What the Arguments Tell Us about Our Character Regarding the Treatment of Children

By Dr. Kerby Alvy, Exec. Dir. of the Center of the Improvement of Child Caring in California, February 22, 2007

An impassioned debate has been raging over the airways and on editorial pages the last few weeks regarding what is permissible and effective in raising children. This has been occasioned by California Assemblywoman Sally Lieber’s announcement that she will introduce legislation to ban the use of corporal punishment with children less than four years of age.

This pioneering legislation was introduced today, and the debate is likely to become even more heated.

Corporal punishment includes a wide range of physical actions to inflict pain and discomfort, including pinching, pulling ears and hair, shaking, slapping, smacking, spanking, swatting, hitting, kicking, punching, paddling, using switches, hair brushes, belts and ironing cords, and having children kneel on gravel or a grate. The use of these punishing actions varies in intensity, harshness and length, and whether they produce crying and screaming. They also vary in regard to how often they are applied, from once or twice a year, to monthly, weekly and hourly.

These methods are used for such purposes as stopping a child’s unwanted behavior, preventing the recurrence of an unwanted behavior, or because the child failed to do something the child was supposed to do. National surveys show that the majority of parents in the United States still use some of these methods, and especially with children under eight years of age. This includes 35% who admit using one or more such practices with one-year-old babies.

Most news and talk show presentations about the proposed ban focus on the more tepid forms of corporal punishment, such as spanking or swatting. They often pose the issues using both impish humor, as if this isn’t serious business to the recipients of such treatment.

Newspaper editorials also focus mainly on spanking, with such clever and eye-catching headlines as, “To Spank or Not To Spank?” (USA Today) or “No Need for a Swat Team: Legally Banning Parents from Spanking their Children is Silly” (Los Angeles Times).

Those Opposing the Proposed Ban

Opponents of the proposed ban make a distinction between “ordinary or normal” corporal punishment, which is said to be mild, infrequent and does not leave physical signs like bruises, versus “abusive” corporal punishment which leaves bruises, welts, scars, broken bones, fractured skulls and/or damaged brains. These ban opponents are loud and clear that they are opposed to the “abusive” forms, and also indicate that government has already intervened with laws banning such types of treatment.
Not long ago that various forms of spousal abuse were considered to be "ordinary or normal."

They also seem to forget that it was not long ago that various forms of spousal abuse were considered to be "ordinary or normal" corporal punishment for women who failed to do what they were supposed to do.

These ban opponents tend to overlook the fact that “abusive” corporal punishment often begins as an instance of “ordinary” physical discipline that escalates, becomes harsher, and gets out of control, i.e., “ordinary and normal” corporal punishment is often the necessary prelude to legally defined physical abuse. Also they are hard pressed to define the point at which the “ordinary” becomes “abusive” and where the current law should come into play.

The arguments of many of the opponents of the ban are influenced by an interpretation of biblical scriptures where corporal punishment is regarded as a necessary practice if the parents’ goal is to instill in children respect for authority. In addition, these opponents believe that refraining from the use of spanking and other physical force methods will have detrimental consequences such as uncontrolled, disrespectful behavior in the child. Many of these opponents are believers of the discipline methods advocated by Dr. James Dobson. In his book, The New Dare to Discipline, he indicates that “a small amount of discomfort goes a long way toward softening a child’s rebellious spirit. However, the spanking should be of sufficient magnitude to cause genuine tears.”

Those in Favor of the Proposed Ban

Those in favor of the ban draw attention to various research studies that indicate that many negative behaviors and outcomes have been regularly associated with the parental use of corporal punishment. These include greater depression, aggression and suicidal thoughts for children who are more frequent recipients of corporal punishment and of harsh corporal punishment, as well as poorer school performance and more anti-social behavior on the part of these frequently and harshly punished young people. Also, such youngsters have a higher likelihood of being victims of legally determined child abuse, probably because of the escalation effect mentioned above. These young people are also more likely to abuse their children and spouses when they grow up.

However, there is also research that suggests that these dramatic problems and outcomes are not always associated with the “ordinary, normal” applications of corporal punishment, and in some circumstances and with some cultural groups, their use is associated with positive child behaviors and outcomes. These research findings have been summarized in an August 2006 special edition of the Cross-Cultural Research: the Journal of Comparative Social Science. These findings are also reasons why some highly respected child development researchers and scientists are reluctant to speak in favor of a ban.

Other equally well-respected and highly credentialed scientists and practitioners are convinced enough by the state of research in this area, and by their clinical experiences, to support a ban. They see it as not only being warranted based on the full spectrum of scientific evidence. They view the ban as a necessary first step in orienting and educating all parents about using non-physical force methods of child rearing.

Those who are advocating for the proposed ban also remind us that there are parents of all cultural and religious groups who never use any type of corporal punishment and whose children grow up to be fine citizens. They propose that parents who are still using spanking and the other varieties of physical punishment consider doing some of the following:

  • Analyze the situations where a child is engaging in unwanted behaviors or refusing to do what they are supposed to do, to see if the parent can make a change in the situation or environment that will avoid or prevent the unwanted behavior or the refusal to comply.

  • Analyze the unwanted behaviors themselves to determine what the opposite or incompatible behaviors are, and focus instead on praising, encouraging, or providing positive I-messages for those incompatible, cooperative behaviors.

  • Draw attention away from problematic situations through the use of distraction.

  • Use clear and succinct commands and strong body posture to let the child know you are serious about the unwanted behavior stopping.

  • Use time out procedures which are discussed and carefully planned in advance.

  • Take away privileges and rewards for noncompliance.

  • Problem solve and negotiate solutions with the children.

  • Organize the family environment so that children earn their privileges and rewards based on their good will and cooperation in complying with mutually agreed upon family rules and values. These ban proponents further urge parents to enroll in parenting classes where these alternatives to corporal punishment can be properly learned and utilized.

What Does All This Say About Our Overall Values Regarding Children?

This entire debate emanates from the need to justify or not justify the use of physical punishment with children, a debate that has already been decided when the reference is adults, as well as when referring to adults in prisons and jails.

Quite simply, with older human beings, regardless of what they have done, people are not for hitting. With little human beings, the most vulnerable and defenseless of our nation, we are still debating whether they are not for hitting.

What does this say about our character regarding the treatment of children?

It says to all of us, regardless of religious or cultural backgrounds and beliefs, that we have not been appealing to the better angels of our character.

Let’s ... give our children the same right ... we adults have been reserving for ourselves.
Given the state of the world -- and given that the United States has just been ranked by UNICEF as one of the worst places to be a child -- isn’t it time that we appeal to those better angels?

Let’s stop debating, and give our children the same right to be free of physical punishment that we adults have been reserving for ourselves.

Dr. Kerby T. Alvy, a clinical child psychologist, is founder and executive director of the 32-year-old Center of the Improvement of Child Caring in California (www.ciccparenting .org) and a founding Board member of the National Effective Parenting Initiative, (



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