From Irwin A. Hyman, The Case Against Spanking: How to Discipline Your Child Without Hitting, (1997), pp. 58-62.

Dr. Hyman is director of the National Center for Study of Corporal Punishment and Alternatives and professor of school psychology at Temple University. He has made numerous appearances on national television shows such as Oprah, Good Morning America, and the Today show.

There is much debate about the actual effects of corporal punishment. The debates center on age at the time of hitting, the force with which children are hit, and the effects on long-term behavior and personality development. Rather than bore you with the numerous statistics, arguments about the validity of various studies, and the fine points of each debate, I will summarize what I believe are the major effects of corporal punishment on children. But first let me share with you the results of a recent and very important scientific conference on spanking.

In February 1996, I was fortunate to be part of a panel of experts convened by the American Academy of Pediatrics, with support from New York's Montefiori Medical Center and the U.S. Maternal and Child Health Bureau, to develop a consensus statement about the short- and long-term consequences of corporal punishment. Sharing the panel with me were distinguished social scientists and physicians representing both sides of the spanking issue. Despite heated debate and some slippage into rhetoric reflecting personal biases, we were able to produce a final statement of compromise with which we could all live. The individual papers and the consensus statement are published in Pediatrics. Despite our care in crafting an objective statement of our findings, the results will most likely be distorted in the media.

In essence, the thirteen-point statement released by the group refers to spanking as defined as the use of an open hand on the extremities or buttocks that is physically noninjurious. I believe force which causes redness, soreness or bruising is injurious and would not be acceptable to most members of the group. While the group admitted that there was little pro or con scientific evidence on the spanking of two- to five-year-olds, there was agreement that surveys and studies of older children suggest that spanking is not advisable. Even the researchers in favor of spanking admitted that noncorporal punishment methods of discipline have been shown to be effective with children of all ages, and that prevention of misbehavior should be stressed, that excessive spanking is one of many risk factors for poor outcomes in the lives of children, and that parents should never spank in anger. This may be an oxymoron, since studies of spankers and spankees indicate that some level of anger is almost always associated with spankings. Finally, the group rejected spanking and paddling in schools.

While the prospankers interpret the lack of research on the harmful effects of spanking with preschoolers as proof that it is OK, I disagree and maintain that there is no reason to ever hit a child. My summary of the research and the clinical experience of over 30 years follows:

  • Corporal punishment should not be used in schools, since there is convincing evidence that it is a significant contributing factor to emotional, legal and social problems.

  • Frequent and harsh spanking is consistently found to be present in the lives of boys who are aggressive and disobedient, who lie, cheat, are destructive with their own and others' belongings, and who associate with friends prone to delinquency.

  • Frequent and harsh spankings can cause young children to bottle up their feelings of fear, anger, and hostility. In later life these children are unusually prone to suicidal thoughts, suicide, and depression.

  • Despite the age or gender of the child, the family's social class or ethnicity, whether the child was hit frequently or rarely, severely or mildly, whether there were high or low levels of interaction and affection in the home, and regardless of the degree to which specific situational variables may have mitigated the effects of the punishment, spanking consistently contributes to lowered self-esteem.

  • In toddlers, many punitive approaches, including spanking, do not result in compliance, but end simply with the administration of punishment. (Studies show that preschoolers who are hit are more likely to be more impulsive and aggressive than those who are not spanked. Furthermore, toddlers can be taught, using behavioral techniques such as associating their word for pain with the street or electrical outlets, to avoid those dangerous situations. Childproofing the house and monitoring toddlers will avoid the so-called necessity of spanking to teach children to avoid danger.)

  • Children who are physically punished are more likely to grow up approving of it and using it to settle interpersonal conflicts. Even children who have experienced "normal" spankings are almost three times as likely to seriously assault a sibling, compared to children who were not physically disciplined.

  • Contrary to popular belief, studies of corporal punishment in schools indicate that it is not used as a last resort. In fact, it is too often the first punishment for nonviolent and minor misbehaviors. Beatings for minor misbehaviors can cause many stress symptoms in children.

  • Younger children are hit most often; spanking slowly decreases until late adolescence. This contributes to feelings of helplessness, and resentment that may lead to withdrawal or aggression toward caregivers.

  • Boys are hit much more frequently than girls, thereby sustaining sexual stereotypes.

  • In schools, minority and poor white children receive "lickings" four to five times more frequently than middle- and upper-class white children. This contributes to racism and classism in our society.

  • Regional comparisons show that the highest proportion of corporal punishment in America occurs in states of the South and Southwest. Florida, Arkansas and Alabama have consistently been among the leaders in the frequency of hitting schoolchildren. It is unreasonable and unfair that children's location should determine the degree to which they may be legally victimized.

  • Corporally punished schoolchildren, especially those with emotional and academic disabilities, have suffered all types of injuries including welts, hematomas, damage to almost all external and many internal body parts, and death.

  • Studies demonstrate that eliminating corporal punishment does not increase misbehavior in home or school. Systematic use of positive alternatives, however, has been shown to decrease misbehavior significantly.

What Should We Do?
If we really want to eliminate puniutiveness in our society (especially child abuse), we need to convince parents and teachers to use other techniques to shape and change children's behavior. While some would say that children are inherently bad, and that adults have a natural urge to hit children, it is just not true. Attitudes of punishment toward children are developed in our own childhoods. These attitudes are shaped by our parents' practices, by our religious beliefs, by national identity, and even by the region in which we live. Despite the powerful effects of modeling, there is convincing research evidence that teachers and parents can break old habits.

If we relied in other areas of life on the kinds of nonsensical assumptions used to support corporal punishment, we would still be using leeches to cure diseases and burning witches at the stake. Furthermore, common sense would tell us that a common green mold (penicillin) could have absolutely no relation to promoting health.

I have had two interesting experiences that reflect on this problem. The first occurred on a radio talk show in Detroit. After giving my usual pitch about why hitting children is a bad idea, one of the callers disputed my statements. She claimed to be a teacher, to have a doctoral degree, and also to teach education courses college. After listening to her argument, I said to her, "How can you teach college students and yet ignore all of the research that is against the use of corporal punishment? Can you point to one research study that says it is beneficial for teachers to hit children?"

Her reply, considering her education and position, was quite surprising. "Research is one thing, and teaching is another. I just believe that some kids need to be hit."

The other experience was quite positive. I was conducting a two-day workshop on discipline and the effects of psychological and physical abuse by teachers. The workshop, in Panama City, Florida, was a region noted for its rate of paddling. During the first day of the workshop, which was attended by by over 150 educators, I presented all of the research against the use of verbal and physical assaults, and I also answered practical questions and talked about alternatives. The next day, one of the participants, a guidance counselor, reported the following to the audience, "Last night, I sat in bed talking to my five-year-old daughter. I told her that I had been at a workshop during the day and I learned that you don't have to hit little children to make them behave and that I would not spank her any more. My daughter replied, 'I'm really glad, Mommy--now I don't have to spank my children when I grow up.'"

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