Written by Sara Burrows.
While the average American would look at you like you were crazy if you said it was okay for a man to hit his wife if she didn’t obey him, that same person would likely argue that hitting – or “spanking” – children is not only acceptable, but advisable for producing “well-behaved, functioning” members of society.
This not only defies logic, it defies science.
According to a new meta-analysis of 50 years of research on spanking, representing around 160,000 children – “the more children are spanked, the more likely they are to defy their parents and to experience increased anti-social behavior, aggression, mental health problems and cognitive difficulties.”
The analysis is of what typical Americans define as “spanking” – an open-handed hit on the behind or extremities – not what the typical American defines as “abuse.”
“We as a society think of spanking and physical abuse as distinct behaviors, yet our research shows that spanking is linked with the same negative child outcomes as abuse, just to a slightly lesser degree,” said Elizabeth Gershoff, associate professor of human development and family sciences at The University of Texas at Austin, in a press release about the study.
In an earlier study, Gershoff found kids who are spanked are also more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety and drug use.
Children are more vulnerable than women
While hitting grown women – or grown men for that matter – without their consent, is always wrong, hitting children is destructive on another level. At least adults typically have the ability to leave their abuser. Young children – totally dependent on their parents – do not. They are more vulnerable, more impressionable, less able to protect themselves, and less able to put the abuse in context.
If you try to argue that hitting a woman is abuse, but hitting a child is not, you’re a hypocrite. It’s not your fault. You’re probably experiencing cognitive dissonance. Your parents undoubtedly hit you as a child and told you it was for your own good or “because they loved you.”
Perhaps they were those creepy “spare the rod, spoil the child” parents, who calmly “disciplined” you on a regular basis just for good measure. Or perhaps they spanked you only a handful of times, when they lost their temper, because you did something really “bad” that just pushed them over the edge.
Either way, you probably look back and say “my parents loved me – they wouldn’t have done anything to harm me.”
“It only stung for a minute, but the lesson I learned will last for a lifetime,” someone argued on my Facebook page today, as if any positive lesson could be learned from one’s guardian violently assaulting them.
Or – even worse – maybe you’ve spanked your own children, creating even more cognitive dissonance. When studies like the one above come out indicating you’ve put your child at risk for mental health disorders and lower IQ, you just can’t handle it. “That can’t be true! It wasn’t that bad!” – you might tell yourself.
I’m here to tell you it is that bad. I know from firsthand experience.
I hit my daughter once
I hit my daughter once just before she turned 2. I will never forget how her trusting eyes filled with tears, fear and confusion the first and last time I slapped her chubby little thigh. It was during a time in my life where sleepless nights and financial stress had turned me into an emotionally unstable wreck. I was struggling to get a diaper on a flailing, over-tired toddler, whose late-night meltdown triggered my own meltdown.
“Maybe if I just give her one little smack, it’ll snap her out of her tantrum and get her to hold still for a second,” I thought, without thinking.
It was awful. Her fierce defiance was momentarily transformed into submission and obedience, at the cost of her trust. She stared at me with a look of betrayal as if to say – “Who ARE you? You’re not my mother.”
I sobbed as I breast-fed her to sleep, and then made my way downstairs to do some research on spanking alternatives and peaceful parenting. I’d already promised her I would never hit her again and wanted to learn some strategies to help me keep that promise.
I found two really helpful websites – AhaParenting.com and LittleHeartsBooks.com, and later a great book called Parent Effectiveness Training: The Proven Program for Raising Responsible Children.
They explained how non-violent parenting does not equal “permissive” parenting – how, in fact, setting boundaries can help prevent parents from losing their tempers. They explained WHY toddlers have tantrums and why teens “act out” and what you can do to reconnect with them and repair the trust. They emphasized teaching children empathy rather than obedience.
Later, I was given a copy of The Continuum Concept, which demonstrates how hunter-gatherer tribes raise happy, healthy, generous children with zero violence or coercion. It taught me how children naturally WANT to please their elders when they are treated like adults, with respect… how they WANT to cooperate and share, when these behaviors are modeled for them.
So even if it’s taken you longer than it took me to realize you’ve been doing this whole parenting thing backwards, don’t be afraid to turn the ship around. If you’ve been spanking your kids and are starting to realize it’s not working – do your research and make some drastic changes. See what happens.