Stephen Fry once wrote* that he couldn’t think of any convincing, rational and unemotional reason why corporal punishment is a bad idea. He argued that it is all a matter of context – of what children find normal. Children who know that hitting is a normal form of punishment, he claimed, are not greatly disturbed by being hit. Emotional abuse is far more destructive, and the effects longer lasting, than physical punishments such as caning or smacking.
It is certainly true that emotional abuse has a lasting impact, but I feel that the most dangerous aspect of physical abuse is one that I have never yet seen articulated: whatever your weapon of last resort – the most explosive tool in your parenting toolbox – there will be times when it doesn’t work. There will always be times where you want and need something more, regardless of how powerful your best weapon is. Something bigger. Something worse.
The issue is that children will always push the boundaries, both intentionally and unintentionally. They will inevitably do dumb things – things that they may regret as much, or even more than you. They will suffer lapses of judgement. They will lash out. They will make mischief. It is part of exploring the nature of the world, and it is also part of having a relatively undeveloped brain with, as yet, poor impulse control. Kids do stuff they shouldn’t. And they go through phases, for whatever reason, when they do lots of that stuff. They shout. They lie. They break things. They hurt people.
Regardless of how effective your behaviour management techniques are, there will be times when they just don’t work. And, being human, there will be times when you fail to manage your own behaviour – when you lash out, lose control. and go further than you intended. If you already hit, what will going further look like?
It turns out that research bears this out emphatically. Countries like Sweden, where all forms of corporal punishment are completely banned, have found a commensurate drop in deaths due to child abuse. Sweden introduced a ban on hitting children in 1979, and by the mid 1980s the death rate due to child abuse was a third of that in the US. (Before you complain about the juxtaposition of those two facts, I couldn’t find any figures that allowed direct comparison.) Tellingly, although the Swedish population has increased, the child homicide rate has continued to decrease.
It is interesting to note that although Swedish law has discouraged violence against children for decades (since the 1950s, in fact), in 1971 35% of Swedish parents believed corporal punishment was sometimes necessary. In 1981, a mere two years after the law banning hitting entirely was introduced, the rate was down to 26%, and by 1994 it was down to 11%. Corporal punishment is no longer considered normal in Sweden.
This is a very plausible case of cause and effect. The Swedish legislators said all along that the intent of the law was to change public attitudes to child abuse. There was little or no punishment for parents who transgressed, but the increase in reporting meant that families in trouble were more likely to get early help and intervention. Knowing that it was illegal meant that hitting simply died out. The same legislation outlawed emotional abuse – much harder to police, of course, but another clear message about what was and wasn’t acceptable.
We’re all human. Adults and kids alike do things we shouldn’t, and things we regret. If you don’t normally hit, then any loss of control is likely to be milder than if hitting is a usual part of your repertoire. Kids will be kids, and there will inevitably be times when you shake your head and don’t know what to do. When nothing you have works, and you feel as though you need something more effective.
There will always be times when we go too far. It’s the definition of “too far” that’s important.
*in his autobiography, “Moab is my washpot”