There’s been a lot written about spanking recently, brought about by current events and prominent figures. I’ve been sitting back without writing anything about it, just observing and trying to process the kind of discussion it was bringing to the surface. It seems that as a society, we’re ready to have a conversation about spanking.
At least it seems that way, if you notice how often the word “spanking” has cropped up recently in news stories and discussion panels.
If we’re going to have a collective discussion on spanking, however, let’s be sure we’re all talking about the same thing.
It doesn’t appear that we are.
Whether you’re reading an article or watching a segment on TV, almost every current discussion on spanking alludes back to Adrian Peterson’s child abuse indictment.
“Should parents have the right to spank their kids?”
“Is spanking an effective form of discipline?”
“Is spanking child abuse?”
Stop. Right. There.
Let’s back up the truck and start with the story that ignited the conversation.
According to police reports and indictment charges, after Peterson’s four year old son misbehaved, Peterson grabbed a “switch” (tree branch), removed the leaves (shoving them into the child’s mouth according to the son’s retelling), and struck him repeatedly on his bare skin. “The beating allegedly resulted in numerous injuries to the child, including cuts and bruises to the child’s back, buttocks, ankles, legs and scrotum, along with defensive wounds to the child’s hands.”
Remember that all these discussions lately have been about “spanking”?
As I’ve mentioned before, while I don’t support spanking, I don’t think that every parent who spanks is guilty of child abuse. At the same time, I am certain that there are many parents who believe they are “spanking” when in fact they are being abusive — and this is certainly one case in point.
Peterson was reportedly “very matter-of-fact and calm about the incident, appearing to believe he had done nothing wrong and reiterating how much he cared about his son” as he spoke cooperatively with police.
Before we get into the blurred line between spanking and abuse so easily found in social discussions and parental practice, and how it gets that way, let’s talk about the kind of spanking that is still legally sanctioned in every state.
Generally, the legal definition separating “corporal punishment” from “child abuse” uses the term “reasonable” as the threshold for describing the amount of force. Wondering how such a soft word works in a courtroom, I called my dad, who’s seen way too many child abuse cases in his years as a judge. He agreed that “reasonable” is a social construct that may be subject to change, but that usually in court proceedings that comes down to whether or not it causes injury or leaves a mark. (Though he did mention that some states do allow for prosecution on non-injurious harassment charges, citing spitting on a child as an example.) So there you have it. The generally accepted legal definition of sanctioned spanking is the open-handed swat that doesn’t leave a mark or cause injury.
But even as a legally non-abusive tactic, spanking is not effective as a discipline tool. In addition to the mixed messages that spanking sends, and the research that shows that spanking (a term which obviously needed its own definition in each study) can be linked to an increase in aggressive behavior, delinquency, mental health issues, and a decreased amount of gray matter in the prefrontal cortex (ironically the part of the brain that helps kids make good decisions and control their impulses), the Academy of American Pediatrics points out that it is a tool with diminishing returns. That means that in order to continue to bring about the same behavioral response, the intensity of the stimulus generally has to increase. That quickly creates a very slippery slope.
I believe that’s how we arrive at this point. This moment in society where we’re all talking about “spanking”. But where the incident that ignited this discussion was something that had escalated so far beyond spanking.
When a watered down word like “spanking” is used to describe something this brutal, my stomach turns.
It may also be how we arrive at this point in this specific case as well, since Peterson is recorded in the police interview as lamenting that the four year old didn’t cry, so he assumed he wasn’t being caused as much pain as he was. As both parent and child become accustomed to the physical pain, escalation is almost inevitable.
When the escalation of pain is inherent in a tool’s very nature, when escalation is the only way for a tool to be “effective”, we’re using a broken tool.
We can’t expect to build whole children when we rely on broken tools.
When we move beyond a Pavlovian approach to human behavior and consider the fundamentals of human development, we see that all learning takes place in the context of relationships. The parent-child dynamic is most effective and most capable of positively shaping behavior when it is built upon a healthy relationship of love, safety, and trust.
You can’t feel love, safety, or trust in a relationship where you are being hit.
The intensity of that strike may change the legal aspects, but the relationship cost is there regardless.
Let’s not mistake a beating for spanking, and let’s not mistake either for effective discipline.
Friday’s post will address more on this topic — common social excuses for spanking and how to replace a broken tool with a well-stocked toolbox.
**Please keep comments respectful. You may disagree without being disagreeable.**