But It Never Did Me Any Harm
Jane & James Ritchie
From Spare the Rod, (1989) pp. 13-19

'My mother would be the first to admit that smacking did me no good. But she would also say that it did me no harm. I ponder on that statement. It certainly affected our relationship, both in the short and the long term.'

'I now have practically no affectionate ties with my parents and my family -- fear has its price.'

'The recipe for when to punish is handed down in much the same fashion as the family recipe for Christmas cake. When I asked my mother why she did it she said she had never thought much about it and that it was the only thing she knew how to do.'

'Mum used to say that she hated hitting us, that it hurt her a lot more than it hurt us but that she did it because she loved us and it was her duty and that if she didn't we would look back and blame her and be bitter towards her lack of concern. I didn't understand that then and I don't now.'

'I don't think I minded so much being hit but I did resent all the bullshit that went with it. I guess I thought parents had the right to smack their children but why did they have to carry on about it so much?'

'I was forty and my father was seventy before we could really talk about the way I feared the razor strap and the awful gap it created between us -- and even then he tried to justify it.'

Whatever its sources an ideology has associated with it both practices and precepts. Before we review the practice of punishment in homes and schools we will review the 'received wisdom' as expressed in common sayings. The title of this book is half of one such shibboleth, and there are many others like it. Some are injunctions to remind parents and others of their duty to punish; others are produced to explain, justify, rationalise or make statements in defence of punishment. All reflect the core belief -- that children need punishment if they are to grow wholesomely and well.

Let us now look at this folklore, at a number of the common arguments made in defence of corporal punishment and try to see what lies behind them. In Chapter 5 we look at the scientific evidence concerning the negative side-effects of physical punishment; our intention now is to look at common views frequently expressed to defend the practice such as 'you have to be cruel to be kind' or 'this is going to hurt me more than it hurts you'. While the statement 'it never did me any harm' will usually turn up it is only one of many such rationalisations and, like the rest, there may be a grain of truth in each for human beings have a developmental resilience that may carry them through adverse experience. But that does not make a bad experience good for you.

There is more than a grain of truth in the defence that punishing children works: it stops them in their tracks, the harder the faster. This is much related to the 'I only use it as a last resort' defence. Like the blow that knocks someone unconscious, corporal punishment usually temporarily stops the behaviour - or at least it does so with sufficient frequency that it encourages people to believe it will do so every time. The mother who smacks a crying child in the supermarket in order to stop it crying may occasionally succeed and so her belief in the efficiency of physical punishment is strengthened. What she has really employed is the capacity of a large powerful person to terrify another into silence or into a state of behavioural freeze or immobility and punishment was merely the means of doing this. If her culture permitted it, she could have placed her face three centimetres from the child's and screamed with the most decibels she could muster or used religious rituals, jujus, ghosts and demons to scare her child into silence. But our culture generally does not permit these methods; it only allows physical blows.

The argument that punishment stops behaviour instantly also implies that the behaviour is stopped for all time. This is simply wrong. It is part of the ideology that once children are punished they will not repeat the behaviour for which they were punished. That is certainly the hope of the punisher, but the punishment books of secondary schools show the same pupils being beaten by the same teachers for the same offences over and over again. All that can be said in defence of this defence is that it is sometimes true for some punishment of some children for some offences in some circumstances but by no means for everyone, everywhere and every time.

This brings us to the deterrence argument. What this argument chiefly amounts to is the belief that children who are punished will avoid behaving in the way that led to the punishment in the circumstances for which they were punished and in the presence of the punisher. Serious misdemeanors are so strongly motivated that most people can find ways of fulfilling their needs that escape the attention of past punishers. Children who are hurt by someone will avoid the presence and the company of the person who hurt them. Truancy and running away are obvious reactions to punishing situations and show the futility of the deterrent argument. Physical punishment does not deter: it simply means that people do whatever it was they were punished for somewhere else, assuming, of course, that they know what it was that they were being punished for, and that is not always as clear and as straightforward as adults think.

What about the argument that it deters others? This is a peculiar belief since there would appear to be no way of establishing its truth. If the deterrent theory were psychologically real, crime would have stopped years ago. Even in legal systems which notoriously rely on such deterrents as those contained in the Islamic code (chopping off thieves' hands, stoning prostitutes to death, whipping adulterers) such crimes continue. Clearly, these corporal punishments do not deter. If these extreme forms of punishment do not deter, what hope is there for the desultory sideswipe in the supermarket?

What about, 'A short swift slap clears the air'? This is a very common statement made in defence of corporal punishment. All that this really means is that the punisher got rid of some anger and the punished was forced into a compliance that he or she neither wanted nor accepted. It sounds so reasonable but it often simply masks a 'might is right' situation. This view can only be held if one entirely ignores the side effects of punishment in terms of resentment and the poisoning of relationships, the likelihood that the victim will in turn find another victim or will find other ways of acting out, and the guilt which many parents, particularly mothers, report. This statement is simply an attempt to minimise the seriousness of the action. Such attempts to turn hitting children into a positive virtue can be seen for what they are if one asks what are the circumstances under which adults may behave to one another in this way. Apart from body contact sports and warfare, there are none. What a smacking does is to resolve a situation of tension by clearly establishing just who is boss. The parental role is validated and the child is put in his or her place - down.

Some argue that children need rules and should learn accept-able limits for their behaviour. Physical punishment lets children know 'where they stand' and what is expected of them. Of course children (and adults) need to know what is expected of them but the assumption that this can only be done by physical punishment ignores more effective ways of doing this (see Chapter 7).

But surely the argument will now run: parents should be the boss; society requires it, order demands it; otherwise laxness, permissiveness and decline in community standards result. Looseness and immorality have been around for a long time; so has physical punishment. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries gangs of youths roamed the streets; thefts, pillage and public vandalism were rife and immorality burgeoned all the way from the gin dens of the street to the aristocratic boudoir. And throughout this period, Victorian parents were hitting their children. Our society has no lien on laxity.

The battle between the tough-minded and the tender-minded approaches to child training was not invented by modern psychologists. We later present evidence to show that rigid and severe training methods result in violent and aggressive character structure and that what children learn in such an atmosphere is not God-fearing respect for parents but hate for authority and systems. The greatest foundation of moral character is parental example: not precept, not preaching, not what is intended, not parental policy, but practice. Children will imitate models for two reasons; because they have enjoyed what the model person has provided for them or because they envy the power of that person. If parents provide a model of punishment, then children will copy that model.

What of the view that children must learn to respect adults, property, and authority and that punishment is essential to such learning of respect? The view tends to be associated with the idea that children are incapable of responding to anything other than harsh discipline and heavy-handed authority and draws heavily on an associated view that the natural state of childhood is animal until tamed. To confuse respect with fear is simply illogical and may also be dangerous. Respect comes when the less competent appreciate that the more competent have skills from which they can learn or have qualities that they can admire and emulate, or respect comes through love and admiration -- the capacity to frighten or bully is scarcely that! Respect through fear may inhibit behaviour in the physical presence of the person in authority but it dissolves when they are gone. It is a curious fact that the religious argument that parents have an absolute right to induce respect through fear, modelling their behaviour on Yaweh, the old Hebrew god, means that they are actually teaching their children situational ethics. (58)

Such a view is an expression of a feeling that parents have an obligation to transmit conventional morality and train children in it. Actually very little hitting of children bears any relationship to this rationalisation, since most of it is simply unpremeditated lashing out. Given the complexities, double standards, ambiguities, hypocrisies and absurdities of conventional morality the job of moral education is undoubtedly difficult. Conventional morality is hard for children to understand in a world where it is followed by some and not by others and rarely with any consistency. Learning it is scarcely made any easier by being punished with slaps and blows.

Another common view warns teachers and parents never to strike a child in anger. Nash describes this as a vicious injunction: 'The exasperated and nerve-ragged teacher who angrily strikes out after a succession of provocation is perhaps to be forgiven and certainly understood. But can we say the same of the adult who acts in cold blood sometimes long after the offence has occurred?' (128, p.305) But we have also heard the converse: never strike a child unless you are angry, as though now the exasperated and nerve-ragged adult can be justified. No adult emotions justify striking children. Double injunctions of this sort, the folklore justifying both 'hot' and 'cold' punishment, show how deeply the adult right to hit is entrenched. One way or another it must be justified, and it is, because people want it to be.

Parents often say that they need to use punishment because young children do not have sufficient verbal understanding and must learn some lessons fast for their own protection from physical danger. To stop a child exploring an electric outlet with a hairpin, they wack the youngster on the bottom. This is a common action and a common argument. Along with it parents ask how else can you teach a very young child about dangerous situations and point out that sudden physical blows are better than other hurts that may arise from dangers about which children need to learn and learn fast. We certainly agree with the latter part but many parents simply have never tried to use verbal methods to control the behaviour of their young children and they share the common misconception that very young children do not understand verbal communication. But children who have been talked to consistently from their earliest months do respond to verbal commands and quickly learn that a firm parental 'no' means just that. Physical restraint to protect a young child from a dangerous situation is, of course, a different matter from a physical blow.

Our own research data points up the illogicality of the view that smacking is necessary with very young children because of their verbal incomprehension. If this was the case, surely by the time children are four, their understanding should have grown to the degree that the amount of physical punishment required should be less, not more. Yet our data, and that of the Newsons in England, show that both mothers and fathers use more physical punishment with their four year olds than they do with their impulsive toddlers.(131,151)

What of the view that if you take away the rights of parents or teachers to use physical punishment they will simply resort to other methods of punishment which are far more cruel? The calibration of the scale of cruelty being used here is beyond any objective assessment (62, 76) but it is frequently said that psychological punishment, ill treatment or abuse is far more damaging to a child than physical injury. We simply do not know how can people reach that conclusion. There is certainly no clear scientific evidence for it yet the belief is strongly held. Physical violence in the minds of many it seems is 'better' than psychological violence, or at least more acceptable.

To understand this defence you need to know exactly what type of psychological punishment people have in mind. Verbal attacks on the child's self-esteem, belittling children, denigrating their actions, shouting at them, insulting them, swearing at them, intimidating them, are no doubt highly undesirable. But those who physically ill treat children are fairly predictably also mistreating them psychologically. (33, 174, 175) Some reasonably sophisticated forms of psychological cruelty also go along with the religiously motivated and moralistic use of punishment. We have never been convinced that the 'this is going to hurt nie more than it hurts you' argument is anything other than blatantly hypocritical.

People ask us why we concentrate so heavily on eliminating physical punishment. We are concerned about punishment in general and with all kinds but particularly with the prohibition of physical punishment because it is so common, because its harmful effects are so demonstrable, because physical punishment is clearly defined and because it is legally sanctioned.

Return to:
Research and Informed Expert Opinion
A Few Good Books
Front Page