Time magazine this week reported that 19 states still allow teachers to paddle students in schools.  What is even more alarming is that adult acceptance of spanking, while lower than it was 50 years ago, was still approved of by 71% in 2004. The article made me realize that a blog post I wrote a couple of years ago is as relevant as ever.  So I’m reprinting it this week with some editing to bring it up to date.  If you didn’t read it, please read it now.  If you did read it when it was originally published, please read it again.  There is an important exercise at the end for everyone, even if you aren’t a parent or your children are grown and out of the house.

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

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 several years ago 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 one-on-one sessions 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. If I do something wrong, 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.

Here’s what’s interesting: Most parents would be upset if they realized that their children were forming most of these negative beliefs, but they actually want their children to conclude one of these beliefs as a result of the punishment, namely I have done something bad.  They think that knowing they have done something “bad” will prevent their children from doing it again.  But if a child thinks over and over that he has done something bad, what is he likely to conclude after a while: I am bad.  Imagine the consequences of growing up and living with the sense of yourself that you are a bad person?

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.)

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.  A recent survey in the UK showed that seven out of 10 parents used corporal punishment on their children.  And as I mentioned earlier when quoting last week’s Time, 71% of adults in the U.S. accept spanking as acceptable discipline.  That same story reported that 23% of U.S. parents still support spanking by teachers. The result of that support: 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.

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.” “Why aren’t you a good child like …?”

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 our clients have stopped their chronic anxiety, eating disorders, needing the approval of others, lack of confidence, mistreatment of others, etc. by eliminating the childhood beliefs that had caused 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 your parents disciplined you.  … 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 didn’t get caught the next time?  … 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? …

Research has shown that spanking and browbeating sometimes can work to produce immediately compliance due to the fear of punishment, but there is no learning involved.  (Actually the children do “learn” [form the belief] that the way to get what you want is to instill fear in others.)

If physical and emotional abuse 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.

By the way, if punishment really worked to deter behavior, almost two-thirds of the people released from prison would not result in the re-arrest, reconviction, or return to prison with or without a new sentence during a three-year period following the prisoner’s release. This figure is taken from “2011 Adult Institutions Outcome Evaluation Report” prepared by the California Department of Corrections And Rehabilitation, and is typical of other states.)

Consider this: If a stranger treated our children the way so many parents do they would be arrested for child abuse.  Why is the same behavior toward a child a crime when exhibited by a stranger and perfectly okay if done by parents?  Here’s the answer.

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.  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?”

How to use this post to improve your life (and the life of your child)

If you or your spouse spanks or even yells at your child, consider what you just read and see if you really want to continue doing that.  Consider making a promise to your child to never do that again.  And find more effective ways to interact with your children that lead to positive instead of negative beliefs.

If it is okay for teachers in your state to spank children while they are in school (for a list of states, click here http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0934191.html), send a note to your state representatives urging them to pass legislation banning all forms of corporal punishment in schools.

In any case, discuss the material in this post with your friends and do what you can to urge other parents to stop spanking their children.

Please comment both on this post and on your results from the exercise.

Your comments and questions increase the value we all receive.  I read them all and respond to as many as I can.

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If you would like some free information about how to interact with your children so that they form positive instead of negative beliefs, check out Shelly Lefkoe’s parenting program at http://parentingthelefkoeway.com.

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Copyright ©2012 Morty Lefkoe