Note: As a student pursuing my Bachelors in Psychology, the topic was sure to come up. So here are some of my thoughts, as presented in a paper I was assigned to write.
Some studies lump all types of spanking and corporal punishment together, and have shown that, all together, it's not emotionally or psychologically healthy for children. One study discriminated a bit more between types of corporal punishment, based on frequency and intensity, and discovered that occasional and mild spanking of preschoolers is harmless.(Ballie, 2001) Studies that discriminate more between types of corporal punishment are needed to debunk the myth that all spanking is either abusive or damaging to the child. True abuse is defined as follows: the willful infliction of a cruel or inhuman corporal punishment or any injury that results in a traumatic condition.(California "Child Abuse" & Corporal Injury Laws, n.d.)
Now I need address the following terms, for the sake of clarity: discipline, punishment, positive discipline, and corporal punishment. Discipline is the process of teaching someone and raising them up to follow a specific path; this is similar to discipling someone, or discipleship. The word discipline, though, is most often used to refer to negative consequences that lead to appropriate learning. Positive discipline is a subset of discipline, and refers only to discipline that helps children feel connected, is respectful and encouraging, is effective in the long-term, teaches, and invited children to discover their capabilities.(About Positive Discipline, n.d.) Punishment, on the other hand, is more of “this for that,” or “an eye for an eye.” The attitude of “You destroyed my property, so I will hurt you.” This is a different motivation from the desire to train up a child. Finally, corporal punishment is the intentional infliction of physical pain, and can be for punishment or discipline, and can be harsh or gentle.
Today, in fact, a news article came out surrounding a situation in which this very question came up: At what point does discipline move from corporal punishment to physical abuse? A video of a Texas judge beating his 16-year-old daughter with his belt went viral, and while some think that it's acceptable discipline, a large group of people have responded with outrage.(http://www.fmnewschicago.com/news/local/story.aspx?ID=1565910) I think that the situation fell on the side of “physical abuse” rather than appropriate discipline. Where is the line drawn? I believe that the line should be drawn with consideration to six aspects:
- Length/Intensity: Obviously, if a spanking is too long, it no longer serves the purpose of teaching or training, but just inflicts pain. A seemingly endless spanking also can quality as cruel and can result in a traumatic condition. An appropriate length might be 4 swats, or for a really serious offense, 12, but not more than that. Intensity refers to how hard the child is hit, and with what instrument. Belts and wooden items are much more dangerous than hands or rods which are flexible and designed not to cause damage to a child. However, on very young children, even a flexible rob would be way too intense.
- Anger: This is extremely important. Disciplining a child in anger does sever the connection there, destroys trust, and is more about calming the parent than growing and teaching the child. The example given, that “a parent might lose patience, respond with anger, and spank the child” would be completely inappropriate. If the parent is angry, they must wait until they are not angry before attempting any manner of discipline, save for restraint.
- Unpredictability: I also cannot overemphasize the importance of this aspect. There are two elements of predictability. The first element is that the child knows that a spanking will follow, if they break whatever rule is involved. The spanking cannot be a surprise, or it seems unjust. Additionally, it's very important that the child know how long the spanking will be. There's a huge difference between 4 swats and 39, and if the child doesn't know which they are going to get, it can be completely terrifying and leave the child feeling powerless. Predictable punishment, though, seems much more reasonable and just to a child.
- Purpose: This goes back to the whole discipline/punishment idea. If the purpose is to train the child, the child senses that, and it's part of the connection between parent and child. It will also lead to reasonable measures of discipline which are only designed to help the child. For instance, at the of time of discipline, the parent should talk over with the child what was done wrong, why it was wrong, what should be done differently in the future, and should address the child's thoughts about any difficulties that might get in the way of better behavior in the future. If the purpose is punitive, the child will sense this also, and is more likely to be resentful. Also, the punishments are more likely to be unreasonable, and based on the irritation of the adult. Additionally, it should never be about control, but about teaching and growth.
- Opportunity for reconciliation: After discipline, it's important that the child have the opportunity to receive comfort and reconnect with the adult, and feel completely forgiven. Re-establishing this connection is crucial to the child's development and feeling of being loved and belonging. This helps let the child know that he or she is loved and accepted, even though the behavior in question was not acceptable.
- Age: The question of “when is a child too old to be spanked” is a good question. I don't know exactly, and I think it would depend on the maturity level of the child. Ultimately, though, as children grow to be adolescents, pre-teens, and teenagers, the dynamic between parent and child changes. It's no longer just a “command-obey” sort of relationship. Young adults are trying to figure out who they are, as separate from their parents. Spanking pre-teens and teens can be devastating to the relationship, and can cause humiliation, mental distress, and embarrassment. It breaks trust and leads to a lack of respect.
These are the six aspects that mark the difference between long-term effective and ineffective physical punishment, and between abuse that tears a child down and discipline that builds the child up. I have based this on reading I have done, and also on a lot of personal experience and things that I have personally witnessed in the lives of others. More research needs to be done regarding spanking, and it needs to be research that discriminated between the types of spankings. For example, angry spanking should not be measured together with calm and forewarned discipline. Needless to say, though, there are many other methods that can be used to train and to discipline children besides corporal punishment. Having the child practice a better way of doing things, giving the child additional chores, time-outs, having the child make restitution or apologize, having the child do 10 pushups, or other techniques can also be precisely what is needed.
About Positive Discipline. (n.d.). Positive Discipline - Solutions for Parents and Teachers to reate Respectful Relationships in Homes and Schools. Retrieved November 4, 2011, from http://www.positivediscipline.com/what-is-positive-discipline.html
Argosy University, (2010). Module 1. Retrieved on October 30, 2011 from www.myeclassonline.com
Ballie, R. (2001). Spanking study gets big play in the media. American Psychological Association (APA). Retrieved November 3, 2011, from http://www.apa.org/monitor/dec01/spanking.aspx
California "Child Abuse" & Corporal Injury Laws | Penal Code 273d pc. (n.d.). California
Dowd, N. E., Singer, D. G., & Wilson, R. F. (2006). Handbook of children, culture, and violence. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications.
Marshall, M. J. (n.d.). Stop Spanking. Stop Spanking. Retrieved November 3, 2011, from http://www.stopspanking.com/
VIDEO: Family law judge beats his disabled daughter over downloaded music. - Local News - FM News 101.1 - Chicago. (2011). Home - FM News 101.1 - Chicago. Retrieved November 4, 2011, from http://www.fmnewschicago.com/news/local/story.aspx?ID=1565910