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Why isn’t corporal punishment considered domestic abuse?

Yesterday, while bantering with a DSS attorney I really like during a lull in a mediation I was conducting, she mentioned that she used corporal punishment as discipline when her child “needed correction.”  I facetiously responded that I believed I should be able to exercise corporal punishment on my wife when she too “needed correction.” I am fascinated by the use of, and justification for, corporal punishment by women who would never countenance domestic violence in their own intimate relationships. Both of us noted the “rule of thumb,” a belief [now discredited] “that the term originally referred to a law that limited the maximum thickness of a stick with which it was permissible for a man to beat his wife.” While a husband’s use of some force to correct his wife was considered normal a century ago, and was even somewhat tolerated twenty years ago, now it is more often treated as the serious crime that it actually is.  If there is any area of life in which freedom from the fear of violence is most vital it is within one’s home.  While the law increasingly recognizes this, and affords women protection within the home, it refuses, at least in the United States, to afford this protection to children, who remain even more vulnerable than adult women.

Numerous European countries have abolished corporal punishment.  Why do most American parents continue to believe that physical correction of their children is a vital component of discipline?  I never used corporal punishment on my older daughter and have only used it a few times on my younger daughter–feeling vile and hypocritical each time I did.  My wife–to my great admiration–has never resorted to corporal punishment.  We wouldn’t tolerate domestic violence in our own marriage and don’t believe that violence towards our children is acceptable.

While I acknowledge that the dynamic between parent and child is not the same as the dynamic between husband and wife, how does this distinction justify violence (a/k/a physical correction) in the former relationship but not in the latter?  If it because a parent is responsible for a child in a different manner than one spouse is responsible for another spouse, does this mean that physical correction of a spouse is acceptable whenever one spouse has some responsibility over the other?  Does it further mean that physical correction is permissible whenever one person has responsibility over another?  I don’t think so.

Given recent history, being a feminist–and, in my mind, anyone who demands the equal dignity of women and men is a feminist whether they accept that label or not–strikes me as inconsistent with accepting corporal punishment.  I see Western history since the Enlightenment as a movement–perhaps halting at times–towards a civic culture that relies less upon fear and violence and more upon reason and dignity.  It was intolerable that women were expected to live in constant fear of domestic violence within their homes and it should be equally intolerable that we allow our children to live with this same fear.

  • Tommy Doyle

    To this point I haven’t resorted to corporal punishment with my son. But coming from a household that used it when needed, I am a better person for it.

  • California observer

    Perfect timing: a month ago you spoke of the need for scientific study to inform the law (three cheers!). This would be a perfect place to start. Let me explain…

    Years ago I spent two years teaching in a third-world village, where corporal punishment was completely standard; 100% of the citizens of that country had been beaten as children, yet adults in general were better-socialized than here. But there, the beatings were administered without malice, as the natural effect of the “cause” of misbehavior, no grudge, no lingering hostility; the beating occured without anger.

    In our culture beatings typically occur after anger and loss of control sets in, so I would have no doubt they have malign aftereffects…but is it from the stick, or the anger, or the loss of control? There is an excellent chance that corporal punishement –when *properly administered* — leads to better children, in psychology and behavior, than without. That is a scientifically testable question of psychological impact, just like lead poisoning or malnutrition. Our species evolved with beatings, so they *might* have a deep biological role (e.g. pain->cortisol rush->change of mood and aversive learning).

    I personally did not and do not use corporal punishment on my kids, but I recognize that such questions are far better answered by controlled scientific studies than by the scattered and inconsistent opinions of opinionated, cultured, powerful men and women. Does The Law share that view?

    • Dear California observer:

      I share your belief that the law would be better if it was informed more by science. However there is an element of hubris in the belief that science can answer all questions (not that I believe you exhibit this hubris) and this is one area in which an initial focus on science is not appropriate.

      Science can measure a number of things. Science can help us understand what other cultures value. It can help us understand how evolution shaped our values. It can help us understand what might have been valued in prehistoric cultures. It can even measure how well our policies effectuate our values. However, science cannot tell us what to value. It takes religion, ethics or philosophy to teach us what to value.

      No science of how corporal punishment is administered in Africa would change my opinion that corporal punishment is evil. My study of history and philosophy has led me to a belief that acceptance of violence in any area of public life tends to move the culture in a direction which I do not approve of. For example the myriad evidence that the culture of hunting leads to greater appreciation and conservation of natural resources (something I value) does not lead to me approving of hunting. While I can acknowledge that, in our contemporary culture, hunting (something I abhor) leads to conservation (something I cherish), this does not lead me to conclude that hunting is good but, instead, to conclude that we must take steps to encourage a culture that values nature for reasons other than hunting. Thus I support the Sierra Club, not the NRA.

      In the example of corporal punishment, because I desire a culture that shapes intimate relationships upon mutuality, dignity and respect, a finding that children who were disciplined through corporal punishment were happier than children who were disciplined through “time outs” or the withholding of privileges would not change my mind about corporal punishment. Further, my social science reading notes a strong correlation between cultures that accept corporal punishment and cultures that accept domestic violence towards women or tolerate violence to settle internal political disputes. While I acknowledge that correlation isn’t causation, until I read some other explanation for the high correction between these similar types of violence, my assumption will be that a culture that tolerates violence towards children supports a culture that accepts internal violence in general.

  • I have a friend who stated “whoopings don’t work on the kid, but they sure do make mama feel better.”

  • dyeargin

    Corporal punishment can be an effective means of discipline when used for that purpose. Unfortunately, some parents do spank out of anger or frustration. I do not think you can compare a mature woman with an immature and impulsive child. Most Adults are able to reason, are able to understand abstract ideas. Children are not able to understand abstract ideas and have a poor ability to reason at young ages. Most agree that time outs and positive reinforcements are the best approaches to discipline. Some children are just more impulsive than others and need quick corrective action to reinforce that a particular behavior will not be accepted. For example, children at young ages can’t understand the cause and effect relationship if they have not personally experienced the effect. A mature adult can understand these relationships without personal experience. If my three year old reaches for a hot pan he will not understand if I say stop, you will get burned (if he has not been burned before). He does understand if I pop him on the hand and then say no, the pan is hot and will burn you. He is less likely to reach for the pan because he doesn’t want to be popped on the hand (not for fear of being burned if he has not been burned before). Some children are more difficult to discipline than others. If a child can be sent for time out and will sit there for the prescribed time without difficulty then of course that is the way to go. If the child resists staying on time out then the cause and effect is lost with all the time spent on getting the child to stay on time out, no lesson learned. A spanking at this point I think is appropriate. The child will understand that he must take the time out. Hopefully, after several times of this the parent will be able to use the time out effectively without spanking. As children get older and gain a greater understanding of cause and effect and the ability to reason corporal punishment probably does more harm than good. Unfortunately, all children do not mature at the same rate and even some adults are never able to fully understand abstract ideas or continue to exhibit impulsive behaviors. I think that parents have to discipline in a way that is most effective for each particular child. I do not advocate child abuse. A slap on the hand or a quick pop on the hind is not child abuse. Even spanking an older impulsive child with a belt (no injuries) might be appropriate. That is the reason the law allows for corporal punishement. It is wonderful to have a child who listens when you say no, will take a time out when told without fussing, is sensitive to a firm discussion about why something is wrong, but all children are not the same. I have two children, one very sensitive, easy to discipline, one very impulsive, determined and difficult to discipline. As a parent I have a responsibility to protect and teach both children. I am hoping that as the impulsive one ages, he will gain an understanding of cause and effect, the difference between right and wrong, and be able to understand why certain behaviors are not acceptable. Until then, I have to protect him and my daughter. If that means standing nearby with a belt to ensure he completes his time out or popping him on the hand when corrective action needs to be swift then I feel It is my duty as a parent. If spanking is truly being used as a discipline technique as a last resort, not being done out of anger or frustration, does not cause harm to the child then it should be the parents choice and does not fall into the category of abuse. The word violence is indicative of the intent to harm or abuse and can’t be used to describe disciplinary spanking by a loving parent.

    • Angela

      I have to say I was saddened by this response. You say that corporal punishment should be used as a last resort. Pray tell, what happens when it doesn’t work? Beating them would surely be more effective, if done out of love, no? Seek an alternative? Then it wasn’t a last resort.

      To suggest, as you just have, that the laws against corporal punishment in marriage were put in place because a grown woman can consider the difference between right and wrong is fallacious. It was eliminated because it was deemed inhumane. Inhumane means a violation of our most sacred and basic human rights, and our children are equally human. Unfortunately, our children are most vulnerable and easily damaged by legalized assault, whereas a woman can cope better. A woman can protect herself, seek help, and get treatment for the OBVIOUS trauma entailed with being overpowered, violated, and harmed in a loving relationship. Children on the other hand can not receive help, comprehend what is happening, defend themselves, leave, and they rarely receive treatment for the traumas that more commonly entail then we care to realize. This is because too many parents refuse to see the double standard and the amassing amount of evidence.

      You just mentioned that some grown adults still act like children. So you think that loving husbands, married to these immature women, should then be able to dish out some tough love for the sake of protecting their wives from harm?

      If your child is walking near a hot pan, it is the job of a responsible parent NOT to punish the child for the caregivers negligence, but rather, remove their child from dangerous obstacles and environments. If you are in reach to strike your child, you are in reach to move them to safety, and while the lazier option is more convenient, it is not the best.

      If your child does not understand cause and effect, which you stated outright, then they will not be able to grasp cause (misdeed) with effect (pain). It is a barbaric tool used against our weakest and most fragile. United States constitution “All citizens of this United States shall have equal protection of the law” assault of a minor, aggravated assault of a minor, and battery of a minor, they do not have equal protection of. The only person denying another of their rights, is you.

      I pray your children make better informed parenting decisions than you do. To have the audacity to use a weapon against a child is ludicrous. Please, do not confuse discipline (teach/guide) with punishment (harm) again. It’s very unbecoming and a treatment I wouldn’t wish upon a dog, let alone our future.

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