The case against hitting

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.

wooden spoon

If hitting is your worst tool, what will you do when it doesn’t work? What will happen when you crack and go further than you ever intended, if you are already comfortable with hitting your children?

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”


6 thoughts on “The case against hitting

  1. There was an interesting out-cry when smacking was outlawed here in New Zealand, last year or the year before – so many people went into panic mode: you would have thought the sky was falling in. It will be interesting to see if our number/intensity of child abuse cases decreases too over the next decade or so.

  2. Over the past few weeks I’ve had several people tell me that they spank their children. Basically unsolicited revelations.

    A family relative, who will remain anonymous, recently and on more than one occasion has suggested that if we just spank our child then she wouldn’t be as naughty.

    To the strangers I could barely manage a response, although I managed to say, I think diplomatically: I don’t spank. I was hit as a child and into my late teens, I will never spank. I worry that spanking would be a knee jerk reaction rather than a carefully thought out response.

    To the family member, I said I will not spank and nothing more. They were the one who spanked and then hit me. As long as they take it as a judgement on them of their parenting skills they will always feel like I’m judging them, rather than learning from them, perhaps that is enough.

    I’m not sure if the ‘what comes next’ is necessarily a convincing argument. No one likes to think they might real physical harm. I think the don’t hit if you don’t want your child to hit makes more sense.

    1. lindamciver

      It does make sense – but not to everyone. I have seen a mother bite her child, to teach her not to bite (true!). She argued that the child would then know what it was like to be on the receiving end.

      I think the figures on child homicide are compelling. But no single argument will persuade everyone.

  3. Catherine

    Some parents wouldn’t be convinced by the “what comes next” argument because they wouldn’t want to think about that. But it is something that people who try to protect children have to think about and that people who make laws should think about.

    There is more research summarised here:

    “From the earliest days of research on the dynamics of child physical maltreatment, studies have revealed that most physical abuse incidents were the result of parents attempting to punish their children.90 Since then, findings have been consistent in demonstrating that most physical abuse takes place in situations where caregivers attempt to correct children’s behavior or to “teach them a lesson.” 91,92,93,94

    The 2003 Canadian Incidence Study of Reported Child Abuse and Neglect confirmed these findings: three-quarters of substantiated physical abuse cases in Canada involve physical punishment.95 A recent meta-analysis found a strong and consistent association (10 out of 10 studies examined) between parents’ use of physical punishment and the likelihood that the parent would physically injure the child or be reported to child protective services.51”

  4. I couldn’t agree more.

    When I hear of kids and spanking, I always think of a friend’s child, who I used to call Patrick Henry. He was a ‘give me liberty or give me death’ kind of kid. He didn’t care what the punishment was, if he wanted to do something, he was going to do it, and he’d bear the consequences. If his parents had been the type to spank, I honestly think abuse would have been very hard to avoid, because he just wouldn’t bend, ever.

    As you mentioned, it escalates. Better to have something that isn’t damaging the child escalate if we, being human, lose it a little.

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