A Society Without Corporal Punishment
By Murray A. Straus, from Beating the Devil out of Them: Corporal Punishment in American Families, Lexington Books, 1994. (pp. 186-88)

Dr. Straus, one of the formost researchers on family violence in the world, is founder and co-director of the Family Research Lab at the University of New Hampshire.

Research over the past 40 years been remarkably consistent in showing that hitting children increases the chances of a child becoming physically aggressive, delinquent, or both. The research in this book leads me to conclude that corporal punishment leaves invisible scars that affect many other aspects of life.

The results of those studies come at a point when the economic order is changing society in ways as fundamental as the changes accompanying the agricultural revolution thousands of years ago and the industrial revolution 200 years ago. The new social roles and psychological perspectives are inconsistent with corporal punishment. The change in world view being created by this massive change in society and the new information about the serious harm resulting from hitting children may together accelerate the transition to a new moral order. This moral passage will transform hitting children from something that loving parents are expected to do "when necessary" to an unacceptable evil. Regardless of whether ending corporal punishment reduces the rate of psychological and social problems among adults, ending the nearly universal practice of hitting children, in itself makes society more humane. In addition, to the extent that hitting children is one of the causes of social and psychological problems, ending the time-honored practice of hitting children will affect all aspects of life. It will accelerate changes in the social order and have profound implications for creating a more humane society.

Hitting children is so common, so taken for granted, that the idea that ending the practice will have profound benefits for individuals and society is ridiculous to most people. They may be right. Although I do not think they are right, I do agree that there are three major grounds for skepticism.

First, as noted earlier, the links between corporal punishment and social and psychological problems may be false. Second, eliminating corporal punishment does not necessarily mean that the new state of affairs would be better. The effects of social change are notoriously difficult to predict, although it is fairly certain that perfection is not something humanity is likely to achieve. What is perfect for most children may be excruciatingly painful for others. The use of "social evolution" in the title of this chapter does not mean that society tends to get better and better. I do not believe that there can ever be a perfect society--unless you consider an ant-hill society as perfect! Every social arrangement suits some better than others, so there are always casualties of society. Some social arrangements produce more casualties (Edgerton, 1992), however. The evidence in this book suggests that one of these arrangements is non-violent child rearing.

Third, although this book shows that hitting children is related to many serious social and psychological problems, most of which have not been considered consequences of corporal punishment, the statistics ... also show that corporal punishment is only a small part of the explanation for these problems. So, even if all parents stopped hitting their children, it would not mean the end of violence, crime, depression, masochistic sex, and so on.

Let us assume that ending corporal punishment will result in a 10 percent reduction in these problems. Is that a "profound" change? It clearly is for the 10 percent who are spared these problems. There are also indirect victims, however. A much larger percentage will be spared the pain of being victimized by the crimes of this 10 percent. An even larger number will be spared the trauma of having a family member succumb to mental illness. Others will be spared the economic costs of the mental health problems of the 10 percent. While it is impossible to know the percentages and difficult to be sure that some new evil will not replace hitting children, the research reported in this book suggests that:

  • Bringing up children without hitting will reduce the stress and trauma of being a parent and being a child. Parents will be able to bring up their children with less hassle. Young children, on the average, will be better behaved, and among older children, there will be less delinquency.

  • When these children are adults and parents themselves, they will be less likely to physically abuse their spouses and children.

  • A society with little or no hitting of children is likely to result in fewer people who are alienated, depressed, or suicidal, and in fewer violent marriages. The potential benefits for the society as a whole are equally great. These include lower crime rates, especially for violent crimes; increased economic productivity; and less money spent on controlling or treating crime and mental illness.
A society that brings up children by caring, humane, and non-violent methods is likely to be less violent, healthier, and wealthier. This will occur partly as a direct effect of not hitting children, but also because caring, humane, and non-violent child rearing can only predominate in a society that nurtures those characteristics. This book may be appearing at a point in history that is about to experience a social change that may seem minor to most people--the elimination of corporal punishment--but which will have profound and far reaching benefits for humanity.

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