First off, allow me to say that I am a parent. My husband and I have three young children. And we do, rarely, use corporal punishment. For instance, I have spanked my 2-year-old daughter (over her diaper) for running off from me in the parking lot, and I have smacked her hand when it gets too close to the stove or the oven or my straightening iron. I view this as teaching her to associate mild pain with those dangerous activities as a substitute for the actual pain of being run over by a car or burning her hand, until she is old enough to understand WHY running off in the parking lot or touching hot things in a bad idea. I admit this.
HOWEVER, I have recently seen a disturbing trend of children being hit with objects that leave marks or bruises on the children lasting longer than 24 hours. Typically, by the time the case gets into my hands, this has resulted in the police being called, the children being placed out of the home (or in foster care if necessary), and the parent or caregiver who did the hitting being charged with felony aggravated child abuse. Often, even though only one child was beaten, any other children that parent has will also be removed from the home. This series of events results in great heartache and cost to the family, including the possibility of an employer getting wind of it and terminating the parent’s employment.
Here’s the thing. All of the modern research on corporal punishment of children tells us it results in negative outcomes for the children and it isn’t all that effective. But here’s the other thing: anybody born before 1990 was probably corporally punished on a regular basis by his or her parents, and probably experiences pressure from his or her parents (or sometimes grandparents, friends, and significant others) to punish his or her own children corporally. It’s also true for some reason that in Tennessee, schools can use corporal punishment on students. Parents are told that if they would just beat their kids, the kids would “straighten up.” But here’s the problem, and the source of the disconnect forming between Baby Boomers and Millennials: What was considered “good parenting” in 1989 is a felony 30 years later.
I believe that many or maybe even most parents who use corporal punishment, even those who use implements or objects (like belts, switches, paddles, and spoons) to inflict the corporal punishment, think they are instilling discipline in their children. They think they are teaching the child something, helping the child rather than harming him or her. Who has not heard the saying, “spare the rod and spoil the child”? And in a different time and place, there may have been some validity to that.
Now, however, a parent who inflicts corporal punishment on his or her child, particularly if an implement is used, is risking being criminally charged and having the child removed into foster care. Whether or not you believe the research that says corporal punishment harms children just by virtue of the child being corporally punished, I think we can all agree that (1) experiencing one’s parents going to prison and (2) being removed from one’s otherwise-fit parents are both extremely traumatic experiences for a child. And adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) like these are universally associated with poor outcomes when the child reaches adulthood.
You may say, “well, I spank my kid with a belt, but I don’t leave marks.” Here’s the thing. How can you really know whether there will be a mark until after you’ve already left a mark? What if the belt slips and the buckle hits the child? I’ve also heard people say they only leave bruises on the butt. It doesn’t matter. It’s still illegal.
There’s too much margin for error, and any error could have very serious consequences. Also, you are already much bigger than your child. Do you really need to use an object to reinforce the fear and intimidation that comes from being hit by a parent?
Whether or not you think severe corporal punishment harms a child, for the sake of avoiding unnecessary involvement in the legal system, I would really encourage every parent to research alternative methods of discipline and consider parenting classes if they are struggling with managing their children’s behavior.