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.
3 Basic Principles for Positive Parents
Spare the Rod: What Spanking Teaches Children
Parenting with Positive Guidance Resources
**Please keep comments respectful. You may disagree without being disagreeable.**
Thank you for this, I spank my 2 kids and after reading this, it stops NOW. Thank you for speaking out about such a controversial topic!
“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.”
Yup. This. While I don’t think spanking is inherently abusive, I do think it opens the door wide for abuse to occur. And it’s ineffective to boot.
Reading about what he did to his 4 year old son makes me feel physically ill. Especially considering I’ve read other accounts regarding his “discipline” towards his other children.
I wasn’t spanked as a child and I had never spanked, until I had my second child….. Only in a couple of extreme situations has he been spanked and I surely don’t want to do it again! I didn’t want to do it at the time and I was definitely out of tools. Lol Not really funny and I’ve done LOADS of research since. Honestly I didn’t hurt him, nor was I trying to hurt him. I just needed his complete attention so I could explain the dangerous situation he had put himself in. Unfortunately some children are harder to reach. It’s my job as his Mom to figure out ways to get to him that do not involve corporal punishment. I honestly believe spanking is “taking the easy way”. It doesn’t typically teach the lesson you are trying to teach.
In the incident with Peterson I hope his children are removed from his care until he has completed many hours of parenting classes and many hours of supervised visitation. I can not imagine the lasting effects of that kind of abuse on a 4 year old. It’s disgusting.
Yes spanking and what he did are very different. Is every spank abuse? No. Do most cause at least a temp red mark? Yes. I think I’ve spanked my child (and it was one swat to the butt) 5 times or less in his almost 7 years of life. The last time it was a hard swat and since then when I’ve reached my “I have no idea how to get this bad behavior to stop!” Limit I have said “I have given you options, I don’t know what else to do but spank you so what can YOU do to keep that from happening?” And he has said “please don’t spank! That hurt last time and he controls himself” yes, I’m frustrted when I have to even threaten that but I get how hard it is to parent. Sometimes I just need to walk away. And I tell him I am walking away now when I can control myself I’ll be back. Its never unsafe but sometimes I need to check in with myself – does he really need to stop or is somehing going on w me that I’m responding so strongly here?
Well…that pretty much sums up what *I* was going to say! LOL
This was logical and well-written with much food for thought. Thank you.
Gretchen Kelly says
I responded to the post that followed this one before reading this. Excellent and clear breakdown of spanking and abuse. This, “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.” Wow.