was legal and considered appropriate by the people practicing it.

When we look at the people who exhibited that behavior we think with repulsion, “What could they possibly have been thinking?”

I’m not referring to slavery 150 years ago. I’m referring to the abuse heaped upon millions of children daily by well-meaning parents who don’t realize the long-term damage being done by spanking and other forms of punishment.

Corporal Punishment Doesn’t Work

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Research has shown that corporal (physical) punishment not only doesn’t stop the behavior it was intended to stop, it produces a host of negative consequences. These studies have linked corporal punishment to adverse physical, psychological and educational outcomes.

Researcher Elizabeth Gershoff, Ph.D., in a 2002 meta-analytic study that combined 60 years of research on corporal punishment, found that the only positive outcome of corporal punishment was immediate compliance; however, corporal punishment was associated with less long-term compliance. Corporal punishment was linked with nine other negative outcomes, including increased rates of aggression, delinquency, mental health problems, problems in relationships with their parents, and likelihood of being physically abused.

Time recently described a new study published in Pediatrics that confirms the results of many earlier studies, “As five-year-olds, the children who had been spanked were more likely than the non-spanked to be defiant, demand immediate satisfaction of their wants and needs, become frustrated easily, have temper tantrums and lash out physically against other people or animals.” (Emphasis added.)

We’ve discovered from our work with over 13,000 clients that most self-esteem beliefs are formed from interactions with parents during the first six years of life. Spanking produces the dysfunctional behavior described in the studies quoted above because it leads to such beliefs as: I’m powerless. I’m bad. I deserve to be punished. There’s something wrong with me. The way to be safe is to have power over others. Violence is an acceptable way to handle disagreements. The way to keep from being punished is to not get caught. I’m not good enough.

Despite all the evidence showing the negative consequences of spanking, many people still argue that it is a useful and appropriate tool for parents. One such person is Dr. James Dobson, a psychologist who Time called “the nation’s most influential evangelical leader.” He argues "[P]ain is a marvelous purifier. . . It is not necessary to beat the child into submission; a little bit of pain goes a long way for a young child. However, the spanking should be of sufficient magnitude to cause the child to cry genuinely." (Emphasis added.) (From his book, Dare to Discipline, pages 6 and 7.)

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Answering the question: “I have spanked my children for their disobedience, and it didn’t seem to help. Does this approach fail with some children?”, Dobson replied:

“The spanking may be too gentle. If it doesn’t hurt, it doesn’t motivate a child to avoid the consequence next time. A slap with the hand on the bottom of a multi-diapered thirty-month-old is not a deterrent to anything. Be sure the child gets the message — while being careful not to go too far.” (Emphasis added.) (Complete Marriage and Family Home Reference Guide)

Now you may be thinking, I don’t spank my child and I don’t know any parents who do; it isn’t really that common anymore. In fact, it is a lot more common than you might imagine. According to the Center for Effective Discipline, in the 2006-2007 school year, 223,190 school children in the U.S. were subjected to physical punishment. A recent survey in the UK showed that seven out of 10 parents used corporal punishment on their children.

Yelling Also Can Be Abusive

But that’s only half the story. A lot of people who would never physically abuse their children abuse them emotionally on a regular basis. Such people can grasp the brutality of hitting a defenseless child, but think nothing of screaming at their child, uttering such common phrases as: “What’s wrong with you?” “Are you stupid?” “How many times do I have to tell you? Don’t you understand English?” “If you were a good child you’d obey me.”

Our work with clients also has showed us that such emotional abuse often leads to as many negative beliefs about ourselves as physical abuse, including many of the same beliefs that spanking produces, plus I’m not capable, I’m not competent. Mistakes are bad. I’m not loveable. I’m not worthy. I’m inadequate.

There’s an important distinction to be made here: Physical and emotional abuse, as painful as it might be in the moment, has no long-term consequences. But the abuse inevitably leads children to form negative beliefs about themselves and life, that in turn lead to a wide variety of behavioral and emotional problems for the rest of their lives. (Thousands of clients have stopped their chronic anxiety, eating disorders, needing the approval of others, lack of confidence, etc. by eliminating the childhood beliefs that cause such debilitating problems.)

Why do we hit or yell at our children? The answer most parents probably would give is “Nothing else seems to get my children to listen.” Would you hit or yell at your friends who frustrated you because they wouldn’t listen to your advice? And if that’s not appropriate, what makes it okay to do it to defenseless children?

Shouldn’t Children Be Disciplined If They Don’t Obey?

Think of a time when you were disciplined by your parents. … Did you think: I’ll never do that again, or did you think: I’ll make sure I never get caught doing that again. … Did you learn anything from the punishment other than to make sure you don’t get caught? … Did it instill a moral sense of right and wrong and the desire to do what’s right, or were you just angry with your parents? …

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rch has shown that spanking and browbeating sometimes can work to produce immediately compliance, but there is no learning involved. If they really worked to permanently change behavior you’d only have to use them once or perhaps a few times. It’s weird to me that parents justify hitting and yelling as a way to get their children to listen, and then keep doing it over and over because their children don’t listen! That reminds me of the old saying: Insanity consists of doing the same thing over and over expecting to get a different result.

Do We Really “Own” Our Children?

Many parents feel they are legally and morally justified in forcing their children to do whatever they arbitrarily decide they want their children to do, just because they are the parents. They hate the question “why?” because they usually don’t have an answer. If their children disobey, it’s okay for them to punish their children until they “cry.” Their justification: “How can we possibly get our kids to do what we want if we can’t spank them or yell at them?”

If a master’s absolute dominion over his slaves was justified by the argument that the slaves were “owned” by their masters, isn’t that the implicit argument that justifies punishing children? (Obviously, parents don’t consciously think that about their children, but think about it for a moment, isn’t that the implicit assumption out of which most parents operate? Don’t they think: “Who are you to tell me how to parent? They are ‘my’ children.”)

If we ever are going to raise a generation of children who don’t have the negative beliefs and day-to-day problems so many of us have today, the first thing we are going to have to do is realize that physical and even emotional abuse results in lasting damage. Not the actual abuse itself, which is over in a few minutes. But the meaning children give that abuse results in crippling beliefs that stay with them and cause them suffering for the rest of their lives.

This post is not meant to make parents feel guilty who didn’t realize the consequences of their behavior or who just don’t have any effective parenting skills. It is meant to destroy, once and for all, the idea that parents “own” their children and have the right to spank or scream at them for disobeying.

Please help get this post into the hands of as many parents as possible. Let’s do whatever we can to hasten the day when everyone looks back at these early 21st century parenting practices in America and says: “What could they possibly have been thinking?”

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