The Dangers Associated With Hitting Children
By Ralph S. Welsh, PhD, ABPP
Danbury, CT
June 2007

During my long career evaluating juvenile delinquents (now numbering in the thousands, and still climbing as a Court Based Assessment Psychologist), I have yet to see the first violent male juvenile delinquent who wasn't raised on a belt, board, extension cord, fist or the equivalent. I have carefully excluded all forms of discipline that were incapable of causing lasting physical marks or damage including hand slaps, hands to the rear, and even a switch to the legs. I am still amazed at the consistency of the "belt" and its equivalents in producing angry and violent behavior.

A number of years ago I told the probation officers at the Danbury, CT juvenile court that I would give them $100 if they would refer me an aggressive, male juvenile delinquent who had not been raised on "the belt' (see the above criteria I used); however, if they sent me a false positive (a kid they thought had not been beaten on a regular basis, but actually had a history of physical abuse they had not found) they had to pay me $1.00 it seemed a bet too hard to turn down. After losing close to $20.00 they all backed out of the contest.

I vividly remember one 15 year old boy who they had interviewed in depth, as well as the mother. This boy had systematically trashed 14 summer homes on Candlewood Lake, a community just outside of Danbury. When I saw him, I thought, "Oh boy. I'm screwed. They found one." I also interviewed the boy in exhaustively, but he kept insisting his mother was a good Christian, and would never hit him. His dad was on the road a lot but was very loving, and would never even think of raising a hand to him. At this point I started to think in terms of some sort of dis-inhibition syndrome due to brain damage, or even a brain tumor. I went back and asked him if a relative had beaten him in the past, but he insisted that no one had.

The mother initially verified his story, insisting that she did not believe in corporal punishment, then in mid sentence, broke down into deep sobs. When I asked her what was wrong, she said, "I never thought anyone would find out; I thought I could forget what I had done forever." She went on to explain that her son was extremely active when he was a toddler; her husband would work long hours, and was essentially never home. She tried to talk to her son when he misbehaved in public, and when told by numerous people she needed to get "tougher with him," she took him home one day and started to beat this helpless little 4 year old child; she said she was so angry with her husband's lack of involvement in her son's discipline, that she simply "lost it," and beat him so bad he nearly passed out.

These uncontrolled beatings lasted about 6 months, until she fell to her knees and prayed to God to release her from this scourge of discipline. Having stopped the beatings, she vowed she would never hit him again, and no one would ever know. She would just "forget" what had happened and life would go on.

Apparently this woman hid the bruises from her husband by dressing her son in long pants and shirts with long sleaves in an attempt to avoid his wrath at her out-of-control compulsion to physically punish her son.

Here are some additional findings from my years of research: The beating of girls stops at a later age then that of boys. Apparently a large, muscular boy is a deterrent to a belt wielding parent; the mentally handicapped are often beaten their entire lifetimes; the bigger the kid, the earlier the beatings stop and this includes girls and boys; mothers who beat their children, and had never been beaten themselves (usually a husband, relative, or close friend has put pressure on them to be "tougher" with their kids) feel guilt over their beatings; those raised on the belt experience no guilt over beating their kids.

Also, women who beat their children at the urging of others, e.g., husbands, family members or pastors, but were never beaten themselves, are almost invariably subject to intense feelings of guilt, and subsequently to serious, even life-threatening, depression; fathers are less likely to hit their girls when they wear skirts vs. jeans--mothers are less restrained, and will hit their girls the same as the boys; Hispanics hit their children almost exclusively on the legs--if a Hispanic hits above the legs, abuse is clearly happening; the use of the cat-of-9-tails is almost exclusively used by whites of English heritage---remember, the "cat" was a staple of discipline used in the 19th century British navy.

The Cantonese who settled NY Chinatown rarely hit their kids---until other Chinese moved in, Chinatown was virtually crime free; according to Wolfgang and Figlio, authors of Delinquency in a Birth Cohort, U. of Chicago Press, 1972, who exhaustively looked at every male born in Philadelphia in one year, poor whites were involved in fewer crimes than affluent blacks. To my own surprise, my own data indicated that educated blacks were willing to use corporal punishment on their children nearly twice as much as uneducated whites, but extended time in college was correlated with less beatings given their children at home--children in the Ghetto who hang with delinquent friends, and are not beaten, have crime rates lower than whites in general. Unfortunately, the belt is the black community's staple of discipline. Nevertheless, I have consistently found that blacks who do not strap their children have children who are no more aggressive than non-beaten whites. African Americans are born as innocent and as non-aggressive as white Americans. I fear that their slave heritage, like those who are of English heritage who use the cat-of-9-tails on their children, has destined them to be victims of their own terrible ancesteral past. I also fear that racial profiling does not explain why our prisons are disproportionately filled with African American males.

Women who are beaten tend to select mates who beat them--apparently their idea of what is "manly" and "sexy" comes from their father, whether they liked him or not; Swedes rarely hit their kids, their jails are remarkably humane, and their crime rate very low--it is often said they have a high suicide rate, but this is a myth which I found out first hand presenting a paper in Stockholm.

Our data also indicates that peer group influence is over-rated---bad friends can have a multiplier affect when a lot of troubled kids get together and encourage each other to act out, but non-beaten kids who hang out with bad friends because they live in bad neighborhoods usually trot home when the trouble begins. We were struck with the minimal impact of peer group influence on children who are essentially not angry.

In short, all of the data suggests that corporal punishment as a disciplinary technique is very dangerous, is the MAJOR contributor to our crime rate, and tends to perpetuate itself.

What we know about punishment from animal research, and human research is this: It produces short term avoidance which quickly wears off when the fear adapts but produces long term anger; it is uncomfortable both to give, and to receive; it occurs while the parent is angry and incapable of thinking of other options; it produces an avoidance response in the punished person (and animals) toward the punisher (the parent, or the school if the principal is wielding the paddle); it is not informative since it only identifies what not to do, not what should be done as positive reinforcement does.

Physical punishment discourages learning, and encourages retaliation toward the parent and society in general because the abused person often rejects the societal values of the punishing parent; it produces behavioral variability since it does not identify the "desired" behaviors so it rarely produces the behavior the punisher is looking for. Finally, it produces a delayed-action affect, and this lag is critical in masking the relationship between the punishment and later aggression. Since the fear caused by the punishment tends to inhibit immediate aggressive behavior, the punishment experience is now in the distant past by the time the fear has subsided and anger can now be released. Because of this time lag, the anger engendered by the punishment is not readily perceived to be related to the long-gone punishment situation. That is, learning a connection between one event and the next requires close proximity between the two. Therefore, neither the user of corporal punishment, nor the recipient of corporal punishment realize that the punishment is the sleeper fuel that is slowly building up aggression in the recipient of the abuse.

The upshot of this delayed sequence of events is that the parent believes that the punishment has been effective, because the fear has temporarily stopped the unwanted behavior in the child, and has given the parent the belief he/she has taught the child a lesson. The child (although most admit they hate their parents during spankings) is led to believe the fiction that they were "bad," they deserved their punishment, and they will be better kids because of it. We have all heard people say, "I hated my father when he was hitting me, but now I know he did it because he loved me and wanted me to be good."

All recently punished children admit that they experience intense feeling of dislike for their parents during and immediately following the spankings but don't understand that anger is building up in them following every spanking. Worse is the slow adaptation to the beatings, rendering a person less sensitive to the feelings and pain of others, in addition to the tendency for the initial hatred toward the parent to be generalized toward other people in authority (teachers, police, other parent substitute figures--and even spouses). The frequently beaten child invariably prefers a quick thrashing to a lengthy grounding. Frequently punished animals adapt to pain, and ultimately end up with blunted emotional response systems coupled with low thresholds for aggression. Attack dogs are a prime example of this pattern of conditioning.

In the end, when the overpunished child becomes a parent, this badly programmed individual emulates his/her parents, and repeats the abusive cycle taught to them by their own troubled but "well meaning' abusive parents, and the abuse continues on to the next generation.

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