My educational resolution to encourage parents to refrain from using corporal punishment (CP) was included in a recent public hearing at the State House. As a psychological researcher, I raise the issue of CP because the evidence is overwhelming that it is harmful, and yet it needs more attention because it is misunderstood and common. We have learned throughout history that what is common does not necessarily conform to principled behavior.
Corporal punishment is the intentional infliction of physical pain for the purpose of punishment. Defenders of CP often believe that it is “mild.” This suggests a lack of empathy for children. By definition, CP causes pain. It is not “mild” to children. In addition, deliberately causing any unnecessary pain breaches ethical principles and the Golden Rule. If it is not ethical to hit a person who is 18 years old or over, then it is not ethical to hit a person under 18.
Sometimes you can control how a child behaves with force, but you can never control how a child feels with force. This is the reason the parent-child relationship suffers with CP. When college students were asked for their reactions to being hit when they were young, 42 percent recalled hating the parent that hit them.
Whether or not you were hit as a child and whether or not you have hit a child, what we know now is different than what we knew years ago. We did the best we could at the time. With new information and awareness, we can change our opinions and behaviors. Let’s remember that there was a time when spousal abuse was quietly accepted. Our cultural attitude about that has changed, as it has changed about many other things.
The fact that the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and 44 countries have adopted positions opposing CP is clear evidence that it is an appropriate subject for public debate. There is wide support for the goals of the resolution from the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Psychological Association, the Surgeon General, and children’s advocates.
We often hear about the need to do the right thing, to speak out against injustice, to protect the vulnerable from pain and harm. How we treat children may be the most important issue we face. We have known for over 100 years that early childhood experience is associated with adult feelings, attitudes, and behaviors. How we treat children affects what kind of adults and parents they become and what kind of world they create. Psychiatrist Karl Menninger said, “What’s done to children, they will do to society.” It’s no accident that we are one of the most violent developed countries in the world.
In a cross-cultural study of preschool aggression, French children acted aggressively 1 percent of the time while US children did so 29 percent of the time due to our cultural practices. Let’s change them. I urge you to help break the chain of pain. Please contact me at [email protected] to learn how to help.
Jamaica Plain resident