Hitting People Isn't Right
A response to the American Academy of Pediatric's "The Short and Long term Consequences of Corporal Punishment."

By Jim Duffy and Robert Scharf, June 1, 2000

The authors are Co-Chairpersons of Learn PH OnLine, The Institute for Psychohistory's Online Training Program at www.psychohistory.com. Jim Duffy can be contacted at jcmd@hotmail.com and Robert Scharf at Psychogenics@aol.com

In a 1996 issue of the journal titled "Pediatrics" (volume 98, No 4, October 1996-Supplement), which is the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, we can read a piece about "The Short and Long term Consequences of Corporal Punishment." That refers to the corporal punishing of children, a euphemism for big persons with power hitting smaller, dependent persons with much less power.

The journal also published information about what was discussed at a conference on this subject of big persons hitting dependent little persons.

Stanford Friedman was the conference chair who wrote an introduction to this issue:

"There is no agreement among the members of the American Academy of Pediatrics regarding the use of spanking. Thus, disagreement persists regarding whether the Academy should recommend that pediatricians advise parents as to whether they should, or should not, spank their children. And if so, under what circumstances."

The academy cannot decide if big persons should hit dependent little persons. If a big adult hits any other adult, big or little, it is a felony called assault and battery, and one can do hard time for it. It is a statement of disrespect for children that they are afforded LESS protection from hitting than a more powerful adult is afforded!

In a personal statement at the end of the journal issue, Dr. Diana Baumrind, Professor of Child Development, UC Berkeley, stated:

"Scientific data do not support a blanket injunction against the use of corporal punishment. The short- and long-term consequences of corporal punishment, or any other disciplinary practice within the normative range, depend for their effects on the cultural and child rearing contexts in which the practice is embedded. Spanking is but one means that can be used by a caregiver in a disciplinary encounter, the disciplinary encounter is but one socialization strategy; and socialization is but one dimension of optimal care giving. The disciplinary encounter is intended to control the child's short-term behavior: It should be understood that such encounters do not extinguish children's motivated behavior once and for all, but need to be reinforced periodically. The long-term consequences to the child of nonabusive aversive discipline is mediated by its meaning to the child. The meaning to the child, in turn, depends upon the normative standards of the community and the extent to which the child believes that the parent is generally responsive to his or her desires and needs. A focus on spanking as a major cause of violence is not only scientifically misleading, but also diverts attention from the systemic causes of violence associated with persistent poverty."

She concludes, "Spanking is not a generative cause of aggression or pathology in children or adults when used appropriately."

Forthwith are two replies to this comment on big persons hitting little dependent persons when it is not considered felonious assault and battery only because the big person is an adult and the little person is a child who is the son or daughter of the big person.

1. Robert Scharf replies:

People do not hit children because it is good for the children, but because they need to hit children. I doubt spanking has any utility, and if none can be demonstrated there can be no justification for using it. To argue that it is not harmful is not enough. I think one should be able to demonstrate its efficacy and its greater efficacy compared to non-punitive means of instruction.

I do not know what offenses might be punishable corporally in the case of pre-verbal children. If the child reaches towards the electrical outlet, it is enough to pull the child away and guard the outlet. It is probably not useful to slap the child's hand. If the child is verbal and in need of correction, the adult can give verbal correction.

It is indeed not a hopeful view of humanity which holds that what cannot be accomplished by talking can be accomplished by force. This hardly seems a good lesson for children.

The notion of the efficacy of spanking is based on the assumption that it is either painful, frightening, or humiliating--or some combination of these. If it is none of these, then it is hard to see why it should be thought to influence behavior. If it is merely an expression of disapproval, it seems a verbal expression should do as well. The only thing it can bring to a disciplinary session which cannot be expressed verbally is one of the items above. Actually, these too can be expressed and imparted verbally, and I would question the use of such verbal expressions as tools of pedagogy. It is difficult to see what the spanker believes is imparted by spanking that cannot be otherwise imparted.

As I noted above, it is usually pain, fright, or humiliation which the spanker hopes to induce. I do not believe these are mitigated by cultural context. The child depends upon adults for its well being and needs to trust them, not fear them. The punitive parent is indeed frightening and plays upon earlier trauma and insecurities when punishing the child. The punitive adult re-inflicts old wounds and heightens the fear and insecurity of the child. That is the purpose of punishment and it is a sadistic purpose.

If spanking is believed to have efficacy, from what is this thought to derive? If it is benign, it has no efficacy; if it is not benign, then more benign alternatives should be sought and employed.

I do not believe that the "meaning" of spanking is dependent upon cultural context. It reawakens and restages childhood trauma, fears, and insecurity. That is reason enough to avoid it. It also is a poor argument to say that claims of its harmfulness are exaggerated. Before one commits to a punitive strategy which is potentially harmful to the child and sadistic on the part of the adult, one should demonstrate that spanking is not harmful or that its harmfulness is outweighed by the benefits and that there are no less harmful approaches available.

To call spanking one among a range of approaches and dependent upon cultural context for its meaning is misleading, disingenuous, and circular. What about spanking with a paddle? A strap? A whip? At what point do we cross the line? Is the line one of cultural context? If it is not, then we have to ask what it is that makes some punishments dependent for their meaning on cultural context, while others are not. If the line is one of cultural context, then whipping was never harmful, but drew its meaning from cultural context.

Not only is this a reductio ad absurdum, but it cuts both ways. Just as in the past more severe beatings were the norm but are now an offense to our sensibilities, we can work to put spanking with whipping. Instead of spanking, we can give the child a negative token--perhaps a bent coin--which we can invest, via cultural context, with the same meaning spanking formerly had!

2. Jim Duffy replies:

At my age and with my years of having taught parent-child relations, it seems to me that the pediatricians here are overlooking the ethical issue involved. The matter is not about whether there is or is not "scientific" evidence pro or con for spanking any more than whether there is scientific evidence pro or con for spitting in a child's face or pinching him/her or sexually molesting a child. In the case of sexual molestation, incidentally, there is "scientific" evidence pro and con with respect to harmfulness, but this ambiguous evidence will not and should not change our minds about refusing to endorse sexual molestation of children.

So gathering evidence pro or con on whether a much more powerful person upon whom we are totally dependent for physical survival and for emotional self-development does or does not harm us by hitting us is entirely beside the point. More powerful persons always have a strict ethical duty to use their power with care for the less powerful.

Minimal ethical duties are what laws are about. And nobody waits for scientific evidence to enact laws to sanction behaviors that offend our ethical sensibilities.

If we wait for dispositive evidence, pro or con, about whether hitting children is a bad practice, we allow more powerful persons to abdicate their ethical duty to exercise care toward less powerful persons. A science of child psychology or of pediatrics that waits for scientific evidence to decide on what is ethical is not the kind of science I am interested in supporting. We have great need of social and behavioral sciences that recognize the ethical dimension of human life. As the philosopher of mind John R. Searle explains, a distinction between ethics and science is ultimately a failure to acknowledge that ethics is the application of science and other sources of information to the practical concerns of human life.

One of he legacies of Adam Smith's mistake, the mistake he made in his book "The Wealth of Nations" but not in his earlier book "The Theory of Moral Sentiments," is that his mistake has infected all the behavioral sciences and not just economics. Smith can be considered the first social and behavioral scientist as the founder of modern economics. I am referring to the mistaken notion that self-interest is the overarching human motive. This mistake has sadly obscured Adam Smith's other brilliant idea that he returned to once again before he died and that appeared in his first book as well. That much sounder idea was that self-interest as the application of intelligence for one's own and others' advantage is NOT also an application of REASON when it leaves out a consideration of benevolence, sympathy, love, and affection for others.

To consider hitting children in a purely intellectual manner with respect to what "scientific evidence" exists for or against it leaves out completely the fact that hitting children requires the person doing the hitting to deliberately inflict suffering on another human being. This is also doing ethical injury to both the hitter and to the less powerful person being hit, as I explain below.

One can object to any kind of unnecessary inflicting of suffering on other human beings purely on ethical grounds since ethics is nothing if not at least concerned with how to create a social world in which we all try to inflict the least amount of unnecessary suffering on one another. The ethical approach to the subject of hitting children entails the application of REASON and not merely the application of intelligence devoid of sympathetic feeling. Adam Smith had it exactly right when he understood that intelligence without sympathetic feeling is not really the application of REASON at all; especially is it not reason when we discuss how human beings treat each other as if their unnecessary suffering did not matter.

So the really REASONED issue to me is not whether there is evidence of whether or not corporal punishment "works in a disciplinary encounter." For even if it "worked," I would reject it (with one exception, as explained below). And even if there were no evidence of its having lasting serious harm, I would reject it. The only thing that would prove to me that corporal punishment could be used ethically--the only kind of exceptional "working" that should count as evidence allowing hitting children--is the knowledge that ONLY corporal punishment would save a child's life or prevent immensely greater suffering later.

Only if we knew that WITHOUT corporal punishment a child is at grave risk of much greater suffering or death should we consider hitting an ethical alternative.

It seems to me impossible to consider that such evidence exists or could exist. That's because there are always alternatives to hitting a child. One may be able to conceive of an extremely unusual and weird exception where hitting someone less powerful and dependent on us may be the ONLY course of ethical action, but I cannot conceive of one.

People are not for hitting, not for spitting in the face, not for pinching, and so on, because people, in an ethical world, would not be available for unnecessary suffering inflicted by others' intentional actions. Hitting, spitting, pinching, and innumerable other intentional infliction suffering or humiliation (humiliation being a form of suffering) are all ways of managing others by inflicting suffering that seems clearly to be UNNECESSARY.

"Objectivity" in social and behavioral science does not exist when one tries to discuss actions that are clearly a violation of elementary ethical precepts as if such actions were instead simply one or more alternatives among a list of other ethically neutral alternatives.

We could examine evidence about whether involuntary servitude (slavery) is or is not good for children, and no doubt some children could then be found to have acquired job skills and other good competencies from their slavery. Slavery in the United States has been good for black persons in that the third and fourth generation of American slaves now living in the United States enjoy a much better standard of living than their black cousins in Africa. Most of their African cousins will never be able to escape from the dire conditions in Africa. But anyone who would consider this to be pro-evidence on behalf of slavery (which it is when applying ONLY intelligence without sympathy--when not using reason but only intelligence, as Adam Smith would have said) would be someone immediately and justly called a racist and unethical.

The fact that we can still discuss spanking children as if it were a possible ethical alternative makes me wonder how far we are from being willing to consider using children as slaves while examining the evidence pro or con for whether that ethical abomination also may happen to "work."

Neither slavery nor hitting is an ethically neutral choice; they both violate elementary ethical tenets. Slavery violates the tenet that human beings are ends in themselves and not to be used as instruments, tools, for others' advantage. Hitting violates that ethical tenet of never intentionally inflicting suffering on oneself or others unless it is clearly necessary (clearly prevents greater suffering later). Since hitting as corporal punishment deliberately inflicts suffering on another human being, such hitting must never be done intentionally unless there is very convincing evidence that NOT hitting will almost certainly cause more suffering in the long run.

It is not much of a stretch to expect pediatricians to take a clear position against corporal punishment on ethical grounds while recognizing that they need to be warm, helpful, and patient with parents whose cultural traditions or personal proclivities tell them to hit their children. Pediatricians could then recognize the difficulties in not coming across as overzealous prosecuting attorneys every time they learn of a parent's hitting a child. And they could recognize the importance of being warmly healing physicians for the troubled minds of parents who do hit.

Pediatricians may be understandably worried about their legal requirement to report child hitters as child abusers if they were to take a strong stand against hitting. They would rightly anticipate an absurd horror show so long as prosecutors and legislators would demand that physicians act like a group of warriors looking for "bad people" to punish and sacrifice by criminal prosecution. So perhaps another motive of the pediatricians is to avoid a damaging horror of more human sacrifice in the form of overzealous legal prosecution of alleged child abusers who are overwrought and confused parents. Child abuse should be considered a public health issue and NOT a criminal issue in almost all cases that pediatricians would be likely to come across, but legislators and prosecutors may not see it this way. But even if pediatricians were not required to be a subdivision of the police department, a position on their part opposing parents' hitting children would nonetheless require pediatricians to take much more time with some hitting parents and would require pediatricians to become more skillful and sympathetic in relating to parents lacking benevolent parenting skills.

Maybe another question ought to be whether there is evidence that pediatricians do or do not give adequate love and time to their little patients' parents to help them raise children properly. And yet another question is whether legal prosecution of parents who hit or otherwise abuse their children is not just another form of traumatization of hurting and vulnerable adult human beings. And still another question is whether it is good for society to take its healing professionals and make them subdivisions of the police department to help in counterproductive legal prosecutions of foundering or disturbed parents.

Instead of focusing on these problems--the harshness and lack of social effectiveness of adults who keep restaging their own abuse experienced in their own childhoods--we ask the ultimately unethical question of whether or not there is evidence that little dependent persons could be hit when they have an so-called need for a "disciplinary encounter"--as if we could also ask if there is evidence that any other kind of unethical action toward children, such as an imposition of slavery, may be of benefit to them.

I see no reason to believe that hitting children is NECESSARY any more than I see reason to believe that hitting unskillful pediatricians is NECESSARY or that hitting overzealous prosecutors or legislators is NECESSARY. I think they all need mutual human aid and caring, sympathetic understanding and helpful time commitment from others, and dedication of resources to help them do their jobs more effectively and ethically--just as children need love and understanding and helpfulness, but not hitting, to grow up effectively and ethically.

See Jordan Riak's letters of 5-30-00 and 6-03-00 on this topic which were sent to the Office for Studies for Moral Development and Character Formation, MORALCHR@LISTSERV.UIC.EDU.
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